Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Early on Tuesday, Vitor Belfort was talking to his 7-year-old son Davi, who was offering tips on how to fight Jon Jones. Davi trains under his dad, and Vitor noticed that he likes to use some of Jones' techniques, notably the spinning elbow.
"He loves Jon Jones' style," Belfort said.
Davi's appreciation of the UFC light-heavyweight champion is just another sign that Jones is unquestionably the posterboy for the newest evolution of MMA. It wasn't so long ago when that position was held by Davi's father. When Belfort made his UFC debut in February 1997, Jones was just 9 years old. It was a different time for MMA, which was then mostly known as "No Holds Barred," "Ultimate Fighting" or simply, "cagefighting." The Unified Rules did not yet exist, one-night tournaments were still in use, and many fight camps were still totally dependent on one martial art. Belfort, for example, used to ride his bike one hour in secret to take boxing lessons, afraid to anger his jiu-jitsu team.
More than 15 years later, Belfort is a rare breed, a pioneer who has crossed generations and maintained his relevance in a quickly evolving landscape.
That fact isn't lost on Belfort, and it's not solely because of his son's preferences. Over the years, he's seen most of his contemporaries rise and fall and eventually fade away. And that makes his upcoming UFC 152 main event with Jones all the more intriguing. Few fighters were interested in fighting Jones on short-notice, but Belfort, a middleweight who hasn't fought at 205 for five years, was one of less than a handful to volunteer. Almost 20 months after losing to Anderson Silva in a middleweight title bout, this could be Belfort's last chance to capture UFC gold.
"For me, fighting Jon Jones, I never in my life had an idea that I’d fighting at a high level that I'm still fighting it," he said. "I used to fight on the same cards as Dan Severn, Mark Coleman. I'm [from] this era, so I’m like a young dinosaur. I'm an old lion in the midst of this young lion, so I’m enjoying the jungle.
"For me, I just want to thank God for still surfing that wave at a high level," he continued. "It's a pleasure. It's a challenge. People turn down fights. I cannot understand that. I cannot see that. I love challenges, and this another challenge in my life and we go for it. We move forward."
As Belfort tells it, this is a respectful challenge, even though he made several allusions to others turning down fights during the course of answering questions about the matchup.
As he sees it, the more businesslike approach to fight careers taken by the current crop of fighters is simply a generational shift that has happened with the passing of time. It's neither right nor wrong; it just is.
"As an old-school guy, I say if you need me to go there, I'm willing to do it," he said. "I have a different mentality than anybody else. I’m enjoying this journey. Now I fight not for the money, not for the fame, not for the position. I fight for the pleasure. Its' a joy. I’m enjoying the times I had pressure in the past. The thing like 'You can’t lose, you have to represent your team.' Now, I’m just there having fun."
The reality of fighting Jones hasn't been fun for any of his opponents, and Belfort understands what he's up against, and only one of his last seven opponents (Rashad Evans) has made it to the final bell with him.
Jones explained that by saying that his killer instinct wasn't there due to his past friendship with Evans.
"Vitor is someone I really don't know, and I think I’ll have a better time going out there and feeling like I’m at war," he said.
Current odds have Jones as around an 8-to-1 favorite.
Belfort acknowledged all that Jones has done, at one point referring to him as "the new phenom," in a nod to his own storied history, while refusing to concede his challenge.
"I’m going to go there to compete, bro," he said. "I’m there to win, to compete at my high level of competition. That’s it. I'm not thinking, 'Oh, my career, I have to do this.' No, I did everything. I’m very happy for what I did in the sport and now I’m just enjoying the moment, the process and the journey. I hope I can be an inspiration for other athletes, for guys coming up. And that's my legacy, man, just enjoying the journey."
Not long ago, Belfort walked the same path Jones is walking today. Expected to be the face of mixed martial arts, it didn't quite work out the way most predicted. But at 35 years old, Belfort seems to be at peace.
"I'll go there and I don't have any pressure" he said. "Just joy. Be happy and smiling every moment of the fight. It doesn't matter what type of position I'm in. It doesn't matter what I go through. I went though the hardest things in life, in the professional life and on a personal level, so it's a joy. I've learned to be happy even if i’m sad, so it's going to be a great challenge for myself. I love challenges."
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