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Boxers debunk Vitor Belfort’s Olympic claims, recall closed-doors bout in Cuba: ‘That’s not true’

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Marcelino Novaes (red helmet) 'slugged it out' with Vitor Belfort (blue helmet) in Cuba.
Photo via Marcelino Novaes

Vitor Belfort will enter the boxing ring for his first professional match since his debut in 2006, but he ruffled some feathers in the Brazilian boxing community with comments he made during a recent media scrum in California.

Belfort, who is preparing to face former boxing champion Oscar De La Hoya on Sept. 11 in Los Angeles, said he qualified to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as a boxer but “could not go due to a knee injury that I had.” He doubled down with an Instagram post days later with a photo he claimed was from a win he secured in a qualifying bout for the 2000 Olympics alongside the caption, “I could not go [to the 2000 Olympics] because I had hurt my meniscus in training and I had to had surgery in my knee and I miss this opportunity.”

The thing is, Belfort never actually made it onto the Brazilian Olympic team — and therefore was never qualified to compete at the Olympic Games.

In reality, “The Phenom” had the chance to earn a spot in the Olympic qualifying tournament, as he claimed, but came up short in a behind-closed-doors boxing match with Brazilian heavyweight boxer Marcelino Novaes, who won bronze in the 1999 Pan-American Games.

“Bullsh*t,” Novaes said of Belfort’s Olympic claims when asked by MMA Fighting. “He was the youngest champion in UFC history — blah, blah, blah — but I was the Brazilian champion. I was undefeated for seven years in Brazil, representing Brazil from 1994 to 2000.”

Ulysses Pereira, the coach of the Brazilian boxing team at the time, echoes Novaes’ reaction.

“That’s a tale,” Pereira told MMA Fighting. “He was never part of the Olympic team. There is no, ‘I missed the Olympics.’ And being part of the Olympic team doesn’t mean you’re going to the Olympics, you still have to go through a qualifying tournament. It surprises me to see Belfort say he didn’t go to the Olympics because he injured his knee. That’s a tale, that’s not true.”

Belfort did not respond a request for comments.

Much like when UFC star Anderson Silva expressed his desire to be in the 2016 Olympics in Taekwondo during his doping suspension in the UFC, there was a lot of buzz around Belfort in the late 1990s. The MMA fighter owned previous experience in amateur boxing tournaments, and Novaes began to hear some chatter about Belfort representing the country in Sydney in his weight class.

“He was considered the most dangerous hands in the UFC so people started talking about Vitor going to the Olympics,” Novaes said. “I was like, ‘Slow down, Vitor’s going to the Olympics my ass. To make it to the Olympics, first you have to go through me, and then you have to go through the Olympic Qualifying tournament, and then you’re qualified to the Olympics.’ You’re not going just because you’re the UFC champion. That’s not how it works.”

Belfort was under contract with PRIDE around the time of the 2000 Olympics, having lost a decision to Kazushi Sakuraba in his debut in 1999. But having as popular of a figure as Belfort to compete in Sydney would be huge for the Brazilian boxing federation — and that’s why they decided to match Belfort up against Novaes.

“They wanted to have him in through the back door,” Novaes said.

The match was tentatively set for late 1999, but ultimately happened on March 16, 2000. Novaes claims he was “set up” during a trip to Cuba, where the Brazilian team was expected to stay for a three-week camp. Two days before flying back to Brazil, however, Novaes said he was informed by the coaches that he would face Belfort to determine who would represent Brazil in the following Olympic Qualifying tournament.

“Vitor was already in Cuba when we got there,” Novaes said. “I asked him what he was doing there, and he said he was preparing for a fight, but didn’t mention to me that the federation had already agreed that he would face me in a qualifier. The coaches at the time, Ulysses Pereira and the Cuban, they knew about it and told me nothing.

“[Belfort] was training with us for three weeks, seeing how I train and getting personal classes every day to fight me, and I had no preparation. I never expected to be stabbed in the back like that. I deserved better than that.”

Pereira denies that there was any secret masterplan to benefit Belfort.

“He misinterpreted us,” he said. “It was too comfortable for him in this weight class, so the idea was to have two good boxers. Vitor Belfort was great and Marcelino was also great and more experienced. [Novaes] was very upset at the time but we made it very clear that our idea was that you’ll prove to be the best when you’re not the only one in the division. If there’s someone risking your position, you go there and beat the guy. That’s how it works, and that’s what he’s done.”

The gym, located nearby Havana, was closed that day. Belfort and Novaes were the only ones to put the boxing gloves and enter the ring. Novaes recalls that the match lasted four rounds.

Marcelino Novaes said he knocked Vitor Belfort down twice.
Photo via Marcelino Novaes

“We slugged it out,” Novaes said. “I dropped him and he took more than a minute to get back up, which would make it a knockout since he has 10 seconds to get back up to his feet. OK, we continued — and I dropped him again. And I won the match. Don’t know how they came to this conclusion but they said I won by 4-2.”

“It was a close match,” said Pereira, who coached Belfort in amateur boxing tournaments prior to this contest in Cuba. “Marcelino was touching him the entire time, he much more experienced in amateur boxing, while Vitor was trying to use the clinch, but couldn’t use the takedowns like he could in MMA. He won most of his MMA fights by knockout but boxing for MMA is not the same thing. It’s completely different.”

Pereira adds that “there was a claim that Vitor injured his knee due to the slippery mat, but that doesn’t matter.” The knee injury, Novaes said, was the “excuse” used by the MMA star to “never show up” to a rematch weeks later. Belfort eventually returned to the PRIDE ring in June 2000 and earned his first victory in Japan with a decision over Gilbert Yvel.

“I went to Mexico knowing we would fight again and this time I was prepared mentally for it,” Novaes said. “I trained like an animal, I was hungry. … I met Vitor again a few times since then but we never talked about it. He respects me, but never talked about why he didn’t show up. And just like [the Brazilian boxing federation] never explained to me why he was given that chance in the first place, they never told me why he didn’t show up [for the rematch].”

Vitor Belfort poses with Marcelino Novaes (center) after winning the UFC belt over Randy Couture.
Photo via Marcelino Novaes

Novaes ultimately made it to the finals in the Olympic Qualifying tournament where he lost to Canada’s Mark Simmons and missed his chance to compete in Sydney. He turned pro the following year and compiled a 7-3-1 record before hanging up his gloves in 2004.

Belfort went on to focus on his MMA career, winning 20 of his next 33 bouts.