When Dan Henderson retired last year after a “close but no cigar” performance against middleweight champion Michael Bisping, it left the UFC with just a single active fighter from its Pioneer Era: Vitor Belfort. At UFC 212 later this evening, should Belfort call it a career (or even if he doesn’t), it will truly be the passing of an era.
The whole “Pioneer Era” terminology was brought about when the UFC restructured its Hall of Fame a few years ago. It split the company’s history into the Pioneer Era (for fighters who debuted prior to UFC 28/Nov. 17, 2000) and the Modern Era (everyone who debuted after that point). As crazy as it is to think of it, Belfort made his promotional debut all the way back at UFC 12, in February 1997, following his pro debut four months earlier. “The Phenom” won the UFC 12 tournament that night, and would go on to win the light heavyweight championship, and challenge for both the light heavyweight and middleweight championships later in his career.
To put all this in perspective, consider the other active “legends” of the sport. B.J. Penn got his start at UFC 31 in 2001. Frank Mir joined the promotion at UFC 34 that same year, with just two pro fights to his name. Anderson Silva? While he has been fighting almost as long as Belfort (he made his pro debut in June of 1997), he didn’t make his way to the UFC until 2006.
In terms of UFC history, Anderson Silva is legend of the modern area. So too is the returning Georges St. Pierre. Shogun Rua? Came to the UFC in 2007. Little Nog? 2009.
That’s not to discredit the work many of these fighters did prior to joining the UFC. Yet for the promotion as it stands today, Belfort is the last link to a bygone era. Among the pioneers, only “The Phenom” is left, and should his Legends League idea fall through, it’s likely that we’ll be seeing him tonight for the last time.
The UFC has wisely paired him up against another longtime veteran of the sport for what is likely Belfort’s final walk to the octagon: Nate Marquardt. Marquardt, with over fifty pro fights to his name, joined the UFC back in 2005, but has been fighting since 1999. A former Strikeforce champion and UFC title challenger, Marquardt is exactly the type of fighter who Belfort should be paired up with at this point in his career. The type of fighter that would be at home in Belfort’s “Legends League.”
Yet lets leave that all to the side for now. If this is to be a look back at the career of Vitor Belfort, lets focus on that, and not the maybes. We might scoff at Sage Northcutt and other “kids” coming into the promotion today, but lets not forget that it was 19 year old Belfort that won UFC 12 back in 1997. Seven years later, he would win light heavyweight gold against Randy Couture at UFC 46, only to lose the belt back to the American in a rematch later that year at UFC 49.
He fought the best of the best: Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Sakuraba, Tito Ortiz, Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson. He came and went from the promotion twice, coming back for good in 2009. His pace slowed, but his highlights didn’t, right up until his most recent stretch. He continued to fight at a top level, challenging for the middleweight title twice (against Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman) and the light heavyweight title once (against Jon Jones) during this, his final run with the promotion.
It’s only now, in his forties, that Belfort has slowed, but he has faced a murderer’s row of competition in Jacare Souza, Gegard Mousasi, and Kelvin Gastelum.
Yes, there were the scandals, with the entire TRT issue pretty much blowing up because of Vitor Belfort. Not to mention the 4-hydroxytestosterone suspension handed down after Pride 32. Yet in a career as long and storied as Belfort’s, in an era that is about to be put to rest, those indiscretions seem to mean less and less. The UFC has USADA now, so everything is hunky-dory, right?
Again, that’s a topic for another day. Point being, it’s easy to paint Belfort as the villainous face of the TRT era, but that oversimplifies the entire issue. And it doesn’t eliminate the man’s legacy, merely puts an asterisk next to some of it (the likes of Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping, mind you, likely wouldn’t agree).
Still, today’s matter is this: an old Lion is heading out into the field for the last time at UFC 212. If it really is his last fight (and lets be honest, the fight game has been proven awfully hard to walk away from, so there’s certainly a chance Belfort continues), it’s worth watching to see the end of an era. Even if it’s not his last fight, the old era is gone regardless, as it’s unlikely Belfort will do anything more than a legend’s tour at this point. Title runs and divisional relevance are gone, but UFC 212 has a chance to be something special; one last moment of glory for the old lion.