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Two decades later, Vitor Belfort's career still glints like gold

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Vitor Belfort’s last chance at gold comes 18 years after judgment day, but "The Phenom," or "Young Dinosaur," or "Old Lion," whatever you wanna call him -- is far from done.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Vitor Belfort was just a little kid when jiu-jitsu master Carlson Gracie first heard about him. Gracie, one of the best trainers in the history of vale tudo and jiu-jitsu, saw some potential in this Rio de Janeiro native -- potential enough to call him Vitor Belfort Gracie.

With fast hands and slick a ground game, Belfort was selected to compete at one of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments at age 18. And 18 years later, "The Phenom" looks for his third UFC gold belt against undefeated middleweight kingpin Chris Weidman at UFC 187.

Ahead of the historic night on May 23 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Belfort looks back at his five UFC title bouts and predicts success against Weidman.

UFC 12: Judgement Day -- February 7, 1997

Most of the "cariocas" at age 18 only cared about going to Copacabana beach and partying. Most of his friends at school were probably looking to do just that when Belfort was making history in Dothan, Ala.

"I was too young when I moved to the United States, but I went there with the dream of becoming a world champion in MMA," Belfort told MMAFighting.com. "The fact that everything was allowed, that there were no rules or weight divisions whatsoever, and being more than one fight on the same night…that made me excited, but afraid at the same time. I knew I could win it, and that’s what happened in the end. I think that everything motivated me even more."

Belfort, who had just one 12-second MMA fight beforehand, was entering a heavyweight tournament against heavier, bigger opponents. Tra Telligman, who had won a one-night tournament some seven months earlier, was his first opponent, and the Brazilian had to be smart against a most experienced opponent.

"The strategy was to use technique and be explosive, and never give up," he said. "Speed and explosion, if used at the right moment, works really well. Not every athlete has a good eye for fighting. Many fighters take too long to see something, or rush themselves, and end up losing points or even the entire fight."

During a time when defending a specific martial art was more important than the name of the person that is in there fighting, Carlson Gracie’s protégé says he had no pressure to show off any particular discipline going into the bout.

"There was no pressure to use jiu-jitsu, but I had Carlson and his team there with me," Belfort said. "I came from boxing as well and always used it at the right moment. What I learned with MMA is that it’s not enough to be good in one martial art only. You have to learn and be good in everything. I always trained to be the best and not simply being good."

Belfort’s devastating punches finished it quickly, as Telligman was done in 77 seconds. Scott Ferrozzo, who needed eight minutes to TKO Jim Mullen in the other semifinal, wasn’t an easy opponent either.

Ferrozzo competed in a UFC one-night tournament five months before, and reached the final after a pair of wins, but couldn’t return to the Octagon for the final fight due to fatigue. Belfort, 12 years his junior, knew he could end it quickly. And he did, winning by TKO in just 43 seconds.

"Winning the tournament was a dream come true," said Belfort, who needed just two minutes combined to beat both opponents at UFC 12. "That was when I realized I really enjoyed doing this. I’d always competed and was a champion in several sports, but fighting was my passion. After that win, I was sure that I wanted to be an MMA fighter."

UFC 46: Supernatural -- January 31, 2004

Years after winning that UFC one-night tournament, Belfort became a celebrity in Brazil. After he began dating famous model Joana Prado, Belfort entered a celebrity reality show -- of which Prado was also prominently featured -- in 2002. The show was a huge success, and the two got married a year later.

Upon leaving the reality show, Belfort returned to the UFC to face Chuck Liddell in the first bout to air live on network television in Brazil. Though he lost via unanimous decision, his title aspirations weren't over. A 67-second TKO win over Marvin Eastman in his follow-up fight proved to be enough for the Brazilian to earn a shot at Randy Couture for the light heavyweight championship.

This was the moment when his life changed forever.

On January 9 -- just weeks before his UFC main event with "The Natural" -- Vitor’s sister, Priscila Belfort, disappeared. Not knowing her whereabouts, or if she was even alive, Belfort had to travel to Las Vegas to compete in the championship bout.

"It was a difficult time for me," Belfort said. "My sister went missing for 30 days. and we knew nothing about her. The UFC gave me the option to pull out of the fight, but I decided to fight anyway. I fought for Priscila. It still felt horrible. It was like I wasn’t in the fight. My body was there, but my mind was far away.

"My family never tried to convince me to pull out. Actually, nobody believed I would be able to continue training, but they supported me after all. On fight night, I was warming up in the locker room and, at the very last moment just before walking out for the fight, I decided to put on the shirt we had made for Priscila. I believe that gave me more strength."

Couture vs. Belfort only lasted 46 seconds, but that was not one of those trademark "Phenom" finishes. Right away the Brazilian connected on a few punches, and his glove cut Couture’s eye, forcing referee "Big" John McCarthy to wave the fight off.

"I never worried about proving anything to anyone," Belfort said of the stoppage. "I went there because I like to do my best. When I clinched Randy close to the fence, I felt he was soft, he had given up. I realized he wasn’t well, and the referee was right to stop the fight."

Belfort, who had lost to Couture seven years before, says he had no lingering hard feelings towards the man that put a beating on him at UFC 15.

"I never looked at that fight as revenge, as a rematch, but as the opportunity to win my second world title in a different weight division," he said. "I look at my sport as business, nothing is personal. Even with everything against us, me desperately looking for my sister, I didn’t give up and won my second world title in the UFC as a tribute to my sister."

Winning his first UFC belt would be an unforgettable night for anyone, but not under those circumstances.

"It felt different," Belfort said, comparing his wins at UFC 46 and UFC 12. "I still wasn’t happy, even after winning my second world title in the UFC, because of the tragedy that happened in my family. I couldn’t celebrate, and I dedicated that win to my sister."

UFC 49: Unfinished Business -- August 21, 2004

Belfort’s flight to Brazil was a long one, and he didn't receive a hero’s welcome in Rio de Janeiro. He didn’t even care about the belt he just won in Las Vegas, because a month had passed and they still hadn't any new information about Priscila. They thought she had been kidnapped, but nobody was sure.

While desperately looking for his sister, Belfort got a call from the UFC. They wanted to book a trilogy bout with Couture for Aug. 21 in Las Vegas. The promotion would call the event "UFC 49: Unfinished Business," but Belfort wasn’t interested in finishing anything other than finding his sister.

"I never questioned the UFC, I simply accepted it," he said. "I should have asked for more time, absolutely. If Joana was already my manager at that time, she would never have let that happen."

The trilogy bout was set for the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a mile away from where Belfort won the UFC gold seven months earlier, but he still couldn’t focus on training for his first title defense.

"I had no head to think about training -- it was one of the worst moments of my life," Belfort said. "My sister was missing. I was super depressed and had no motivation at all. I don’t even remember those times. Everything was very painful.

"I don’t remember if I thought about giving up the fight. I didn’t even think about fighting and training. My body was there, but my mind was far away. Today, when I have any problem during my camp, I laugh about it and see how simple everything is compared to what I’ve faced in the past."

The third fight between Couture and Belfort lasted longer than the first two encounters combined, and "The Natural" recaptured his title due to a doctor stoppage between the third and fourth rounds.

Belfort was back inside the Octagon only six months later, losing to former champion Tito Ortiz via split decision. It was the end of the road for "The Phenom" in the UFC, and he ended up competing for five different promotions in his next nine fights.

"The disappearance of my sister made me grow a lot," he said. "It made me review several concepts. With all the suffering, I’ve grown a lot, became more mature. I needed my time, I needed to suffer and digest everything. It was a long and painful process, but thank God I was able to overcome that loss. Today, when I think about that moment, I become more motivated and realize how matured and a better person I’ve become."

Eleven years have passed since the day Priscila Belfort disappeared, and her family is still searching for answers. The Brazilian police was never able to come up with a conclusion as to what really happened. The theories are sobering.

According to the investigation, Priscila was probably kidnapped and taken to a favela in Rio de Janeiro, where drug dealers quartered her body. The body was never found, and the case is still open.

"I know that one day we will find out what happened with her, but that’s not in my head anymore," Belfort said. "I always think about her, remember the wonderful moments we had together, and I know that God is in control. He knows where my sister is."

UFC 126 -- February 5, 2011

Vitor Belfort Photos

A couple losses to Alistair Overeem, and a failed drug test in a light 205-pound bout with Dan Henderson at PRIDE 32 looked like the writing on the wall for Belfort’s career in 2006. However, the 30-year-old Brazilian decided to prove he still had gas left in his tank and signed with Cage Rage.

Over the course of five months, Belfort defeated Ivan Serati and James Zikic to win the Cage Rage light heavyweight championship, putting his name on the map once again. Now a free agent, Belfort ended up signing a deal with Affliction, a new, free-spending promotion with ambitious plans in the United States.

All Belfort needed was a pair of knockout victories over Terry Martin and Matt Lindland to prove he still was a force in MMA, now as a middleweight. A huge draw in the sport, the Brazilian returned to the UFC and dispatched Rich Franklin in the first round, earning a shot at 185-pound kingpin Anderson Silva.

Silva vs. Belfort had originally beeen planned for UFC 108 -- and later was announced for UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi -- but it didn't materialize. Belfort was forced out with a shoulder injury, and was replaced by Demian Maia. Silva disappointed against Maia, and struggled to get past Chael Sonnen months later at UFC 117, and UFC president Dana White felt it was time to take Belfort from a bout with Yushin Okami and book him versus the champion.

"It was great to have another chance for the title," Belfort said. "Like I said, I’ve learned a lot and grown as a person with everything I’ve been through."

Silva was the greatest champion in UFC history, but he was relatively unknown in Brazil. Belfort, who had years of TV coverage in the past in his native country -- with reality shows, live UFC bouts, and the kidnapping of his sister -- helped "The Spider" become a star as well.

UFC 126 was the most publicized MMA event in the history in Brazil. Promoted as the "Fight of the Century," Silva vs. Belfort made the sport a big deal in the country.

"I was really happy with all the repercussions," Belfort said. "I always believed that my sport would be on TV Globo one day. I was part of this since the beginning and it makes me proud to see all the young talent of this new generation."

Silva and Belfort, who used to train together, had transformed into big rivals when the bout was first signed. Silva saw "The Phenom" as a traitor for joining the UFC and going after the belt while training with him at X-Gym.

Belfort didn’t see it that way.

"I believe that my sport will be at the Olympics one day, but for that to happen, everybody has to understand that they might fight everyone, including friends and brothers, and it doesn’t matter if you trained together," Belfort said. "We see athletes competing against their brothers in several sports, but that’s not a reason for them to stop talking to each other. It was never personal to me. It was just business. I get paid really well to do my job inside the Octagon and I hope one day everybody will see this sport the same way."

During fight week, Belfort said in the media that Silva "wears a mask." In his native Portuguese, Belfort was calling Silva "fake." At the official weigh-ins that Friday, the champion decided to respond by wearing an opera mask to face off the challenge.

Belfort says the mask didn’t bother him, that he understands "the show" after "doing this for 19 years," but the next night -- fight night -- Silva finally became a star. The greatest champion in UFC history made a name for himself with a highlight reel knockout, stopping Belfort with a front kick to the face in the first round.

Seven years after losing his UFC light heavyweight title, Belfort failed in his attempt to recapture UFC gold. But again, just as he'd done in the past, "The Phenom" would prove he wasn’t done.

"I’ve learned with basketball players that when they miss a shot, they don’t stay there whining and complaining, they simply go back to try again and again," Belfort said. "The same works for fighting or any other area in your professional or personal life.

"What motivates me is the love for the sport. I was a champion in several sports, but I chose MMA. I fight because I like and that’s always motivating for me. Everything you do with love, you get good results."

UFC 152 -- September 22, 2012

After two more first-round finishes, Vitor Belfort found himself back "in the mix," but his next title shot was more an opportunity from left field. It came at 205 pounds.

Jon Jones broke Belfort’s record and became the youngest champion in UFC history with a win over Mauricio Rua at UFC 128. After dominating one challenger after another in 2011 and 2012, "Bones" became MMA’s No. 1 enemy after declining to fight Chael Sonnen at UFC 151 on short notice, forcing the promotion to cancel a pay-per-view event when Dan Henderson pulled out of the main event with a torn MCL.

Jones’ fourth title defense was pushed back to UFC 152 in Toronto, and former champion Lyoto Machida was initially offered a rematch with "Bones" on short notice. "The Dragon" declined and Belfort seized the opportunity.

"I offered myself to the UFC," said Belfort, who was scheduled to face Alan Belcher at UFC 153. "I was already starting a camp so I thought, ‘why not?’"

Belfort, who had just started training at Blackzilians in Florida, had multiple injuries in his ribs and foot going into the light heavyweight title bout, but never used it as an excuse.

"I like challenges, getting out of the comfort zone," he said. "Which athlete doesn’t have injuries, doesn’t feel pain? If you think it’s going to be easy, you need to do something else."

Jones was a huge favorite over Belfort -- a bigger betting favorite than he had ever been in his entire UFC career. For most of the MMA analysts, Belfort had no more than a puncher’s chance at UFC 152, and it was virtually impossible for him to upset the champion.

Seconds into the first round, Belfort almost made the impossible happen. When Jones took the challenger down for the first time, the jiu-jitsu black belt locked a tight armbar.

"I was positive he would tap," Belfort said. "I heard it snap and thought he broke his arm. I heard the noise of something happening, but wasn’t completely sure what was it.

"I had the entire fight in my head but suddenly the game changed. That’s MMA."

Jones had to fight out of the vulnerable spot, and eventually escaped. From that point on, it was all Jones, who ended the massacre with a fourth-round submission to defend the title.

"I had nothing to lose. It was all or nothing for me," Belfort said. "I knew I could win, and I almost did. A son of a friend gave his little friend a good answer when asked about me losing to Jon Jones. ‘Vitor didn’t lose, he almost won. That makes all the difference.’"

Back to 185 pounds after almost shocking the MMA world, Belfort -- yet again -- proved to be a force.

UFC 187 -- May 23, 2015

With the UFC taking over Brazil, the promotion needed famous faces to headline the cards. Three of the seven UFC events in the country in 2013 were headlined by Belfort. And he delivered in a big way.

Belfort entered three five-round bouts in 2013, but only needed a few minutes to dispatch of Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson with devastating knockouts. High kicks and spinning heel kicks, "The Young Dinosaur" had it all.

Life wasn’t perfect, though.

Belfort, who had a history of drug abuse after failing a drug test in his 2006 loss to Henderson in Las Vegas, was one of the few MMA fighters granted an exemption of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). During that run in 2013 "The Phenom" looked as big as he did in the early UFC days, prompting concerns about TRT abuse.

Belfort wasn’t the only one on TRT, but he was the only one to appear physically bigger. This coincided with the devastation he put on display inside the Octagon.

"Have you ever seen someone talk about those guys that were on TRT and still lose? Have you ever seen someone talk trash or question the ones who aren’t successful?" Belfort says. "Everything they wish and talk about me doesn’t change anything in my life. I live day by day worshipping my God, training hard and respecting the others."

Despite the backlash from the MMA community, Belfort was given a shot at newly crowned middleweight champion Chris Weidman, who had just defeated Anderson Silva twice. On Feb. 7, 2014, less than four months before his planned UFC 173 bout with Weidman, TRT became an issue again, as Belfort failed an out-of-competition drug test with elevated levels of testosterone.

Belfort eventually agreed to undergo as many drug tests as regulators wanted and was never suspended by the Nevada Athletic Commission. The middleweight contender passed every test he was given, and was again matched against Weidman.

This time it was the middleweight champion who was forced out of UFC 181 and UFC 184 bouts with Belfort due to injuries. Now well over a year in the making, Belfort and Weidman will finally enter the cage together at Saturday’s UFC 187 in Las Vegas.

"I absolutely wanted to fight in 2014, but unfortunately, with all the postponements it didn’t happen," Belfort said. "However, I never stopped training and was ready all the time. The next opponent is always the toughest one for me. Carlson always said that there’s no such thing as easy opponent. We can’t underestimate anyone. I don’t focus on what’s next, I focus on what’s now. I never stopped training for a second despite the fact that I haven’t fought in 2014. I’m ready for this fight."

Almost 19 years after his first MMA bout -- exactly 6,680 days after winning the UFC 12 heavyweight tournament -- Belfort will enter the Octagon and try to make history one more time.

"I’m really happy with all that," Belfort said after looking back at his entire MMA career. "I believe I’ve worked really hard for my sport to be recognized in Brazil, and seeing all this success makes me feel that part of my job was completed. We still have to get better in other areas but the evolution of the sport is really surprising. I know I still have a lot to do and will continue to fight for the sport inside and outside the Octagon."

"The Phenom" will go down as one of the best of all time whenever he finally hangs up his gloves, but wants to add another accomplishment to his resume first.

"On May 23, l will leave the Octagon with my third UFC world title in a third different weight class."

Chris Weidman - Vitor Belfort
(Cynthia Vance, MMA Fighting)