At 31 years old, Belfort is no longer the young stud that captivated audiences with his firepower and earned the nickname "The Phenom," but a matured fighter who is looking to prove that he's harnessed all of his considerable gifts and found the consistency that's eluded him at times.
So how will Belfort-Franklin go down? Let's take a closer look at the matchup.
As Matt Lindland and Terry Martin can both testify, Vitor Belfort's power did not desert him when he dropped down to 185 pounds, so the 195-pound catch weight that he and Franklin are fighting under should be no impediment to his thudding power. The one question that comes with added weight, however, is if it will impact Belfort's considerable hand speed. Most fighters will tell you they feel faster at a lighter weight, but the difference that comes from a 10-pound addition may be moderate.
It's no secret that both Belfort and Franklin prefer the striking game (12 of Belfort's 18 wins are by KO or TKO while 13 of Franklin's 25 victories are by KO or TKO). While Belfort is often quite content to put all his faith in his hands, Franklin is more likely to mix in a good number of kicks to keep his opponent guessing. One factor that Franklin is keenly aware of is Belfort's fight-changing one-punch power. While we often hear that with MMA's small gloves, any fighter is capable of a knockout, Belfort's power is legit. Franklin is more of a volume puncher, more likely to need a combination or a ground-and-pound flurry to finish an opponent.
Franklin can limit Belfort's ability to do damage by utilizing his strong footwork to create favorable angles, a skill at which he is adept. In fact, both men are quite well versed in distance and angles, and that could cause this fight to turn quite tactical as they search for openings and limit the other's chances. If that happens, Franklin's three-inch reach advantage could be the difference. In simple math terms, Franklin's wing span will always make him closer to hitting Belfort than vice versa.
Another factor that bodes in Franklin's favor is his versatility. The ex-UFC middleweight champ is much more likely to initiate and execute a takedown in order to squeak out an otherwise close round. This is not to say that Belfort is bad at the wrestling aspect of the game, or that he couldn't successfully use the same tactic, only that Franklin is more likely to try it.
If the fight does go to the ground, it's a very even matchup. Belfort is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt while Rich Franklin has a brown belt but has shown skills (like his arm bar escape against Travis Lutter at UFC 83) that leave no doubt he can hang with anyone. If their jiu-jitsu cancels out, though, both men are more than proficient at ground-and-pound from the top, so a takedown could easily turn out to be a fight-changer for either side.
When looking for an X-factor in the bout, perhaps it's something we can't see: Belfort's peace. The Brazilian seems happy and focused. His wife recently gave birth to the couple's third child, he trains with a camp that he's comfortable with and he's back in the UFC, where he's wanted to return.
Some fighters need to have a fire burning; others need to be perfectly calm and relaxed to do their best work. Given Belfort's last two outings, it appears he's rediscovered his own personal formula for success. Now the question is if he can implement it against Franklin. Many seem to think so, and a Belfort win wouldn't be surprising in the least.
In the end, however, I'm guessing that Franklin's excellent angles and reach advantage overcome Belfort's fast hands and power in a match that goes the distance.