More than 13 years after their first encounter inside the Octagon, Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort are ready to put it all on the line at UFC 147 on June 23 in their native Brazil. Forget title implications and paydays—this fight is personal.
There was a time when Wanderlei Silva seethed at the thought of Vitor Belfort.
It was back in 1998 when “The Axe Murderer” first stepped foot inside the Octagon against “The Phenom.” Silva was 22 years old, sporting a record of five first-round beat-downs and a cut loss on the bare-knuckle Vale Tudo scene, a product of daily carnage at the now legendary Chute Boxe. Belfort was 21 years old, 6-1, and already a star in the UFC, having won the UFC 12 Heavyweight Tournament and knocking out beer-swilling bad boy Tank Abbott one fight later.
Silva and Belfort met in the Sao Paulo arena Ginasio da Portuguesa, site of UFC Ultimate Brazil (UFC 17.5). Organizers had crammed the teams into a single locker room, so Silva warmed up in the men’s restroom, hitting mitts while dodging puddles of urine. The fight was even less pleasant for him. You may have seen it—Silva stalking forward, Belfort inching back, “Big” John McCarthy in baggy ref threads. There are 36 seconds on the clock. Southpaw Belfort plants his back foot and lands a straight left that stuns Silva. Belfort chases Silva across the cage with a flurry of arrow-straight punches until they run out of canvas. It only takes 44 seconds.
The victory gave Belfort a springboard into then blossoming PRIDE, where he took on rising star Kazushi Sakuraba and lost the decision in a snoozer. Before being lured back to the UFC, Belfort fought four more times for the Japanese promotion, on three occasions sharing the locker room with the Axe Murderer he once railroaded in the Octagon. But Belfort’s career would waver. He stole the UFC 46 Light Heavyweight Title from Randy Couture on a technicality and gave it right back to him one fight later. People talked about the “old Vitor” more than the present one. Silva, meanwhile, went on to rule PRIDE’s middleweight (light-heavyweight) class for five years after smashing Sakuraba in a stunning display of violence to earn the title.
But as Wanderlei and any other fighter will tell you, losses are never forgotten, especially the blowouts—those bouts where the fight never really gets started, where all that sweat and sacrifice is reduced to a single blip of misfortune. Belfort was the first person to expose Silva under the lights, and for that, he would nag in Silva’s memory.
Every fighter will also tell you: No win streak lasts, and comebacks are the lifeblood of the fight game.
More than 13 years later, Silva and Belfort are two of Brazil’s biggest stars, at the forefront of a renaissance fed by a surge in UFC programming, including The Ultimate Fighter reality show that rescued MMA. What better choice than The Axe Murderer and The Phenom to coach the first Brazilian version of the program. For Silva, however, pitting a team of young Brazilian hopefuls against a separate squad led by Belfort was only part of the prize. The real reward waits at the end of the season when they square off in Brazil.
A rematch was on Silva’s bucket list.
“This is one fight I really, really want to do before I retire,” Silva said in January. “I’m so happy for a fight with this guy in Brazil.”
Less than a year ago, most would say that his wish was destined to go unfulfilled. Silva was retired—or should have been. After getting knocked out in 27 seconds by Chris Leben at UFC 132, UFC president Dana White said it was likely the end for the Brazilian. Since he’d migrated from the obsolete PRIDE, Silva had gone 2-4 and had twice been knocked out cold. Ironically, he found a reprieve when he filled in for an injured Belfort at UFC 139 and rearranged Cung Le’s nose.
So while the clock is still running, Wanderlei would like to find redemption—opposite his old nemesis.
Belfort would just as soon deny that opportunity if it weren’t for the massive exposure brought by TUF Brasil–the show has reportedly had sky-high ratings—and the prospect of earning his own reckoning after Anderson Silva’s front kick robbed him of his senses at UFC 126. Few options would suffice when facing an opponent who, legend or not, was a hair short of a pink slip in the not-too-distant past.
To put it another way, middleweight has been a place of refuge for Wanderlei. For Belfort, it’s been a place of rebirth. Setting aside his loss to the “The Spider,” Belfort hasn’t faltered since dropping from 205 pounds to 185 (with a couple of catchweight bouts thrown in for good measure). Wins over Matt Lindland, Rich Franklin, and Yoshihiro Akiyama have recalled the speed and explosiveness of his youth, and he seems to have found a mental balance with his wholehearted embrace of faith. If he hadn’t already hit the glass ceiling, he would be a perfect candidate for a title shot. He still might be, but another win over Wanderlei does little toward that end. This is about Brazilian pride.
Belfort arrives at UFC 147 just as he did at the Ginasio da Portuguesa arena in 1998—an odds-on favorite. Only the stakes are much higher in 2012.
Is the style matchup any different than before?
Silva, who’s noticeably slower than his early days, measures his aggression. He brilliantly threw off Cung Le by starting slow and exploding later. But he still likes to rile the crowd, and he’s never more than a few seconds away from a windmill of punches that are his trademark in competition. He frequently lets emotions dictate his attack, which, mostly, is all about out-toughing his opponent.
Belfort, meanwhile, is still as deadly as ever when it comes to finishing his opponents, but he’s more of a technician on his feet than before. That would come in handy against Silva, who has wilted to fi ghters who cut angles and fi red back on the counter. Silva would be wise to try and exploit Belfort’s historical weakness to wrestlers, but since takedowns are not exactly his specialty, it might suit him to use the cage to wear Belfort down. Conversely, Belfort might be well suited to put Silva on his back and control him en route to a decision. But Belfort’s best bet is to (again) touch Silva’s chin, which is no longer capable of sustaining the type of punishment of the past.
“If Silva keeps the old style, I’ll break him up again,” Belfort told Brazilian newspaper O Globo. “Wanderlei doesn’t have the chin to exchange punches with me anymore.”
Most of the time, that would be out of character for the God-loving fighter, if not for rising tensions between the coaches on the set of TUF: Brasil. At mid-season, Belfort has nearly swept Silva in team matchups, and old memories are resurfacing. After a heated postfight confrontation between Silva and Belfort, one cast member may have said it best: “It’s all because [Silva] has wanted revenge against Vitor since 1998. And he’s never gotten over it.”
Sure, Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort are going to fight at UFC 147. But they’re already fighting—at least through their 16 adopted fighters—on the all-Portuguese set of The Ultimate Fighter: Brasil. If there is any chance for either to get a bump in bragging rights before the real showdown, it’ll be in the suburbs of Sao Paulo, where eight featherweights and eight middleweights are split between the MMA icons to compete in a single-elimination tournament. There are no wild cards this season, no second chances, and, strangely, no shortage of awkward product placement.
Things haven’t gone well for Team Silva, whose all-star coaching staff includes Chute Boxe’s Rafael Cordero, Renato Sobral, and Fabricio Werdum. Down 5-1 in team matchups, Silva’s squad has been starched by Team Belfort, aided by Junior dos Santos, coach Luiz Carlos Dorea, and K-1 vet Francisco Filho. Fight picks have been all Belfort, and, boy, has he used that time in the spotlight, says his nemesis.
“I’m sick of his speeches,” Silva says. “I’ve had it up to here.”
Things reached a boiling point mid-season in the final featherweight quarterfinal fight, when Team Silva’s Rony Mariano Bezerra broke the arm of Team Belfort’s Anistavio Medeirosrony. Despite his first win on the show, Silva railed at Belfort for putting the longtime teammates together, saying they should’ve never fought. That’s a sideways jab at Belfort’s fight with former teammate, champ Anderson Silva. Belfort is just a “playboy” who cares not for the bonds forged on the mat, according to Wanderlei. But mainly, he’s a guy with a past win to flaunt.
Opposing coaches drag the past into the present on the reality show. That’s the point, in fact. As the competition heats up on the show, so does the rivalry between the coaches. And by the looks of it, Silva has a lot more to fuel his fi re at UFC 147.