Last month, Vitor Belfort turned 36 years old. As professional athletes go, he is aging. As mixed martial artists go, he is ancient. Belfort was around for the early days, dating back to UFC 12. How long ago was that? That was the last UFC show that was supposed to be in New York. At the time, it was legal in the Empire State, or so it seemed. On the day of the show scheduled to be held in Niagara Falls, a federal judge upheld suddenly changed regulations that would bar head kicks and require fighters to wear head gear, among other things. As a result, the UFC picked up and moved the show to Dothan, Alabama. It was mostly a traveling circus then, with little in the way of oversight and even less in the way of mainstream acceptance.
Since then, Belfort has seen every side of life. He was one of mixed martial arts' "next big things" -- even before "MMA" was the sport's name. He became champion. He flamed out. He suffered through the pain of his sister's kidnapping and had to come to terms with her murder. He got married, became a father. He found God. He was born again, first as a Christian, then as a fighter.
As it turns out, both of these transformations bring with them some controversy.
Belfort shares his religion freely, offering it up at times expected and unforeseen. It is the most powerful force in his life, he says, and so he must share it. What is the point of a platform without a message, anyway?
But others disagree with his method, his delivery or both. His most recent opponent, Michael Bisping, for example, called Belfort a hypocrite, citing his past PED bust along with his current use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). Finding fans who are turned off by Belfort's constant mentions of his faith is no difficult feat, either.
None of this seems to phase him. None of anything seems to, really.
Ask him about knocking out Bisping and he says there is no extra joy in it. Ask him about UFC on FX 8 opponent Luke Rockhold, who has criticized Beflort's TRT use, and he says he doesn't care. Controversy and combat swirl around him, and yet Belfort seems immune to it all.
"I’m the type of fighter that steps into the jungle not fearing anything," he told MMA Fighting. "I’m there to fight, to do my best. that’s what I’m going to do. I fight with what’s inside of me. My motivation is not him. It's not what people say, it's not what people think. My motivation, no one can steal it, or my my gifts and my talents. I develop them every day. I’m new every day. I've just been blessed. I'm so happy."
Being "new" every day? That's also part of the criticism about Belfort, or at least how much is earned and how much is artificially produced.
After knocking out Bisping, it was revealed by the UFC that Belfort was on a TRT program after being diagnosed with hypogonadism. That revelation seemed to correspond with a beefed-up physique, a change that he attributes to diet and strength training. Adding to the drama, Belfort had previously declined to confirm or deny rumors that he was on TRT. Taken together, he seemed guilty of something.
The therapy has become one of many fronts in the war on PEDs. While it is legal under a doctor's care and an exemption from athletic sanctioning bodies, its use has quickly become widespread, with major names like Chael Sonnen, Forrest Griffin, Dan Henderson, Frank Mir and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson on the rolls.
Then, in February, company president Dana White changed his own view on TRT from neutral to negative, declaring it as "a way for people to cheat," and saying he was "absolutely 100 percent against TRT." On one hand, it was the strongest anti-TRT statement to date. On the other, White's words came right around the time UFC announced Belfort vs. Rockhold as the UFC on FX 8 main event.
"That’s what he thinks, but I’m not doing anything illegal," Belfort says. "I think people have to have this choice, you know?"
Belfort says that he doesn't care that his name came out as a user, even though as a result, he gets asked about it in every single interview he does. Even though some people accuse him of cheating. That's a label that has dogged him before, and may stick to him until he hangs up his gloves.
"It's no problem," he said. "I think they should release [the name] of everyone that's on it. For me, it's no problem. I'm not doing anything illegal, so I'm not ashamed of anything."
While the focus largely remains on TRT, he would like more credit for his hard work, and for the efforts of his coaches. The Blackzilians staff has received its share of criticism as a super camp that doesn't always boast matching results but Belfort believes part of his newest iteration stems from the instruction he receives there, citing his wrestling improvement as proof that the UFC's old lion is capable of learning new hunting tricks.
Where will it ultimately lead? To Belfort, that is not a question for him to answer. Of course, there is still the hope for another chance to win a UFC championship. The possibility of bookending his career with a belt is still there, but with losses to both middleweight champion Anderson Silva and light-heavyweight champ Jon Jones, there is no guarantee he will earn a rematch with either, even though a victory over Rockhold would be his fourth straight win while competing at 185 pounds
After all this time, it's just a wonder he's even in the conversation. TRT may be controversial, but the results of known users suggest it's no wonder drug. His religion may inspire him, but doesn't win fights. At 36, and with time and controversy chasing him, there must be other factors, too. Maybe it's Belfort's ability to find peace amidst chaos, a hard-won trait that can only come from experiencing fantastic success and devastating pain, and learning that neither defines you.
"When you realize you have a purpose and you have a joy and you have all that lined up, a great team behind you, family, I’m loving it, "he said. "I've never had so much fun doing what I do. Now I realize that’s my purpose. It's going to come to an end. The key is to finish strong and with a lot of respect for everyone. That's what I'm fighting for. The bottom line is the commitment with your choice. As soon as you make a choice, go for it and be happy. That's my secret."