NEW YORK -- When Alan Belcher arrived in the UFC back in 2006, he was like most eager newcomers. He wanted to fight as often as he could, impress his bosses, and hopefully got on the fast track to the top.
As the Biloxi middleweight heads toward his UFC on FOX 3 main-card bout against Rousimar Palhares on Saturday at New Jersey's Izod Center, though, he's taken a more relaxed approach to his craft. And since he's mellowed out, he's paradoxically found himself closer to an elusive title shot than ever before.
"My life's been kinda crazy the last couple years," Belcher said Wednesday at Lower Manhattan's Church Street Boxing Gym. "My whole mentality has changed. ... My mind works in a totally different manner. Before, I was in such a hurry to get a title shot, or paydays, or whatever. But now it seems like, as soon as I stopped trying so hard, as soon as I had my energy turn from so angry and negative and trying to do that hustle sort of thing, all my energy came back and it paid off."
Of course, Belcher's newfound path wasn't discovered entirely by choice. Belcher had scored his biggest win to date, over Quebecker Patrick Cote at Montreal's Bell Centre at UFC 113, when he began losing his vision in his right eye over the summer of 2010. The resulting surgery kept him out of the cage for 16 months, with plenty of time to reflect.
He returned in September and scored a first-round victory over Jason MacDonald, then took another prolonged break, in part due to the birth of his son.
"It gave me some time to work on some things, my diet and things like that," said Belcher. "I had my latest child, a son, he's five months old now. I took a little time off after that, there's no need to fight every few months. I like my life, I don't have to fight all the time in a huge hurry."
So if it isn't broke, why fix it? Belcher (23-6) has won five of his past six fights over the past four years. The only defeat in that span was a hotly disputed, split-decision loss to Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100. He's pocketed bonuses in four of those bouts: two fights of the night (vs. Akiyama and in a win over Wilson Gouveia at UFC 107) and two submissions of the night (a rear-naked choke of Cote and a guillotine against Denis Kang at UFC 93. All this has come as a result of his maturation process.
"My focus has changed," he said. "My main thing is I've learned how to balance my eating schedule with my family and make it work for me year-round. I've learned how to live like an elite athlete. Why would a UFC fighter at the highest level of sports eat bad food and not take care of himself all the time?"
But for all Belcher's focus, a bad loss to Palhares, a fighter who has been underestimated before, would put him back into the line at 185. Belcher knows that his opponent is mainly known for two things: His leg locks and his, umm, ability to act a bit odd in the Octagon from time to time.
Four of Palhares' past five UFC wins have come via leg lock (three heel hooks and a kneebar). But Belcher's confident he'll be able to handle whatever Palhares (14-3) can throw at him for the simple fact that his Brazilian opponent is going to have to deal with some of the best striking in the middleweight division in order to even try to take Belcher down.
"I feel like I'm one of the best strikers in the UFC," said Belcher. "Matching up against grapplers, they know they're going to have to come into my zone to get close to me. They know that I hit hard and am very versatile on my feet. I already have an edge, so they already know if I'm able to get in there and make that kind of fight happen, they're going to have a long night."
Then there are the moments like Palhares' 2010 fight against Nate Marquardt, in which he stopped to complain to the referee mid-fight and was TKO'd for his trouble; or his Rio bout against Dan Miller, in which he thought the referee stopped the bout and climbed atop the cage to celebrate, only to find out the match wasn't over.
"A lot of people are telling me he's crazy or wild or whatever, I don't know," said Belcher. "I've watched all his fights, it looks like he's just aggressive, mean guy and he does what it takes to win. ... We'll just see how he handles it, when he gets frustrated and he can't take me down."