Vitor Belfort: Carlson Gracie, Shaquille O'Neal and the Birth of a UFC Legend

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Vitor Belfort: Carlson Gracie, Shaquille O'Neal and the Birth of a UFC Legend
(Photo by Jim Kemper/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Jon Hess was big. At 6'7" and more than 300 pounds, he towered over 18-year-old Vitor Belfort. Hess was as mean and ugly as he was large, a man with a reputation for dirty play.

In the early days of the UFC, when almost no technique was considered out of bounds, Hess had managed to rack up a fine for his foul tactics in his one Octagon appearance. His art was SAFTA (Scientifically Aggressive Fighting Technology of America), a self-created martial discipline that focused heavily on groin shots and eye gouges.

It was not for the faint of heart.

Hess was confident, in himself and his art. He backed up tough talk with a challenge—he wanted to take on Royce Gracie, the acknowledged king of the Octagon. When he received a challenge from "Victor Gracie" instead, Hess jumped at the opportunity. The giant was ready to write his name in history.

And yet, there was no fear in the younger man's eyes. That would come later, when the confidence and naivety of youth faded, when sleepless nights began to haunt him before fights. In 1996 there was a purity to Belfort that propelled him into the ring for the first time full of confidence. Size didn't matter, less even than age and experience. This, Belfort believed, was what he was born to do.

"I started very young...I learned my martial arts first in the street. There were always fights. That's the culture in Brazil," Belfort told Bleacher Report.

His father Jose took him to his first judo lesson at nine. Soon, though he was an excellent tennis player and BMX biker, martial arts became his passion. Then, when he was noticed by one of Brazil's top trainers, his potential livelihood.

"With Carlson Gracie, who saw something in me, I started learning and loved mixing together the martial arts," Belfort said. " It was natural to me. It made sense. By the time I was 17 years old I already had my black belt."

Belfort with Shaq in 1996 (via Twitter)

Before the bout, Vitor was announced as Victor Gracie. That was how he was introduced to new Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal earlier that night as well. O'Neal, though not the hardcore MMA fan he would later become, knew enough to recognize the name Gracie. He put his money down on the young Brazilian.

It wouldn't take long for him to realize he had made the right call.

Watch the video of the fight, all 36 seconds of it. It's like stepping into a time machine pointed toward the late '90s, when mixed martial arts was still no-holds barred—a movement still deeply rooted in the underground.

This is how fans consumed fights like this one back in those days, a bootleg of a bootleg, wavy lines and flutters taking nothing away from what mattered most—Vitor Belfort pummeling one of the most repugnant men in MMA history until he was unconscious on the mat.

"That was the training I was doing," Belfort said. "I was a fighter. I'd fight any beast in the jungle, you know?"

Hess was expecting a "Royce Gracie" clone, a skinny Brazilian in a pristine white gi. That was Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in those days to most Americans. An art form for the undersized and cerebral, a last-ditch system for victims who wanted a fighting chance against a big galoot like Hess.

But that was Helio Gracie's jiu-jitsu. Carlson was not his uncle Helio. And Vitor was certainly not the willowy Royce.

Belfort was 205 pounds of coiled muscle, perfectly suited for Carlson's more aggressive system that valued strength, attack and maintaining top position. Gracie saw Vitor as the perfect tool to implement his game plans and style, a human bull bound to take the world by storm. Vitor would rule the fighting world, and Gracie was convinced these were his first steps toward greatness.

"We were father and son. One day, when I have a chance, I will make a book just about me and him. Despite everything that happened we had great times together," Belfort recalled. "We fought together. We really accomplished our dreams together. He really pulled me up. He told me as a very young man 'You will win the UFC. You will be the greatest fighter I ever trained.' We had a great, great relationship together. That's something I will never forget."

Vitor and Carlson via Gracie Mag

It may be hard for Hess to remember, even now, what happened in that SuperBrawl2 fight in Hawaii. After all, it was over in just a few blinks of the eye. With the power of video tape, I can refresh his memory...it was a left hand that started him on the wrong path, a blisteringly fast punch that also packed a mighty wallop. A body lock followed, David dragging Goliath to the mat, a lion looking for the kill as the water buffalo flailed helplessly.

And then Belfort bounced punch after punch off Hess's head.

More than 20 landed in just seven seconds, hands moving in what looks like fast forward, even as the tape plays in real time. It's fantastic and more than a little frightening.

In the end, it's only Belfort's basic humanity that saved Hess. These were barbaric times for the growing sport and the referee was very nonchalant about stopping the fight. He never stepped in, only casually waved his arms.

Belfort probably could have punched Hess a dozen more times in the seconds it would have taken the official to jump between the men (assuming that was his intent at all). There was no urgency there and he very well might have allowed Hess to be beaten to death. Instead, Belfort celebrated as Hess lay prone on the mat.

Young Vitor's best win vs. Wanderlei Silva (Photo by Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The win was Belfort's golden ticket to the UFC. Vitor had "star" written all over him, an obvious heir both to the departed Royce and Ken Shamrock. It was Carlson's chance to reclaim the Gracie name from his uncle and cousins. But when Vitor entered the Octagon, it was as Belfort, not as Gracie as Carlson planned.

Vitor's father Jose was a proud man. Though he respected Carlson, family names are sacred. The Gracies, too, had reservations—concerned, mostly, that Vitor might lose and tarnish the family name. By the time they came around, when it was clear Belfort was a phenom, he had changed his mind about adopting his mentor's name.

"It would have been an honor for me but I have my own family and my own father's name. My name is Belfort. I needed to make my own history," Belfort said. "Gracie—I had a lot of respect for the name. It was an honor and Carlson really wanted it. But I went to him and said 'Carlson, I'm very honored but I can't.' But in some ways, everyone who studies jiu-jitsu is part of the Gracie family. Every one of us is part of a family."

Success came easy to Belfort in the Octagon as well. Carlson's team included many of the top names, for their time, in the entire sport. Mario Sperry and Murilo Bustamante were terrors in the training room. Jiu-jitsu legends Ricardo De La Riva and Ricardo Liborio stalked the mat ready to tap out any who dared roll with them.

And standing, Belfort, a boxing fanatic, gave everyone fits. Training with Cassio Cardoso and Claudio Coelho at the famous Nobre Arte academy in Rio De Janeiro, Belfort incorporated traditional boxing attacks into his MMA game. Sparring sessions were legendary.

"Amazing. You had to give your best," Belfort said, remembering his teammates as every bit as tough as his opponents. "This sport has grown very much, but all those fighters, they were fantastic."

Eventually, like all lives lived like beautiful dreams, Belfort had a rude awakening. First Randy Couture shattered his illusions of invincibility, a loss Carlson attributed to Vitor's focus on a playmate girlfriend rather than the business at hand.

Soon enough the young fighter was wondering...if Carlson is not here training me for these fights, why is he reaching his hand into my pocket for money that he hasn't earned?

The break was contentious and ugly. Ostracized by his team, Belfort was labeled a turncloak. But a year later many of his teammates would make their own break from the demanding Gracie, including Bustamante and Sperry.

"When you have a problem in a relationship, you always have three sides," Belfort said. "One side, the other side and the true side."

Gracie was not one to forgive and forget and the two men rarely saw eye to eye. Even in 2005, as Belfort walked to the cage to fight Tito Ortiz, Carlson could be heard shouting "traitor" at the top of his ample lungs. Less than a year later, he was dead at 73. Belfort considers himself very fortunate to have been able to mend fences while there was still time.

"I called him and said 'Coach, I didn't call to fight. I want you to forgive me if I've done anything to you that you didn't like,'" Belfort remembered.

"We all make mistakes. I didn't call him to say who was wrong and who was right. I just called him to say I loved him from the bottom of my heart."

When he enters the arena to fight Luke Rockhold Saturday on FX, Belfort will look haggard—a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. This sport has become a business, with so much riding on every bout.

Those of us who have seen him, however, will remember the old Belfort. We had some fun with his 1997 fight with Scott Ferrozzo, but who could deny his vim, vigor and pure joy?

It's the Belfort who beat Ferrozzo and Tank Abbott, the one with the world in the palm of his hand who fans have immortalized as an MMA legend—the last man standing from a generation that built a sport.

"Remarkable," he said, thinking back to his early dominance. "A phenomenal time in my life. We had great times together. I miss it now....and I'm glad I'm still having those times even today."



Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA and The MMA Encyclopedia as well as Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. All quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted, in interviews conducted this week and in 2008 respectively.

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