Though his career is described by some as inconsistent, Vitor Belfort has few real surprises on his record. He's mostly dominated the B-level opponents he's faced, and despite 10 career losses, most have come to former champions, names like Jon Jones and Anderson Silva, Randy Couture and Dan Henderson. There is no loss that can be viewed as a major surprise, or that can be viewed even in retrospect as a head-scratcher. That can't even be said for many of the greats.
Silva, G.O.A.T. though he is, once lost to Daiju Takase (career record 11-13-2) and Couture once lost to Valentijn Overeem (career record 30-28), and the list goes on. Belfort though, has only lost to the best.
And because of that, Belfort becomes Luke Rockhold's measuring stick.
Rockhold, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion whose best wins have come against Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Tim Kennedy, is taking a clear step up against a historical name, and on his opponent's home soil at UFC on FX 8 in Jaragua do Sul, Brazil.
Given Belfort's strong recent record (his only losses in his last 10 fights are to reigning champs Silva and Jon Jones), including a crushing KO of perennial contender Michael Bisping in his last fight, and combine that with Rockhold's 10-month layoff due to various injuries, and it's somewhat surprising that as it stands now, the public is with Rockhold. While Belfort was initially installed as a slight favorite by oddsmakers, the money has come on the 28-year-old Californian to outclass him.
Rockhold has certainly won over believers with his performances against Kennedy and Souza, and for good reason. He has shown a well-rounded striking game, a good understanding of range, and excellent conditioning. He also has shown quality finishing instincts, closing out seven of his nine Strikeforce opponents, including Keith Jardine, who he starched in less than a round.
The matchup does have some built-in advantages for Rockhold. At 6-foot-3 and with a 77-inch reach, he has three-inch edges on Belfort in both areas. His stamina has also proven to be stellar in both of his five-round fights. Against Kennedy, he threw nearly the same amount of strikes in each round, ranging from 28 to 36. In the fifth, he threw 32, and added in a successful takedown for good measure.
Against "Jacare," he absolutely poured it on in the last round, firing off 76 strikes, his second-highest round total of the fight. That round essentially won him the fight and the belt, as two of the judges had the bout tied heading into the fifth.
Now facing Belfort, who has had endurance issues in the past, it could certainly be a determining factor in the bout's outcome. In fact, if the match goes past the third round, it's very likely Rockhold will take over and out-point Belfort.
Rockhold will first have to survive Belfort's early aggression. That has historically been when Belfort is at his most dangerous. In his last eight wins, five have come inside the first round.
The Brazilian's prized gifts have always been his hand speed and natural power. Even after 17 years of fighting, they are still there. The dynamic gets interesting because of the differing individual approaches of Belfort and Rockhold. Belfort generally has two methods of attack; either he likes to hang back and counter lazy punches, or he charges forward with a barrage of power strikes. Meanwhile, Rockhold likes to stay active and create offense. If forms holds, this matchup should be explosive.
To stay away from his power, Belfort's opponents generally look to tie him up or take him down, but Rockhold rarely shows interest in doing either. In his nine Strikeforce bouts, he tried a total of four takedowns. Belfort is much the same way. In fact, his last successful takedown came all the way back in 2007, when he fought and beat James Zikic in Cage Rage. Since then he's competed eight times and hasn't attempted a single takedown.
Bottom line? These two are going to settle things on their feet. To me, the whole fight comes down to whether you think Belfort can catch Rockhold in the first two rounds or not. Statistically, knockout rates decrease round-by-round, and Belfort's conditioning is no given while Rockhold's is a near certainty.
Ultimately, as I said, the fighters' styles will make for an explosive fight, and who does that favor? I feel that Belfort will land the big shot, and Rockhold's lengthy layoff is a big reason for that. Fighters who have experienced it will tell you that adjusting to the speed of a real fight is the most troublesome part of returning from time away. Rockhold has faced the situation before. He was out for nearly 19 months when he fought "Jacare" and while he ended up winning, he struggled in the first two rounds, losing the first on the judges scorecards, and then getting wobbled in the second. Of course, there's a huge difference in power between Souza and Belfort, and I don't know if Rockhold can survive such a scenario with Belfort. If he can, he'll probably win a decision. His offense is heavy on kicks, and he can keep Belfort at bay with that mastery of range. He is more than capable of a win if he plays it smart.
If this was a three-round fight, I'd feel more comfortable in picking Belfort, feeling that he could win the opening two rounds and hold on in the third. In a three-round fight, he'd be capable of winning the bout in two ways, either by finish or decision. In a five-round fight, it's probably finish early or bust. So this comes down to pure gut feeling, and whether you think a rusty Rockhold can survive the opening 10 minutes. My guess is Belfort via TKO.