Vitor Belfort will step into the cage for the final time at UFC 224. Meeting him for his final battle will be fellow Brazilian legend Lyoto Machida in a bout that will be celebrated in Rio.
The game is different today with a new fan base, but there are still a faithful few out there who remember Vitor Belfort at 19 years old and his blazing hands overwhelming established killer Wanderlei Silva two decades ago in 1998. Though he will not be taking his final bow at UFC 224, it’s no secret that his opponent Lyoto Machida is closer to the end of his career than the beginning as well. While they will meet in a competition, Saturday night will be a celebration of what the two men have accomplished in the sport of MMA.
Vitor Belfort’s story will go down as one of a pioneer and one of the first athletically gifted fighters to enter the sport with an impressive skill set on the feet and the ground. He has been a professional since 1996 and fought against three generations of fighters over the course of his career. He fought with the likes of Tank Abbot and Chuck Liddell and shared the cage with all-time greats such as Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. More recently, he even took on 25-year-old Kelvin Gastelum who will vie for a title shot in the night’s co-main event. On what he has already confirmed as his final night of competition, he will not have an easy outing with Lyoto Machida either.
While the story of his career inside the cage stands above many others, Belfort’s life away from competition was also prevalent. The night he won championship gold will forever be bittersweet for the fact that his sister was kidnapped just 22 days before the fight and to this day has never been found. More than a decade later, Belfort would be plagued with questions about his use for testosterone replacement therapy as his vaunted explosiveness left him seemingly overnight when fighters were no longer granted exemptions. But through every peak and valley of his career, he never failed to arrive prepared to deliver an exciting performance every time out.
In a cruel twist of irony, circumstances changed Belfort’s plans for his career finale even this year. He told the media during fight week in January that his planned bout with Uriah Hall would be the last of his career and that he had kept the announcement a secret so that it would not become a distraction. Hall fell dangerously ill during prior to weighing-in and the bout was canceled. While not as he originally planned, he now will have plenty of fanfare for his swan song inside the cage.
Opposite him will be a fighter once considered on the cutting edge of mixed martial arts, “The Dragon” Lyoto Machida. At a time when the UFC was growing at a phenomenal rate, Machida was considered the proverbial “next big thing.” He was undefeated and his movements were mind-boggling. He avoided his opponents with ease and returned fire with blistering accuracy, even winning the UFC title with seemingly little effort.
But while he arrived at the elite level as a complete fighter, the rest of the field also evolved and eventually caught up to him. As his level of opposition rose, Machida encountered formidable opponents who now had the luxury of studying “The Dragon” for several years. After starting his career 16-0, he has now failed to win more than two straight since 2010. Of course, there are plenty of caveats to the statistic. His losses often came against the best in the world in two weight classes including Jon Jones, Luke Rockhold and Yoel Romero.
In recent years, he has become a case study in regards to the USADA testing program. He lost 18 months of his career despite admitting he had taken trace amounts of a banned substance mistakenly. When he returned in October 2017 and was knocked out by Derek Brunson in the first round, it marked his third straight loss in as many years. At 39 years old, there was question of whether Machida’s time among the elite was simply over. He would return with a gritty five-round effort against Eryk Anders in February and will now face the unenviable task of taking out his countryman in their career finale.
Stylistically, the bout figures to favor Lyoto Machida in several categories. Belfort in recent years has been known for being explosive in the first few minutes before tiring very quickly. This figures to play into Machida’s counter-striking attack perfectly as Belfort will be looking to rush in early to unload his signature opening barrage.
For “The Dragon,” the key is to not avoid being a stationary target and pick apart Belfort over time. It’s expected that “The Phenom” will tire as the rounds go on which works to the advantage of Machida whose gas tank has been tested in several five round battles in the past. Most crucially, he will need to be very disciplined in the first several minutes as Belfort is expected to be more motivated than ever to get a finish in his final night in the cage.
Both men are expected to receive a strong ovation from the Brazilian crowd but Belfort is expected to receive favoritism in what he has stated is his career finale. For Machida, there is the stark reality that he has a long road back to title contention as he approaches 40 years old. He could very well put together another run, but in the event that he does not, there does not figure to be many nights like Saturday left where he is in a favorable match-up in front of his native fans. There are no sides to take on Saturday night, only an appreciation for two performers who deserve to be remembered inside the cage.