Vitor Belfort has one fight left on his UFC contract, and The Phenom says he wants to fight it out.
After more than 20 years as one of MMA’s most recognizable and controversial faces, he’s earned that right, though the impression left by Belfort’s first-round TKO loss to Kelvin Gastelum at Saturday’s Fight Night 106 was that the end can’t come soon enough.
Things haven’t been the same for Belfort for a good while now.
His trademark hand speed and aggressive punching flurries flashed around the edges, but nearly all this fight’s three minutes, 52 seconds belonged to Gastelum. The 25-year-old upstart middleweight outmaneuvered, out-quicked and ultimately out-slugged the once-fearsome former light heavyweight champion en route to the victory.
For Belfort, it was his third loss in a row and fourth in five fights dating back to an 185-pound title clash against then-champion Chris Weidman at UFC 187 in September 2015. Though the sold-out crowd of an announced 14,069 in Fortaleza, Brazil, was squarely behind Belfort, it felt like something definitive passed between the younger fighter and the older one during their time together.
At the post-fight press conference, Belfort—who will turn 40 on April 1—confirmed that his next bout will likely be his last.
“It's time to end this chapter as a professional fighter,” he said, via MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz. “My body is not the same anymore for training. It’s too much pain. I did more than 14 surgeries. I left everything in the Octagon. I’m sad because I didn’t give the win to my fellow Brazilians, but it happens.”
Though he's a small middleweight who continually flirts with a return to the welterweight ranks, Gastelum wasn’t outsized or overmatched in any facet against Belfort. The pair of left hands he used to drop Belfort and set up a flurry of finishing strikes on the ground felt like a final verdict on the aging fighter’s future inside the Octagon.
Earlier in the week, Belfort had floated the idea that the UFC set up a legends division so older competitors could battle it out against each other as they eased toward retired life. However sincere the notion, that idea isn’t a particularly serious one, and now fans and analysts alike can read the writing on the wall for Belfort:
If Belfort chooses to walk away following his next fight, he’ll leave a complex legacy in a sport he seemed to by turns dominate and underachieve in while amassing a 25-14 overall record.
The version of him that won three straight fights via head kick knockout in 2013 during the heyday of the UFC’s testosterone replacement therapy era is now long gone. He had become one of the poster boys for the controversial hormone replacement therapy prior to its ouster in February 2014.
During that run, Belfort looked arguably as fearsome as he had when he first burst on the UFC scene as a pumped-up 19-year-old in 1997. After first the Nevada State Athletic Commission and then the UFC suddenly outlawed TRT, Belfort missed all of 2014 before returning for his current underwhelming stint.
All of Belfort’s losses since have come by first- or second-round TKO. His physical decline has been striking, and along with it, perhaps his own confidence and his ability to inject fear into the hearts of his opponents.
Still, this defeat to Gastelum seemed to draw a particularly important line.
Before this, all of Belfort’s losses since returning to middleweight from 205 pounds in 2008 had come to recognized championship-level competition. Gastelum might well wind up there at some point, but for now, he’s just a prospect.
Despite his defeating an obviously declining version of Belfort, this will be considered an important hurdle for him just three months after he also sprinted past Tim Kennedy in an 185-pound fight at UFC 206.
Though he called out Anderson Silva during his post-fight interview in the cage with UFC color commentator Brian Stann, it makes more sense now to start matching Gastelum with more relevant foes like the 26-year-old Robert Whittaker or the winner of Weidman’s upcoming fight with Gegard Mousasi at UFC 210.
For Belfort, the shift is just as noticeable in the opposite direction. Gastelum came into this pairing as a significant favorite, according to Odds Shark. Even though this fight was being contested in Brazil, where Belfort is still a draw, he was clearly there to act as a measuring stick for the younger fighter.
Juxtapose that with matchmakers’ treatment of 35-year-old Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and it feels doubly damning for Belfort’s prospects. Rua won the evening’s co-main event via third-round TKO in a far more competitive matchup against Gian Villante at light heavyweight.
Leading up to this fight at least, Belfort was either considered more relevant than Shogun—and therefore deserved a more meaningful matchup with Gastelum—or UFC brass had already realized Belfort’s time as a high-level contender was over.
Either way, it will be interesting and perhaps merciful to see what happens next for him. After losing to Gastelum, Belfort expressed interest in having his final bout in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro on June 3.
Who Belfort winds up fighting in that contest might tell us a lot on how he’s being viewed internally at the UFC as he makes his exit.
In spite of Gastelum’s post-fight call-out, it makes far more sense now to match Belfort up against someone like Silva in his final Octagon appearance. That pair met back when Silva was champion at UFC 126. The front kick KO Silva used to finish Belfort remains on every highlight reel of the fight company’s best knockouts.
Silva is coming off a controversial decision win against Derek Brunson at UFC 208. He also served a year-long suspension for failing a drug test following his win over Nick Diaz in early 2015. The 41-year-old and Belfort find themselves at similar ages and at similar stages in their careers. A rematch makes arguably more sense now than ever.
But Silva has also been linked to a potential future fight against the returning Georges St-Pierre after St-Pierre takes on Michael Bisping for the middleweight title.
If Silva is unavailable, perhaps the fight company could match Belfort against someone like Uriah Hall. The 32-year-old Hall has himself lost three fights in a row and would give Belfort the sort of stand-up-oriented stylistic matchup he’d want in his last professional clash.
In any case, this latest loss to Gastelum was the most obvious proof yet that Belfort has become a changed man in the twilight of his career.
The timing feels right for him to go, and perhaps his admission that his next fight will be his final one gives him the chance for a reasonably graceful exit.