Vitor Belfort thinks it’s time for a change.
The 43-year-old is about to embark on the final leg of his storied career, which will take place for ONE Championship at a date and location still to be determined. Belfort expects to fight kickboxer Alain Ngalani, but since signing with the Singapore-based promotion in March 2019 he’s also enjoyed the discussions he’s had with ONE officials about advancing the cause for MMA.
Belfort’s top priority is seeing improvements in fighter safety, which he feels is lagging behind other aspects of MMA’s development. While MMA has never been more available to the general public, Belfort wonders why the fighters are still dealing with the same issues that have plagued the sport for years and why its image has stagnated.
“Every sport, every 10 years, something happened that has to be changed,” Belfort told MMA Fighting. “The rule set, the way the sport is built, the TV shows, the way they engage the fans. So I can see that MMA doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is the lights. The production is better, it’s beautiful, but the rules are the same. Fighters are not happy with the way they’re judged. Fighters aren’t happy because the people that are judging, they don’t know MMA. They don’t know how it works. It’s people that come from boxing starting to judge MMA. The list goes on and on and on...”
“But let’s talk about the safety part. The first thing that has to be changed is safety. Look at football. Football changed a lot of rules. The gear, the way they attack, the quarterback they cannot get hit like they used to before. Why? Because the first thing we think, we’re thinking safety.
“I don’t like when promoters are promoting blood, violence. I don’t like that. Because guess what? Tell me a promoter besides (ONE CEO) Chatri (Sityodtong) or maybe (Bellator President) Scott Coker, people that have fought before, they’ve really been in the ring and they’ve fought, people who have been in there and they know how it is to get bruised and get cut with 200 stitches in your face. It’s very easy to send someone to war and say, ‘Hey, go fight for me. I’ll be here home waiting for you to return.’ When you look to history, the kings before, they used to go into the front of the battles. King David, you name it. Now, presidents, they say let’s go fight, but it’s easy to pick up a fight when you don’t have to go and fight yourself.”
Having fought professionally since 1996, Belfort can recall the days when there wasn’t anything close to the concept of “unified rules.” Those old shows (Belfort made his UFC debut at UFC 12 on Feb. 7, 1997) are often romanticized for their lack of regulation, but Belfort believes that the thrill of those outlaw days has worn off and even with the way the rules have changed over the past two decades, fans are yearning for a more substantial step forward.
“It’s just like anything else,” Belfort said, talking about fan malaise. “Let’s say when you first date your girlfriend, that’s a kind of love. Then you’re waiting to get married, and then you get married, and then all of a sudden it starts changing. ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know that.’ And then the love starts facing some challenges. You go pee, you put the thing up and you forget to put it down, and then your wife is like, ‘Ah!’
“So now you used to be a prince, now you start becoming like a frog. How you develop that love is through a process of reinventing yourself.”
How to best address safety concerns then? Belfort has some radical ideas, including the restriction of certain techniques. At the very least, he’d like to see the intent behind potentially dangerous moves reviewed, specifically those that he considers to be designed to injure rather than lead to a finish or score points.
Specifically, Belfort disapproves of Jon Jones’s infamous oblique kick, a downward strike aimed at the top of an opponent’s leg that can have a debilitating effect on fighters. As long as techniques like that are allowed, Belfort wonders how much negative perceptions about MMA can be altered.
“The most important thing is, how about the injuries of the ligaments?” Belfort said. “The stomp kicks. What that kick does? That kick is to win a fight or is it to injure your opponent? I’m looking for the safety of my athlete. He can have longevity not when he’s fighting, but when he’s finished fighting, he can walk good, he can have a healthy life. The object of the fight is for the other guy to win either by submission or by knockout or by an aggressive attack, good offense. Everybody loves football because they’re looking for offense, but also a good defense that is becoming offense as well. It’s always attack, defense, attack, defense. Every sport is like that.
“That being said, a lot of rules, like when you get a cut, you can fight even if there’s a pool of blood. How good is that and how bad is that? We don’t have insurance companies or banks sponsoring our sport because we are considered a bloodsport. We are the only sport considered a bloodsport. Why are we still going in that direction? Why are we [not addressing] things that can really cause [injuries]? You saw Jon Jones fighting Thiago Marreta. Thiago Marreta’s been out of fighting because the [oblique] kicks that Jon Jones was doing, they just tore all the ligaments of his knees. Of course, he’ll never be the same. Of course, he can go back, but he will never be the same. So what’s the purpose of that kick? To cause a win, to cause a knockout, or to cause injury?”
It should be noted that though Thiago Santos has been on the mend due to multiple ligament injuries in his left knee since going 25 minutes with Jones in this past July, it is not clear whether Jones’s oblique kicks directly contributed to that injury.
That said, Belfort points to that maneuver as one of several techniques that while viable in the strictest sense of martial combat, shouldn’t necessarily be allowed in competition.
“That kick takes you out six months,” Belfort continued. “Maybe makes you walk like never before. In martial arts, we teach you to put your thumb in somebody’s eyes. We’re gonna allow that to happen? No, we’re not gonna allow that to happen. We can do fishhooks. So you see, we cannot bring some martial arts inside the sport because now you’re causing damage that can last forever.
“That damage in Thiago Santos is forever. He doesn’t have the ligaments, now it’s forever. We have to avoid damage that is forever in ligaments and things.”
Belfort has other concerns. He’d like to see something similar to concussion protocol when it comes to injuries to other parts of the body as far as giving the fighters a clearer timeline on how long they should be out of action. He thinks gloves could be modified to be safer. And he thinks that the fighters, referees, and cornermen can be more responsible when it comes to protecting the athletes.
He was mortified by the damage that Anthony Smith took in his fight with Glover Teixeira at UFC Jacksonville and suggested the referee should have been the first to recognize that the fight needed to be stopped, with Smith’s coaches next in line in terms of accountability.
“What’s the reason?” Belfort said. “What did they do with Anthony Smith? They just caused him to be so beat up. He’s not gonna win the fight. It’s okay to lose. You’ve got to have common sense. So I’m not looking more at the aspect of something that’s more important: The safety of the athlete, not just in his career, but after when he’s retired and when he still has a life.
“A lot of things have to be revisited and changed, in my opinion. I don’t have the power, but I’ve been in this sport before Dana White came in. Before Lorenzo Fertitta bought it. I’ve been fighting since when I was 18 years old [at UFC 12], that’s how long I’ve been involved and still competing. I’m not the same, so things have to be in place that we can be moving forward to a healthy environment, better, people can bring their family. They say, ‘Wow, that’s cool, such a violent sport, but safety number one.’”
In the final stages of his fighting career, Belfort is looking ahead to his next fight, one that will focus more on regulation than promotion. A major reason that Belfort signed with ONE was what he saw as a company looking to initiate change and do so while valuing the input of veteran fighters.
“Before I signed with ONE, I really saw that ONE is a company that’s willing to take this information from someone who paved the way and learned,” Belfort said. “I brought something to them, they’re willing to do it. Merging two sports in one, boxing and MMA, merging ONE rules, they’re willing to bring muay Thai with little gloves, submission matches in the same night.
“You’re going to see a fight, you can watch an MMA fight, you can watch a submission fight, you can watch many styles of martial arts. So now you have customers, they’re like, ‘I have something [in ONE] that I cannot have anywhere.’ I think we’re gonna see a lot of change.”