Vitor Belfort truly believes the best is yet to come.
With the caliber of resume he carries and the legendary status he's already achieved, to think the latest—and possibly last—chapter of his career will be the definitive one seems a bit skewed. Nevertheless, words and optimism aside, the 36-year-old former champion is putting concrete validation to support that notion as his 2013 campaign has been beyond impressive.
"The Phenom's" year started out with fireworks as he knocked out perennially top-ranked middleweight Michael Bisping in the main event for UFC on FX 7. Where the former mulitdivisional title challenger has been heralded for his hand speed and knockout prowess delivered by his fists, it was a head kick that leveled the brash Brit in the second round of their tilt in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In the aftermath of his victory over "The Count," Belfort was eager to keep his momentum rolling and accepted a bout with former Strikeforce middleweight titleholder Luke Rockhold. The two men would square off in the main event of UFC on FX 8 in the organization's first visit to Jaragua, Brazil.
The bout would be the Santa Cruz native's first showing under the UFC banner, and the legend welcomed him to the Octagon in brutal fashion as he flushed Rockhold with a spinning heel kick midway through the opening frame to secure the victory. Another top-level middleweight stepped up to face the resurgent veteran, and another highly touted middleweight was dispatched in highlight-reel fashion as Belfort picked up his second consecutive victory over top competition in less than six months.
With the victory over Rockhold, Belfort once again found himself on the title radar.
Throughout his 18-year career, competing for titles has become somewhat of a second nature for the heavy-handed Brazilian. That said, with the 185-pound division becoming increasingly competitive over the past year, the road to a championship opportunity was far from clear-cut, even for a fighter who was arguably doing the best work out of the entire collective.
While a title shot wasn't there for the taking, and Chris Weidman dethroning long-reigning champion Anderson Silva at UFC 162 pushing the idea of Belfort fighting for the middleweight strap further out of the realm of possibility, he wasn't slowed or detoured in the slightest.
Belfort believes the best of what he has to give inside the cage is yet to come and the only way to get there is to continue moving forward. With the middleweight title tied up for the next several months, he decided to accept a bout with fellow legend and contemporary in the knockout trade Dan Henderson.
The two former champions will square off at Fight Night 32 in a light heavyweight bout this Saturday in Goiania, Brazil.
“I believe the best is yet to come," Belfort told Bleacher Report. "That’s how I live and that is my mindset. If you think your best is already in your past, then what is the motivation to move forward? That is how I look at things in every aspect of my life…especially in my fighting career. I approach things with a positive mentality and truly believe the best is yet to come. That’s how it is."
For Belfort, the challenges Henderson brings to the table are dangerous enough to require 100 percent of his focus, and any other topic outside of their rematch, simply isn't worth discussing. The former Pride two-divisional champion is as formidable as they come inside the cage, and the only thing Belfort can control is how he handles the adversity "Hendo" will present.
“I take everything one fight and one mission at a time. People always want to ask me about other things outside of the fight I have coming up and ask about things that could potentially happen in the future. People want to talk about something or situations that haven’t even come yet. I think it is disrespectful to talk about anything else than what is next, and what is next for me is a fight with one of the greatest legends of the sport. I’ve been preparing and smashing grapes for so long I’m very much looking forward to this fight."
“When this fight is over, we will talk about what is next," he added. "Now it is time to win the fight. When this fight is over, we go in and talk about all the business. But now, I cannot talk about what has not yet happened. You have to make that deposit in the bank. The past is a cancelled check, tomorrow is a promissory note and today is cash in hand. That’s about it. That’s how it works."
Belfort has spent nearly two decades competing at the highest level of a sport that barely existed when he first started out. Over that time he's experienced a roller-coaster journey filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, that have seen him on opposite ends of the spectrum of favor.
Where he was once heralded as the 19-year-old king of a growing sport, he's also experienced the cold shoulders of those he once garnered acclaim with. He's battled through a vivid mixture of personal tragedy and triumphs, as he's fought to keep his footing in a sport that threatened to pass him by on numerous occasions.
Nevertheless, the Team Blackzilians fighter is still standing and is perhaps doing so better than he ever has before. Where the large majority of his peers were forced into retirement at the hands, knees and elbows of the next wave's rising tide, Belfort has been the one pushing them back. For him to be holding the line at the forefront of the sport 18 years into his career, is an accomplishment he is extremely grateful for.
“Oh my God, man. You can't imagine how much I’ve been blessed?" Belfort said. "I thank God every day. I thank God for the opportunity to still be at the front of my sport after all these years. With as much mileage and experience my body has been through, people just don’t know. They only see the good parts. They get the popcorn ready and sit down in front of the TV. They see you getting your hands wrapped in the back and then see you fight, but they don't see everything that goes into you reaching that point.
"They think you are just taking a payday but they don’t see all the sacrifices that are made. They don’t know what my family and I have been through. God knows, and the people close to me know everything I've been through, but the fans have no idea. I thank God for being able to keep doing what I’m doing at the level I’m competing at. I’m ready, man. I’m ready to go out there and compete."
With his passion and fires of competition burning hotter than ever before, Belfort is prepared to pour everything he has into his quest to defeat Henderson on Saturday night. For a man who is as committed to his craft the way Belfort is, the main event tilt is his next opportunity to turn all the hard work and sacrifice into something special inside the Octagon.
After nearly two decades of proving his worth in the realm of hand-to-hand combat, Belfort believes there is still so much yet to give. That said, he finds no reason to speculate about title opportunities or the next great step until the task directly before him is completed.
That is the mindset Belfort has adapted.
That is how progress is made.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.