Here’s a loaded statement for you: Vitor Belfort is back.
For a third consecutive fight, Belfort appeared to have recaptured the speed and power of his 19-year-old self on Saturday night, blitzing Dan Henderson with strikes en route to a first-round stoppage in the main event of UFC Fight Night 32.
In doing so, he became the first man in Henderson’s 40-fight career to finish the former Pride middleweight champion via KO. It was Belfort’s third straight win and his third consecutive head-kick knockout—each one seemingly more impressive than the last—and in the aftermath there has been a lot of talk about the “new Vitor.”
The weird thing about that is this new Vitor looks an awful lot like the old, old Vitor—the knockout artist who enthralled the MMA world for a short time during the late 1990s.
This weekend he made it look easy again, lifting an advancing Henderson off his feet with a left hook at one minute and two seconds into the first round of their fight in Goiania, Brazil. He followed with a barrage of punches on the ground that, in both sheer numbers and savagery, recalled "The Phenom’s" early days in the UFC. Somehow, Henderson battled to his feet, but in doing so he walked into the kick that put him down for good.
Under normal circumstances, Belfort’s recent career resurgence would be cause for celebration. Since 2006, he’s gone 10-2, with his only losses coming in title fights against Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. His short and sweet performance on Saturday netted him a $50,000 Knockout of the Night bonus and prompted UFC president Dana White to say that he can likely no longer be denied another shot at the middleweight title.
Unfortunately, due to his widely publicized association with testosterone replacement therapy, fans just can’t give him their unconditional love and support. The fighter and his promoters continue to assert that everything is on the up-and-up with his hormone replacement therapy—for which he has a legal therapeutic use exemption when he fights in Brazil—but at this point, you can’t blame observers if they don’t know what to believe.
Frankly, we’re not even sure if we should believe our eyes.
A 36-year-old veteran who suddenly looks like a teenager again? That’s going to raise some alarms. If it doesn’t at least make you curious, then you haven’t been paying attention to sports during the last, say, 20 years.
Certainly TRT is doing something for Belfort, or else he wouldn’t be using it. Exactly what or how much it’s enhancing his training, abilities and fight-night performances, we may never know. That alone is cause for concern, especially if he’s on the verge of another chance to become the standard bearer for the UFC middleweight division.
As long as he continues to use TRT, it will continue to be the defining topic of his career. Like all fighters on hormone therapy, he’ll be caught in a strange Catch-22 wherein he has to convince fans and media how badly he needs it while simultaneously denying that it actually helps him.
Fans will always have to wonder if he’s cheating, and that’s a shame, considering the unbelievable upswing he’s crafted for himself during 2013. It would be nice if we could just relax and enjoy it, but unfortunately we can’t.
Instead we have to worry about things like where he fights, how his previous drug use may or may not have contributed to his current “condition” and whether or not there is even such a thing as “low testosterone.”
Counting the Henderson fight, all three of Belfort’s recent knockouts have taken place in Brazil. The UFC contends this is because its TV broadcast partners in that country want him there for the ratings. Critics say it’s because Belfort wouldn’t get licensed to fight in Nevada due to a previous positive steroid test in 2006.
If he is indeed up next for a title shot and that fight somehow does not happen in Las Vegas, it's going to give doubters even more reason to be suspicious.
In the end, though, most MMA fans don’t really care where Belfort fights. They just want to know he’s doing it clean.