When the state of New York banned mixed martial arts back in 1997, Vitor Belfort was there. That’s how long ‘The Phenom’ has been at this.
That whole chapter of MMA history — the New York ban itself, and the UFC’s 19-year effort to see it lifted — feels like it took a lifetime to play out. And the story of how it started, the UFC forced to re-locate an event from New York to Alabama overnight, is something straight from the dark ages.
Belfort witnessed it firsthand. Not only did he fight on that infamous UFC 12 card, he won the heavyweight tournament on it. He was a teenager at the time.
“I was the youngest champion of the UFC,” Belfort recalls. “We were supposed to fight in New York, but the owner had to rent a plane and fly everyone to Alabama less than 24 hours from the fight. It was crazy. It was something else.
“I was 19 years old back then. And I’m still relevant today.”
Belfort (26-13) faces Lyoto Machida at UFC 224 on Saturday, at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro. The 41-year-old has said it will be his final fight, although, within the same breath, he describes the value a potential “Legends League” would have to the UFC.
Even when discussing the end of his career, Belfort can’t help but hint at an inevitable return.
If Saturday does mark his last fight, it will be a fitting curtain call for Belfort. Rio de Janeiro is his birthplace, and Machida (23-8) is a fellow Brazilian legend. Each has expressed deep respect for the other in the buildup to this fight.
“Lyoto is one of the greatest athletes ever and we’ve never fought before,” Belfort said. “It’s better to be leaving this sport with a great person and great athlete.”
Considering how long Belfort has been in the sport, it’s not surprising his legacy is a complicated one. He is known as one of the greatest pure talents the sport has ever seen, and has honed his craft in Brazil, Las Vegas, Florida, Montreal and everywhere in between.
He’s fought a laundry list of the sport’s most accomplished figures, but also failed a drug test in 2006 and became the most prominent benefactor of testosterone-replacement-therapy (TRT), a controversial practice that was widely banned in 2014.
For his part, Belfort seems content with the legacy he’s leaving.
“The way I want to be remembered is not the way I will be, and I’m cool with that,” Belfort said. “Some people will have good memories and some won’t. I think when you’re happy with yourself, that’s what matters.
“That’s the beauty of America, is freedom. People will decide how they feel. Legacy is something you leave for the next generation and it depends on what glass you view it through. Everybody has haters and lovers. That’s what life is all about.”