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It appears Vitor Belfort’s storied Ultimate Fighting Championship career finally came to an end at UFC 224 on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. It’s hard to imagine the sport without him given what a staple he has been for such a long period of time. He was a star from his first UFC appearance, so he has been a heavily scrutinized figure for over 20 years now. When he made his UFC debut, 61-year-old hall of famer Paul Molitor was still playing baseball. John Elway still had the rep of a great player who couldn’t win the big one. Belfort’s pro MMA debut came before Kobe Bryant’s NBA debut. Gerald Ford was still President. OK, the last one isn’t true. The point: Belfort has been around forever.
More than just longevity, Belfort was a noteworthy figure. His looks and personality made him a television star in Brazil. His electric hand speed made him a fighter that promoters built around time and again. The UFC was planning to build the company around Belfort and Mark Coleman before Belfort ran into a less heralded wrestler by the name of Randy Couture. His knockout of Wanderlei Silva was for years arguably the top highlight-reel finish in the sport, given its explosiveness and the run Silva went on after that fight. His fight with Anderson Silva is probably the most important fight in the development of the popularity of UFC in Brazil, a night in Las Vegas where it felt like Brazilian reporters outnumbered American reporters.
The retirement -- assuming Belfort doesn’t end up in Bellator MMA -- of such a long-tenured and accomplished athlete is naturally going to come with fanfare. The crowd in Brazil gave Belfort a warm reception as he flashed his charismatic smile one last time in the Octagon. It was a nice sendoff for a generally well-liked competitor. However, it also masked a less pleasant reality about Belfort’s career: For better or worse, no fighter in MMA history is more associated with the subject of performance-enhancing drugs.
It’s fair to make the argument that this shouldn’t be the case. After all, other fighters have failed more drug tests. The problem for Belfort beyond the drug test failure he did have and the therapeutic use exemption that raised so many flags that it basically ruined the use of TUE exceptions for everyone else is that the ups and downs of his career seemed so tied to his physique. After his initial rise in the sport, his career hit the skids. He would beat no-hope opponents like Kazuo Takahashi and Antony Rea, but he would lose to every high-quality fighter he took on for basically a half decade. Belfort looked like a spent force. Then came his early- to mid-30s surge.
All of a sudden, Belfort was knocking out high-quality opponents left and right again. However, the even bigger development was, well, Belfort’s bigness. Belfort was performing at a higher level at the same time he was exploding in musculature. It was hard not to connect the dots, and pretty much every other fighter in his division did exactly that. There have been whispers about certain fighters over the years, but Belfort was discussed loudly and openly by a culture that usually has the I’ll-beat-you-no-matter-what-you’re-on mentality.
The truth is that MMA fans for the most part have never cared that much about performance-enhancing drugs. Among bigger fans, Pride Fighting Championships still represents a glory period, and that was the Wild, Wild West. Many fighters over the years have failed drug tests only to return to cheers. The UFC played into this by downplaying news of failures, but even after the more rigorous drug testing system was implemented, failures just weren’t the scarlet letter they were in other sports built more around teams and statistics. If fans feel like basically everybody is trying to get every advantage they can, there’s at least a level playing field.
That level playing field is precisely where Belfort’s career becomes so problematic. It’s just so easy to tie his periods of success to when he was the most ripped fighter in the sport and his periods of failure to when he wasn’t. It’s not the perception that he cheated but the perception that his cheating materially affected his resume relative to his peers. That’s why a lot of baseball fans were so livid about the rise of steroids in that sport. Those players weren’t just using steroids against peers who were also using steroids. Those players were cheating against icons like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, who clearly weren’t using steroids. The key issue is one of fairness.
With MMA still evolving, it’s very hard to know which fighters of the past 20 years will loom largest 20 years from now. Perhaps Belfort will stand out most for his blazing hands and preponderance of high-profile fights. Those certainly weren’t minor parts of his legacy. Unfortunately for Belfort, my bet is that questions about the reasons for the unique trajectory of his career will always loom large.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.