For years MMA fans around the globe waited for the return of a legendary, anthropomorphized demolition derby known only as "the old Vitor" Belfort. This mythical version of the baby-faced Brazilian fighter, the one who demolished David "Tank" Abbott and made the fearsome Wanderlei Silva look like he was moving in slow motion, was no mere man. He was a symbol, not of a particular style or method, but of an era, of a time when the sport was new and men weren't afraid to rock both a mullet and some fashionably ripped blue jeans.
That Vitor Belfort is not the same man who will fight Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday on Fox Sports 1. The "old Vitor" was a glimpse of the future, a two-fisted wrecking machine deadly enough that even some members of the famed Gracie family wanted nothing more than to be close to him, even offering the family name if that's what it took to extend their legend into the next century.
Amazingly, that version of Belfort defied all logic and every preconceived notion of how aging works in athletics to make another run at glory in his 30s. With Belfort powered by the then-legal alchemy known as testosterone replacement therapy, only the otherworldly Anderson Silva and the unstoppable Jon Jones managed to prevent another UFC title reign. Every mere mortal in his path fell to either punch, kick or submission in one of the greatest multiyear runs in the sport's history.
Even that return to form, the one that occurred before the Nevada Athletic Commission banned the use of TRT in 2014, is more than three years in the rear-view mirror. Glancing back at recent history reveals only red—three of his last four fights have been knockout losses, the only body hitting the floor Belfort's own. The new version of the "old Vitor" is long gone. In his place stands a Belfort who is merely old, a 39-year-old man whose bulging biceps have been replaced by the ultimate dad bod.
Does Belfort, ancient overnight, stand a chance against Gastelum, a fighter who might have given him a challenge on even his best day? Or has Father Time finally tracked him down after years of searching in vain?
Bleacher Report senior writer Jonathan Snowden found the perfect expert to help tackle this query. Yves Edwards, a lightweight stalwart from Belfort's generation who retired in 2014 after 66 career fights to become a Fox Sports analyst, knows what it feels like to stand atop the mountain only for your body to betray you. Together they'll answer the only question that matters—can Belfort outduel time itself en route to one final championship run?
Jonathan Snowden: Yves, I don't want to say you are old, because you're no doubt still plenty young enough to spin kick me in my big, stupid face. I'll simply say this—you and Vitor Belfort walked the same path at the same time, transitioning from student to master.
You both spent more than a decade in the sport and have stood across the cage from opponents who were literal children when you first launched your careers. And, ultimately, you both met roadblocks toward the end of your UFC runs.
What happens when you're body stops doing what you tell it to do. Can Belfort be the same fighter he was at 30 again? And, if the answer is no, will he be the last to know? Is the fighter always last to know when it's time to hang up the gloves?
Yves Edwards: We'll get to see how much of the 30-year-old Vitor is still there. The miles add up, man. There are things you were once able to do, that you still believe you're able to do because you still feel the same way physically on your best days. But you're really not the same. The fighter doesn't always recognize it until it's too late.
I didn't recognize I wasn't the same physically until I was getting off the mat after being hit by Yancy Medeiros. Going back to look at it, that's a punch I would have avoided or eaten like a sandwich when I was in my prime five or 10 years ago.
I recognized in that fight that something was different. But I still felt good. I felt that I was just as fast at the end of my career as I'd ever been. That's the saddest part. Even thinking about it makes me sad. So I went out there and did it again, but I just couldn't take the damage that I had taken in the past anymore. And that's one of the first things to go—your chin.
I wasn't a guy who'd taken a lot of damage, especially early in my career. You can look at my pre-fight and post-fight pictures from my days in the UFC. I went in beautiful and came out just as gorgeous. But in some of those latter fights, I took some shots I would have avoided in the past—and there is a limit to the number of punches you can take.
Once you reach that limit, then it's "take a number, have a seat." That limit is going to be different for everyone. Some people will be able to take 15,000 punches. For another guy, it might be 22,000. I don't know if Vitor has reached his limit. We'll see Saturday night.
Snowden: In stick-and-ball sports there's a concept known as "veteran presence." It's what allows, for example, a linebacker to buy an extra couple of years on the football field by knowing exactly where to be on every play and developing a sixth sense that allows his mind to make up for any physical shortcomings.
There's no doubt in my mind that fighters—especially those who end up having long careers like you did, the kind of career that spans the decades and multiple generations—get smarter as they age. Too often, in fact, they tend to figure things out just as their bodies start to feel the wear of years in the gym.
Can savvy save Belfort and get him out of the situations his declining physical tools help create?
Edwards: It's tricky to rely on savvy for a guy like Vitor, because he's only fighting the best fighters in the world and they know a lot of tricks too. But when you're fighting a guy much younger than you are, you can make up for a lot of physical shortcomings with knowledge. You learn to recognize things before younger fighters will.
When you've had a lot of fights, you've seen these things before. You have a vision or an inclination, an idea of where things are headed. You can tell by the way a guy moves what he's going to do, how he's going to react when you do something to him. There's a slight forewarning—so even if you're a little slower than you used to be, you can do something about it. That comes with experience. And Vitor has a lot of that.
He's been in there with the best guys on the planet for 20 years. I wouldn't be surprised if he's able to take advantage of that experience. If you're a young guy like Kelvin Gastelum, you should stick to the fundamentals in a fight like this. There are no tricks there, and the fundamentals never change. That helps eliminate some of Vitor's experience edge.
Snowden: Knockouts tend to breed. This is science, of course. Physiologically we know that a concussion makes subsequent head injuries more likely and, over the time, a fighter's chin takes a beating that it can't ever recover from. An older fighter like Belfort, one who has seen some things in the gym and in the cage, eventually reaches a point where his chin just can't withstand the rigors required to compete in this sport.
How does losing something you once counted on always being there impact a fighter psychologically? I've never lived through it, because it turns out pounding away at a keyboard isn't all that dangerous. Is it hard to really get in there and give your all when you know, even if it's just in the form of lingering doubt, that you might not walk away from even a single clean shot?
Edwards: You can't let that stuff linger in your mind. If you do, you're going to be hesitant and you won't be able to take advantages of the opportunities that present themselves. I always used to say "when you step into the cage, you aren't thinking about whether you left the iron on." You're only concerned about the guy in front of you, and you can't be worried about anything else.
Getting into the cage, at least for me, was always nerve-racking enough. When you're in the Octagon, you have to be in the moment and solely in the moment. You've got to be right there, right now.
A fighter, especially once they reach the level of fighting in the UFC, has to be completely focused on what's happening. It's what you've been drilling for. All the possibilities, everything that can possibly happen, you've prepared for it. If you stay in those moments, whatever they are, you can handle them and be successful.
You think about having been knocked out beforehand. It is something a fighter needs to be aware of. Vitor may think about it all week before the fight. But as the time to fight approaches, it's going to be less and less on his mind. By the time he steps in the Octagon, he can't think about it at all. He's got to be ready to perform. If he is thinking about it, he's going to get hit with a shot that puts him down. Then it will be up to him and his wife to think about what he wants to do next.
Snowden: You started your career in 1997 against someone named Todd Justice, just one year after Belfort burst onto the scene in the UFC. Putting aside the fact that there's no way a real person could possibly be named "Todd Justice," your generation has been on quite a journey.
When you started, there were still bareknuckle fights. State athletic commissions wanted no part in regulating the sport, and much of the best talent found itself in Japan. You've seen the rise and fall of the Pride Fighting Championships. You've watched the UFC introduce the sport in America and then nearly disappear in a cloud of lawsuits, angry politicians and cable executives.
Does it matter that Belfort comes from a time when UFC fighters rode the bus from the airport to the hotel, before the world "billions" was even a glimmer in someone's mind? Is there something about being an old-school fighter that will give the old man even the slightest advantage over a fighter in his prime Saturday night?
Edwards: Todd Justice was a real name by the way. And when we started, Todd Justice, Vitor and myself, there was no money in MMA. We did it for the love of the competition. It was a puzzle to solve, a challenge in front of me that I had to figure it out. And if I did, the pleasure, enjoyment and excitement, the satisfaction with yourself made it all worth it.
Remember when you were a kid, when you would hang out with your friends and argue about who was faster? And then you'd actually race to prove it? Winning those races is what winning a fight is like, only magnified a million fold.
You put in the work. You did this. Nobody else did this for you. You appreciate all the help you received, but you have to go out there alone and do it. There's nothing like it.
I think it's good to not only know the sports history, but to have been a part of it. Guys like Vitor and I fought with no gloves on in no-holds barred matches. We fought under different rules. We've had every experience there is to be had in this fight game. It's all about experience. Vitor has experienced everything this sport has to offer, both good and bad.
We had different experiences than the new generation of fighters. And there are fighters who are just there today because they have an athletic talent and it's a way to be cool and make money. But for most of the fighters who move up the rankings, for all of the fighters who win championships, they are fighters.
It's who they are. There's no other way to explain it. They're the person who is always going to push through and find a way. And if they can't, they're willing to die in the attempt. Vitor is that kind of fighter. So is Kelvin Gastelum. That's what makes this fight so interesting on Saturday night.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's senior combat sports writer. Yves Edwards covers the UFC for Fox Sports 1 and will be in the studio Saturday night for Belfort vs. Gastelum on Fox Sports 1.