TORONTO -- The odds suggest that Vitor Belfort has little chance at winning on Saturday night. He's a massive underdog fighting on short notice in a division he hasn't visited in five years against one of MMA's most dominant champs. Still, there are a few believers that surround him.
Faith is a big thing for Belfort. He believes in his connection to a higher power, and he also must believe in the people around him. Few have been around his life in some way longer than Mario Sperry. He's been in and around the periphery of Belfort's life for so long that when you ask him when they first met, he has to search his memory.
"That's a funny question," says the gray-haired Sperry, because he can barely remember a time when he didn't know Vitor. He knew him before he was "the Phenom," and before he was even in MMA. As it turns out, he first met Belfort when he was seven years old, around their Rio neighborhood.
When it comes to Belfort, Sperry has been privy to many life-shaping moments. For example, he was in Carlson Gracie's gym the first day Belfort walked in to start training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Now one of Belfort's top coaches with the Blackzilians, Sperry will be in Belfort's corner when he steps in against Jon Jones in Saturday's UFC 152 main event.
"We've worked together many times on many occasions, and now our destinies crossed again," he said.
From the beginning, Belfort was a gifted athlete. First-hand, Sperry saw Belfort excel at nearly everything he tried. Surfing, volleyball, jiu-jitsu. He remembers one time when Belfort, then a teenager but already thickly muscled, walked on to a tennis court and asked a local semi-pro to play against him. The tennis player shrugged and grinned, as if Belfort had no idea what he was in for. Instead, Belfort trounced him.
"Everything he does in sports, he does very well," he said.
In MMA, before Jones was the phenom, Belfort was "the Phenom," a preternaturally gifted young man who threatened to overwhelm the sport with his youth and skill set. But time has passed. It's been nearly 16 years since Belfort made his fight debut, and now, he's playing the grizzled veteran in Saturday night's storyline.
For Belfort, not much of that past matters. In one sense, all of it has led to this moment. In another, he savors living in the moment.
"I don't think too much," he said of his fight philosophy. "The more you think, the more tight you get. So I'm just going to enjoy every second of the fight."
Beyond that, things start getting complicated. He had success early, and let things slip away. There was some fast Hollywood living, a falling out with his original mentor, and the devastating disappearance of his sister. After losing to Dan Henderson in October 2006, Belfort seemed on the way to "has-been" status, dropping five of his last seven bouts.
Since then, it's been a personal and professional resurgence, as Belfort has seemed to find peace outside the cage and make war inside of it, winning seven of eight.
Now 35, Belfort seems at ease with everything. He didn't have to be asked to fight Jones; he volunteered despite knowing he was facing a sizable task by fighting him with just one month to prepare.
"I'm ready, it's all in my mind," he said. "I'm doing this for a long time. Just take advantage of what's positive. Focus on the positive, not the negative."
That's a sentiment trumpeted by Sperry, who acknowledges Jones' brilliance so far in rising to a championship level in record time.
"It's kind of hard to find a gap in his game," he said.
But he also admits that the negative could have a role in this fight. Jones has faced a backlash of anger since declining a short-notice fight against Chael Sonnen that would have taken place on Sept. 1. Since then, he has unresolved tension with UFC president Dana White, and as most observers know, it's possible to take those feelings into the cage and either channel them into something useful, or be distracted by them.
Sperry himself is keenly aware of the fighter's mind set. He himself fought professionally for 12 years, competing most notably in PRIDE in the early-to-mid 2000s and compiling a 13-4 record.
"I don't think it will make too much difference, but of course it's not a good environment to fight a guy like Vitor with all the things in the background," he said. "He's a great fighter and he's a champion. He's there not just because he behaves well on the mat. He's strong mentally as well. But of course, this is not a good thing to happen in the background."
From that, it would be easy to infer that Belfort doesn't have any such concerns. His mind is free and clear, and his body is rested and ready. In this setting, around Belfort's positivity, it's easy to fall into the belief that the stage is set for something special. Especially when you have seen "the Phenom" up close at his best, over time. With Belfort matured and prepared, his story with Sperry could come full circle.
"Life is funny," Sperry said. "Things can change very fast. We just met each other again, and it's like old times. Vitor is much more mature but he's still strong and fast. At some points we went different ways but now we're back together. Life is funny, and sometimes it gives you great surprises."
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