On the night Vitor Belfort first crossed the threshold into the Octagon, Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” was closing out its lengthy run atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, replaced a couple weeks later by a little bit of bubble gum pop by some newcomers from England going on about Girl Power.
Almost 20 years later, Braxton is still making music, but has faded from the spotlight, while the Spice Girls blew up, broke up, got back together and then called it quits for good.
Yet nearly two decades after Belfort burst on to the scene at UFC 12 in Dothan, Alabama, winning the night’s heavyweight tournament with a pair of electric performances against Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo, “The Phenom” will once again make that walk to the Octagon on Saturday night, squaring off with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in the co-main event of UFC 198, where the winner could very well earn themselves a title shot later this year.
While there have been peaks and valleys between those first two fights in the Octagon and the one on deck this weekend in Curitiba, Brazil, Belfort has endured and found a way to constantly remain in the title conversation deep into his second decade as an elite mixed martial artist.
“It’s a gift,” the 39-year-old Brazilian icon said when asked what it means to still be at the top of the sport at this stage of his career. “It’s a great thing to be relevant – not just inside the cage, but outside the cage. I’m very excited and I’m very thankful.”
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This weekend, Belfort is one of more than a half-dozen Brazilian MMA superstars scheduled to thrill the crowd of more than 40,000 people at Arena da Baixada as part of UFC 198. Fighting alongside the likes of Fabricio Werdum, Rogerio Nogueira and Demian Maia – and fighting against “Jacare” – this fight card is a celebration of the past, present and future of this sport in the host nation.
Belfort’s inclusion is fitting, as he is the only one who transcends those first two eras, and even though he’s at an age where most athletes have started to reach the twilight of their careers or hung up their four-ounce gloves for good, the optimistic and philosophical middleweight contender has no intention of slowing down any time soon.
“There is a way of being satisfied in whatever you do and to be happy with what you have in front of you,” began Belfort, who returned to the win column with a first-round knockout victory over Dan Henderson back in November after an unsuccessful bid to claim the middleweight title at UFC 187. “I believe that the best days of every human being are ahead of them, not behind them. And every time I have a chance to make a reflection about what I did in my career, I’m always looking to learn – to learn from something that I did that will help me in the future because a guy that lives in the past is like a museum – he’s always focused on how he was and all his regrets.
“I’m the type of guy that is always looking forward. I’m a hope guy. I’m always looking forward to my destination and the journey. I’m very content with where I am, where I was and where we’re about to go.”
That hopeful disposition and long view on things isn’t something new for Belfort – it has been his way of looking at the world for the entirety of his career.
Back when he was getting started and mixed martial arts was still in its infancy, the Carlson Gracie protégé told people that the new sport was going to become something bigger and that one day, he would compete before raucous crowds inside packed soccer stadiums.
Now, 36 fights and nearly 20 years after he started, Belfort will do just that on Saturday night at UFC 198.
“I think it’s a reward; I’m reaping something that I sowed a long time ago,” he said of being included on this weekend’s momentous event in his home country. “They used to call me a dreamer. I used to say that with my sport, ‘one day I’m going to be fighting in a soccer stadium’ and they said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re a dreamer.’ But here I am, making people believe that being a dreamer is the way to be.
“That’s why it’s not a surprise for me; I believed this was going to happen, so I’m very happy.”