The age-old debate about when a fighter should hang up the gloves, and whether promotions should force the issue, has reared its head again with Vitor Belfort’s comeback announcement.
Have you heard the news? Vitor Belfort is planning a comeback, looking to return from retirement next year, and potentially sign with a promotion other than the UFC. This less than a year after he was kicked into retirement by Lyoto Machida at UFC 224.
That certainly didn’t last long.
When it comes to fighting and retirement talk, journalists walk a fine line. After all, there’s an element of personal choice when it comes to walking away from the fight game. Fighters are individuals, individuals have free will (no need for a philosophic debate here). They can choose when to hang ’em up. Putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and telling someone to retire is somewhat frowned up, though at times we do it, often with fighter safety in mind. At times, promotions do it, as with Dana White ushering Chuck Liddell into retirement. In hindsight, a wise decision.
So when Vitor Belfort announced his return to fighting, writing anything about it seemed almost tacky. Reporting on it seemed like promoting the idea that Belfort could or should return, despite there obviously being cause for concern. Yet it’s hard not to talk about any former champ coming back to action. Ken Shamrock. Chuck Liddell. And now Vitor Belfort.
Keep in mind none of those names are Georges St. Pierre, who was in his early 30s when he walked away and still well south of 40 when he made a triumphant return, capturing a second title. Belfort? He’s 41, and left the sport with a record of 1-3, 1NC in his last five fights. That no contest would be a loss, were it not for Kelvin Gastelum testing positive for marijuana. All of those losses came by knockout. The only win came against an equally long in the tooth Nate Marquardt.
Having worn UFC gold, this isn’t a case of Belfort having anything left to prove. No amount of glory in either RIZIN or Bellator or where ever ‘The Phenom’ lands will equal his past accomplishments. He wore light heavyweight gold in the UFC. Challenged for the middleweight and light heavyweight titles later in his career. Should he perform well outside the UFC (and one has to assume the UFC won’t welcome him back, after Dana White railing against Liddell vs. Ortiz 3), it will be passed off as the return of TRVitor, not Vitor Belfort.
It’s a no-win situation in terms of legacy, in other words. And while Belfort likely still has the desire to compete (or just wants another paycheck or two), there’s nothing noble or admirable about shambling toward oblivion, or CTE.
This isn’t Lyoto Machida, with an elusive style that has kept him competitive and in good health at a comparable age. Belfort’s style means he’s going to get hit, and that was already happening far too often towards the end of his career. Nearly two years ago, Belfort floated the idea of a legends league. But if Shamrock vs. Gracie 3 and Liddell vs. Ortiz 3 has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes, it’s better to let legends fade into myth. It’s a lot more fun to recall great fighters in their prime than to watch them take unnecessary damage.
So enough is enough. Belfort has his free will, and can sign where he chooses. Whether any promotion should encourage a return, however, is another matter.