When Jon Jones declined a late-notice title fight against Chael Sonnen on Sept. 1, the decision began a domino effect that led to the cancellation of an event. Within moments of the announcement, Jones came under siege. He was criticized as "selfish," and a "fraud" by fighters, while UFC president Dana White said he and company CEO Lorenzo Fertitta were "disgusted" by his choice.
Since then, Jones and his fateful decision have been a constant topic of debate, with the majority opinion spewing anger in his direction. One voice that has refused to attack Jones, though, is his UFC 152 opponent, Vitor Belfort.
Belfort, who texted Fertitta and White in the wake of UFC 151's cancellation and volunteered to fight Jones, could have ridden the public wave of resentment against the UFC light heavyweight champion all the way to the bank. While Jones is a heavy favorite on sports books, Belfort is expected to be the favorite of those simply rooting on their preferred combatant, and he could have easily painted Jones as the villain and himself as the hero coming in to save the day. Instead, he has taken a much rarer approach, one of empathy and sportsmanship towards his besieged opponent.
"I know his position," Belfort said last week. "He's young. He's the best guy in that weight division, the new breed. The guys coming from this era, it’s a different mentality. They come [from] a different era."
While many scapegoated Jones for a decision that smacks of new-school thinking (self-interests before team necessity), Belfort is the rare old-school pioneer who defends him.
Perhaps Belfort is able empathize with Jones because he has walked a similar path. MMA's original "Phenom" when he made his debut at the age of 19 back in the mid 1990s, Belfort faced the struggles of fame. He won early, captured headlines and titles, and became a lightning rod for controversy. In the same way that Jones is accused of having two personalities -- the one he portrays in public and the one he really is -- Belfort, too, was figuratively split in two by pundits, who labeled the pair the "old" and "new" Vitor based upon his often uneven performances.
Despite those rough times, Belfort has been one of the few early stars to cross generations and find success, a process that has no doubt given him insight into the mind of the 20-somethings with whom he often trains, as well as the evolving fans and media of the sport. Largely due to those experiences, he resists the usual roles prescribed for selling a fight.
"I don't like when people try to make fighters hate each other," he said. "I don't like to talk trash."
That held true when Anderson Silva taunted him in the leadup to their February 2011 fight, and it holds true now, when it would have been easy to blast Jones like so many other fighters did.
The irony in those attacks is that while many athletes accused Jones of looking only after his own self-interests, they did so while grousing solely about how his decision would affect them. To them, he held a responsibility to consider their situation even if they didn't hold a responsibility to consider his.
Belfort was one of the few that refused to judge him, even though he acknowledged that his old-school thinking left him with no hesitation about taking a fight with limited training. His refusal to fire a shot at Jones was not because he couldn't formulate an opinion, but because his personal values system doesn't allow him to offer judgment. That is rooted in his Christianity, the end destination of his long road to inner peace and maturity. It's something he shares with the light-heavyweight champion, yet it's a storyline that goes virtually ignored even though the two have spoken at length about it in the short time since their fight was announced.
The shared bond is clearly a major source of respect and one of the reasons the fight's promotion moves past civil and to downright "polite," with Belfort saying it's a "pleasure" and an "honor" to fight Jones.
"I love the guy," he said. "I have a lot of respect for a man who can live Christianity. That's what I live for. That's why I prophetize the name of Jesus. I know people judge me, but you know what? When you point a finger, you have four fingers point back to you, so you have to be careful."
Religion has always been both omnipresent and controversial in the fight world. If one fighter was denigrating the other's belief systems, perhaps it would draw headlines. Instead, this time, it's Belfort's beliefs which have given him the matured viewpoint to see the man past one single decision.
"I'm a normal dude," Jones said. "I’m a 25-year-old. I’m going to make lots of mistakes."
Belfort could have seized upon Jones' decision for his own gain, but he has not chosen to do so. Instead of trading in insults, he and Jones trade in respect. That may not make for the most exciting pre-fight discussion, but in a sport where we often see athletes as objects of entertainment and little more, it's at least very humanizing.