ORLANDO – It’s hard to resist the sloganeers when you end up at a UFC press conference at the Shaquille O’Neal’s estate, right in the middle of his own pretty sick basketball court…Orlando does feel like a place where magic happens. And if you can’t let your imagination run wild in a setting like this, then you’ve never seen international correspondent Gareth A. Davies dribble a basketball.
Sometimes the magic cannot be easily scrubbed away. Sometimes you cannot unsee.
And this was a peculiar place to be reminded that we, the media being hosted -- or "media," as casual haters like to dress it -- sent poor Vitor Belfort away on an ice floe. Dana White made it clear (once again) that all the people crowding him with digital recorders at the post-press conference scrum are to blame for…for…well, for Vitor suddenly being "gone."
It was the media harping about 2013’s Fighter of the Year, throwing snickers and asterisks at his accomplishments the whole way, that exiled Belfort in 2014. Poof, now he’s just gone. Thy pen (and its obvious agenda) is mightier than thy fauxhawk (and the old lion’s roar).
I certainly hope we’re happy.
Belfort, who treated Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson like midnight offerings down in Brazil en-route to becoming the No. 1 contender in the UFC’s middleweight division, is now in hiding. It’s gotten real weird, too. Over the last couple of months, whenever Dana White is asked about Belfort, he all but lays the guilt of his disappearance at the media’s feet. "You did this," he says. "You guys did this."
And really, as much as it hurts to admit it, that’s true (at least to some extent).
The media did join Belfort in hoisting his red flags. It was a team effort. And the testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) thing did get a little rampant there, particularly as he transformed into Frazetta’s iconic version of Conan at 36 years old. As a parlay to that TRT revival, the media did make a considerable stink about him having been popped for steroids back in 2006 in Nevada, and openly wondered if he would ever fight in Vegas again. So there was plenty of intrigue when the UFC announced that Belfort would be fighting Chris Weidman for the belt in Las Vegas at UFC 173. There were searchlights along every dark wall. Could he be trusted in a Vegas main event? What craziness was in store?
Then, on February 27, no doubt because of the increased media scrutiny, Nevada very abruptly banned TRT exemptions in the state. Immediately thereafter, Belfort either voluntarily removed himself from the Weidman fight, or was stricken from the card (the versions aren’t exactly flush).
It’s all hazy from that point on, though the media can barely conceal their hunches as to what happened. Besides, the few facts that are in make for great storylines: Belfort, in Vegas for the World MMA Awards to collect his trophy for Best Knockout of 2013 (courtesy of the demolition work he did to Michael Bisping’s head in Sao Paulo), was randomly tested during the visit. Think about that irony for a minute.
The results of that surprise test have remained mysterious ("not relevant" was the way his lawyer Neal Tabachnick put it). But all actions since then have become a little game of connect the dots.
Belfort, who said he would need time to get reacclimated to a pre-TRT state of being, is nowhere to be found. The UFC booked Lyoto Machida in his spot for UFC 173. When Weidman had to withdraw for knee surgery, and the fight was moved to July, we did not hear Belfort lobbying for the new slot. He has remained pretty quiet, except to say that he was embarrassed by the Chael Sonnen/Wanderlei Silva melee during the taping of TUF Brazil.
Still, Belfort’s name was brought up again – somewhat audaciously by the same media that sent him away -- at the scrum on Shaq’s hardwood in Orlando. Has Dana spoke to Vitor about…
"I haven’t spoke to Vitor since that whole thing went down," White said.
The thing. What is the nature of this thing? What thing? Is this the Thing that Issued the Silence?
When it was brought up that there was a lot of attention directed at Belfort after his 2013 for him to just up and vanish, White got out that accusatory finger again.
"Not from you guys," he said. "You guys were just interested in him getting his ass kicked and getting him out of there. Like I say all the time, the media got what they want, Vitor’s gone."
Gone? Like, gone? When asked when he thought he might have a discussion with Belfort, White shrugged along in tune.
"I don’t know," he said. "I haven’t heard a word from him. He’s got a lot of sh-- to clear up. He’s got to handle that, not us."
It’s a sore subject, this "sh--" that Belfort is clearing up, one that White can’t or won’t get into. To read between the lines, you get the distinct feeling that Belfort has put White in a very uncomfortable place, that the "thing" has created a rift that won’t soon be fixed. As one reporter said, without any show of accomplice guilt, "it’s like Vitor is dead to Dana right now."
It could be. When White was asked if Belfort was still the No. 1 contender, White shrugged again.
"I don’t know, we’ll see what happens."
How did we go from Belfort being the No. 1 contender in the UFC's middleweight division to being a subject so sore as to become taboo? There are plenty of hunches, but one in particular that stands out -- there seems to be enough blame to go around.