LAS VEGAS -- It's clear that Anderson Silva has already made the shift into fight mode. On Wednesday, the UFC champ and his challenger Vitor Belfort went eye-to-eye for the first time in the days prior to their UFC 126 clash. The taller Silva crowded into Belfort's personal space, looking down at him with a subtle sneer, while Belfort's face painted a quieter picture of simple determination. Belfort turned away from the staredown first, but Silva would not or could not look away, clearly and purposely glaring at Belfort for three or four seconds afterward. So what was he thinking?
"He's a worthy contender," Silva said. "He's in good condition and I'm ready for him."
With words, he didn't have much to say, yet his body language was unmistakable. He was trying to send a message. But what was it? Years ago, Silva and Belfort were friends, yet today Silva couldn't even bring himself to admit Belfort was one of the best strikers he'd ever faced. It's the forgotten storyline of UFC 126 that this fight has become very personal to a very motivated Anderson Silva.
It's no secret to the Brazilian news media though. About 20 made the trip to cover what they said is being coined "The Fight of the Century" in their country, where Belfort is actually a bigger star due to his long history in the sport and famous wife. Among the journalists covering the event is Fernando Kallas, a longtime MMA reporter who is now the UFC's Brazilian play-by-play man. Kallas has known both SIlva and Belfort for years, and has had numerous opportunities to speak with both over the last several months.
"Last week, I was talking with Anderson," he said, "and Anderson said to me, 'If I have the opportunity, I'm going to hurt Vitor. I'm going to hurt him really bad."
It wasn't always that way between them though. At one point, they were friends. To understand where things changed and why this fight is personal to Silva, you have to understand the history between the men.
Years ago, when Belfort was going through bad times -- including the still unsolved kidnapping and murder of his sister Priscila -- he moved from Rio to Belo Horizonte. Silva, who was living in Rio at the time, dropped everything to spend time in Belo Horizonte with Belfort and help him along.
Their friendship remained intact afterward, but things have changed drastically in the last year. The reason? Silva reportedly was quite offended that Belfort would accept a fight with him after their history together. While Belfort saw it as a simple professional decision, Silva took it as a personal affront.
That further emphasizes their different outlooks on the sport.
Silva is originally a product of the famed Chute Boxe camp, where fighting is personal, and intimidation of your opponent is quite literally, part of the fight. They view the person across the cage from them as not an opponent, but an enemy.
"Anderson works like Chute Boxe," said Kallas. "He needs to feel excited for the fight. He needs to have an enemy. Anderson feels betrayed. He helped [Vitor] out and he was surprised that Vitor would fight him."
Belfort has never viewed it quite the same way. To him, the fight is a sport, a profession, nothing personal about it. That's why he's always moved from camp to camp, learning from different coaches and trainers rather than staying in one place.
Team Silva knows Belfort very well. Some of the people who are important parts of Silva's camp were once mentors to Belfort. Years ago, in fact, Belfort used to live in the house of Silva's strength and conditioning coach Rogerio Camoes. They know Belfort well enough to know that Silva can't play with him, he can't toy with him or try to embarrass him like he did to Demian Maia. Belfort is far too dangerous. One punch can change everything.
Silva's trainers know the old Belfort. If you listened to Belfort's words, he made several references to the changes he's undergone in recent years and how many people who knew him then and now do not know him at all.
If you listened to both their words over the last few weeks, it's almost like there's been double-meanings in what they've said. it is a fight, and so much more.
"If one event alone can change your life that's something that can change your principle, because I believe a man lives by principle or by preference," Belfort told MMA Fighting when asked about what winning the title would mean to him. "A man who lives by principle? Nothing can change his life. He doesn't negotiate with moments. And the man who lives by preference? He goes with the flow. You know, depending on how his life is, he goes. So I will keep doing the same things that I'm doing, but of course my life will be changed. You know, you get your bonus money. You get maybe more recognition. But in my life, I will keep doing the same thing I'm doing."
Things used to be so different. They trained together. They trained in the same gym, and with many of the same people. They helped each other, and then it all got torn apart.
It's not something they'll talk about much, but it's something that's simmering under the surface. When the cage door closes, "The Fight of the Century" won't feel quite so big for the two locked inside. To them, the fight began long before the real fight ever started.
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