Vitor Belfort has lost to the current light heavyweight and middleweight champions in his past five fights, but he's determined to get another crack at UFC gold, and he just might with an impressive win over Luke Rockhold in the UFC on FX 8 main event. In his most recent outing, Belfort stopped Michael Bisping, who would have earned a title shot himself with a victory in that matchup.
Rockhold will be making his Octagon debut against Belfort, a former UFC champion. Before the collapse of his former promotion, Rockhold defended the Strikeforce middleweight title on two occasions. With those title defenses, Rockhold became recognized as one of the top 185-pound fighters in the world. He can prove that hype was deserved by beating Belfort on Saturday.
Sandwiched between two major UFC pay-per-views, UFC on FX 8 may be flying under the radar. Still, the feature fight showcasing two top-five UFC middleweights will carry major implications for the 185-pound division and is certainly worth watching.
Let's take a look at whether Belfort or Rockhold is more likely to walk away with a big win.
Luke Rockhold utilized his striking heavily in recent fights to defend the Strikeforce middleweight belt, out-landing every opponent he faced in title fights under the promotion.
However, the American Kickboxing Academy product is about to take a step up in competition as far as striking is concerned. Ronaldo Souza and Tim Kennedy are tough opposition, but they are much more dangerous on the ground than standing, combining for only one knockout in their Strikeforce careers. Keith Jardine has beaten some good fighters with his stand-up, but he hadn't won under the Zuffa banner in years heading into his bout with Rockhold.
Vitor Belfort is a different animal. A young dinosaur, if you will.
In addition to knocking out a top-10 middleweight—Michael Bisping—in his last outing, Belfort is plenty used to dealing with the type of reach advantage he'll face against Rockhold. Belfort was having early success against Anthony Johnson, a fighter with a reach very similar to Rockhold's, before finishing "Rumble" on the ground.
Though Belfort hasn't finished a fight with ground-and-pound in years, he's showed some glimpses of how dangerous he can be from the top position. The Brazilian set up a rear-naked choke on Johnson by landing strikes from his opponent's back. Since re-joining the UFC roster, he also finished off Michael Bisping, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Rich Franklin with devastating punches on the ground after scoring knockdowns.
Rockhold did not stop any Strikeforce opponents with strikes on the ground. With five submissions during his time with the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion, Rockhold is usually much more focused on advancing positions than striking when on the ground.
The chances aren't high that this fight will be decided with ground-and-pound, but Belfort is much more capable of ending the bout with ground striking than Rockhold.
Power and Durability
Rockhold's finish of Jardine was only the second knockout win of his MMA career. While he's developed a solid striking arsenal, Rockhold will have a tough time stopping Belfort, who has only been knocked out by Anderson Silva and Randy Couture.
Belfort, on the other hand, has been putting opponents away left and right throughout his 16 years in the sport. Inside the Octagon alone, Belfort has finished nine opponents with strikes, with greats like Wanderlei Silva and Franklin being among his victims.
Should Rockhold engage in wild exchanges with Belfort on Saturday, his long winning streak could come to an end with a single punch. While it came years ago, Rockhold has been knocked out previously.
Overall Striking Edge: Belfort
Takedowns and Takedown Defense
While confidence in his striking might have something to do with it, Vitor Belfort hasn't scored a takedown inside the Octagon since he faced Chuck Liddell at UFC 37.5. Against a fighter like Luke Rockhold, who is unproven at the UFC level, it's unlikely Belfort will be planning on wrestling.
Though he has a wrestling background, Rockhold hasn't been beating many foes with takedowns. He's been taken down seven times in his past three fights and was successful on only 25 percent of his own takedown attempts over that span.
At least in the early going, expect both fighters to have enough confidence in their stand-up to stray from trying to go to the ground.
Control and Escapability
Rockhold may have shown some holes in his takedown defense over recent fights, but he refused to be held down against one of the world's best grapplers in Ronaldo Souza. The American Kickboxing Academy product did an excellent job of using the fence to escape from his back repeatedly and forced "Jacare" to stand more than he wanted to.
While not many have had success against Jon Jones on the ground, it's fair to compare Belfort's performance against the light heavyweight champion to Rockhold's against a jiu-jitsu world champion like Souza.
Belfort may have given Jones a scare with an armbar, but he was otherwise completely shut down by Jones. The Brazilian never threatened Jones with sweeps and was content to stay on his back and hope for a miraculous submission rather than attempting to stand.
Submissions and Submission Defense
While Rockhold picked up six submission wins during his climb up the middleweight division, he didn't force any notable fighters to tap. Of those he submitted, only Jesse Taylor had UFC experience, and he was winless inside the Octagon.
Belfort only has three submission wins over a longer career, but his rear-naked choke against Anthony Johnson was more impressive than any of Rockhold's submission victories. Even though close doesn't count in MMA, nearly forcing Jones to tap is also a feather in Belfort's cap.
Having only been submitted by Jones and an underrated grappler in Alistair Overeem, Belfort shouldn't find himself in any danger on the ground against Rockhold.
Overall Grappling Edge: Push
Luke Rockhold wasn't even in high school when Vitor Belfort was beating up physical specimens like Tank Abbott and Scott Ferrozzo in the UFC early days.
Belfort has been around longer than most anyone still competing at a high level in MMA. Rockhold hasn't yet stepped into the Octagon.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say Rockhold's nerves could impact him in this matchup.
Belfort's utilization of testosterone replacement therapy has been a point of debate heading into this contest, and it's hard to argue he has a power advantage over Rockhold with the number of knockouts he's had over his career and the time he's spent in the light heavyweight class.
Still, in a matchup between two fighters who are likely planning to stand, Rockhold's reach advantage is important. Eight years younger than Belfort, Rockhold may also be a little bit quicker than his opponent on Saturday.
Rockhold paces himself very well in long fights, and his bout with Belfort is scheduled for five rounds. Against Ronaldo Souza, Rockhold landed more strikes in the fifth round than he did in the four previous frames. When he met Tim Kennedy, Rockhold threw right around 30 significant strikes per round and never attempted less than 27 in five stanzas.
Belfort, in all his years of fighting, hasn't even seen a fifth round. The only time the former UFC champion reached the championship rounds inside the Octagon, he was submitted less than a minute into the fourth frame by Jon Jones.
Overall Intangibles Edge: Push
Without having shown much in the way of offensive wrestling against high-level competition, it'd be tough to foresee Luke Rockhold taking Vitor Belfort to the ground. Given their recent success when standing, wrestling isn't likely to come into play unless desperation sets in anyway.
Because of his slight reach advantage, Rockhold's kicks and straight punches could cause problems for Belfort. However, the Brazilian has plenty of experience against equally skilled strikers with an edge in reach. Eventually, he's going to land a counter or test Rockhold's defense by pressing the action.
If Rockhold can turn this fight into a chess match, he has a chance of edging Belfort in a decision. However, Belfort has looked hungrier than ever lately and is far more capable than Rockhold of ending this fight early with strikes.
Belfort defeats Rockhold by (T)KO in the first round.