LAS VEGAS -- Around the edges and out of focus, there's a thought that Vitor Belfort will mentally break at some point during his middleweight championship fight against Anderson Silva. During UFC 126 fight week, it's rarely been directly addressed. As you might imagine, the people who think it don't necessarily have the courage to bring up the possibility to Belfort. But the whispers are there if you listen.
Belfort has faced the criticism for a long time. Many fighters -- and even greats -- face recurring critiques for sins committed years before. BJ Penn, for example, still hears questions about his stamina to this day. To be honest, some of it is rooted in some reality, but must past mistakes shadow you for an entire career? Not everyone has a second act, but perhaps that's what Saturday represents for Belfort, a chance to finally quiet the doubters once and for all.
It's never easy to know what thoughts are swirling around an athlete's head, even when you stand in front of him, listen to his words, and examine his body language. But Belfort has made a believer of some when it comes to the inner peace he's found. This is the most important fight in Brazil's MMA history, and yet Belfort looks as though he feels no pressure, his eyes filled with happiness and excitement at what is to come.
"I'm on fire," Belfort said. "I have the fire of God inside me. I just have that. When you have the fire of God, you don't fear any man. You don't fear any situation."
Belfort has mentioned God, his family and his country many times during fight week. One thing he hasn't addressed is his spiritual growth. But if you speak to the people that know him best, they say that is the thing that has changed most about him over the past few years.
While it is true that Belfort went through many in-ring struggles that seemed inconsistent with his seemingly boundless talent, critics often forget to point out that Belfort was going through a personal tragedy that had to have a crushing effect on his ability to focus. In 2004, his sister Priscila was kidnapped. She has never been seen since, and is assumed to have been murdered. The investigation into the crime has taken years, and devastated the Belfort family.
Of course, by then, Belfort was a major star in the world of MMA. At the time of Prisclia's kidnapping, Belfort was 11-3, but he would go on to lose four of his next six fights. Some of these losses are the basis of the criticisms about Belfort's psychological problems in the cage. Even after Belfort had agreed to face Silva, for example, fellow countryman Wanderlei Silva suggested Belfort was "scared" to fight the current champ.
Anderson Silva played into the belief during fight week, particularly with his long, intense glare at Belfort well after their staredown ended. Intimidation has often been part of "the Spider's" tactics, but you have to believe Belfort's past played a role in Silva's pre-fight behavior.
But people who have been around Belfort for the last couple of years say that he is so far past that phase of his life, he's virtually a different person.
"The old Vitor? The old Vitor doesn't exist anymore," said one Brazilian insider who has known Belfort for years.
Belfort's won five in a row, and while Silva is clearly and without question the toughest test he's had in years, I think it's quite probable the Belfort that wilted during hard fights in the past no longer exists. He's found his comfortable spot in life. A clear mind is a dangerous weapon, and Belfort seems to have found an inner peace.
That's not to say he can't lose. He's still an underdog for a valid reason. But if adversity comes his way during the match, don't be surprised if Belfort fires back with thunder.
"You can see in my eyes, I'm on fire," he said. "I'm not intimidated by anyone."
In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.