1998 is a long time ago. Brazil is a far way away.
It was there that the world first saw Vitor Belfort.
Sure it had met him before, as the force of nature who took over the heavyweight bracket at UFC 12 and destroyed all in his path before similarly demolishing Tank Abbott in under a minute at UFC 13, but the UFC’s first foray into Brazil was the first time the world truly saw him.
Blistering across the cage to pump piston rights and lefts into the unsuspecting dome of Wanderlei Silva—an eventual legend in his own right—Belfort let the world know that he was as real as it got.
It was grisly and fun in equal measure, and that meant a lot in 1998.
It was still very much about ultimate fighting then, with emphasis on the fighting. As related to the modern conception of mixed martial arts, the only thing mixed was the blood and sweat and the only art was the giant bald figurehead emblazoned on the canvas.
Few men emerged from that era to remain active two decades later. Belfort is one of them, and he’ll fight Nate Marquardt at UFC 212 on Saturday night in a bout that is to begin a swan song with the promotion. It's believed he has a fight remaining on his UFC deal, but he's said otherwise in the past and either way he may never see another winnable fight in front of his hometown fans in his career.
Most thought retirement was on the horizon until reports recently began to appear that Belfort would, in fact, not be retiring and instead had an eye on moving to Bellator, where he could more appropriately act his age, as it were.
In the MMA sense of the phrase, that means picking fights with other guys who’ve been around for a couple of decades, who are equally diminished but still every bit as interesting to fans focused on the names on a fight poster.
It’s about as close to a legend’s league as he’s going to come.
And in that neighboring promotion, one working so hard to be legitimate but still far enough from nipping UFC heels that they can book Royce Gracie or Ken Shamrock without batting an eye, Belfort will find his fellow legends.
Either of those names would look fantastic opposite him on a marquee, particularly for fans of the most deplorable elements of the sport.
Silva has migrated to Bellator. He'll be 41 years old this summer and hasn’t fought in four years after a host of drug and regulatory issues stalled his career, and would be intriguing countering Belfort one more time.
Chael Sonnen, another former Belfort nemesis who didn’t get the chance to consummate their feud with some face punching, will fight Silva later this month and would surely love the chance at another Brazilian star after that.
Even popular names that aren’t on their last legs like Rampage Jackson or Melvin Manhoef would probably get the blood pumping for most people interested enough to pay attention to Bellator in the first place.
They’re cheap thrills for sure, but they remain thrills nonetheless.
MMA is a different realm of the sporting world than most, where veterans lose their appeal long after they’ve lost their physical capacity. Whereas a team sport expects that the old will die out and the young will take over, MMA provides the opportunity for the young to do the killing in a more hands-on manner.
Yet there is generally still an appetite to see the old, and when matched appropriately, there isn’t great harm in it. Many of the past generation could still stand to make a paycheque, and if people are still willing to pay to see them do it, then everyone wins.
That’s where Belfort is at this stage: not good enough to compete with the best, but not so far gone that he can’t be of value outside the UFC.
Many of his contemporaries have already proved as much when it comes to a veteran’s worth. Many more will surely come behind him to keep proving it.
But for now we have his UFC swan song, for however many fights it lasts, and it’s service as a bridge to the cheap thrills he’ll find for himself and provide for others in Bellator.
For now, we have some old-fashioned grisly fun on our hands, just like in the old days.
It's quite fitting that it’s Belfort who’ll provide it.