Miracle Mile

In January 2004, Priscilla Belfort, the younger sister of MMA Superstar Vitor Belfort, went missing in Brazil. For three years following her disappearance, the family led a frantic nationwide hunt for the missing girl. In August 2007, a woman named Helaine Paive Da Silva confessed the following to Rio Police: She said that she and her accomplices, in desperate need of money to pay off a drug debt they owed to one of Brazil’s fierce street gangs, abducted Priscilla and planned to ransom her for the money they owed. Priscilla was kept in seclusion for roughly four months and moved from place to place. When the gang became frustrated by the lack of progress in obtaining the ransom money, they took Priscilla deep into the jungles surrounding the small shack where they were hiding. They made her sit down with her back against a tree and shot her three times in the chest and once in the head. Da Silva admitted that even if the ransom money had been paid, they still would have killed Priscilla because she had seen the faces of her kidnappers. Although Priscilla’s body was never found, the Rio police accepted Da Silva’s confession, arrested three of her accomplices, and closed the case.

 

LIVING THE DREAM

 

On the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and MGM Grand, on the end of the Strip, a thin bearded man in a straw hat and denim overalls plays bluegrass. Picking his banjo and shuffling, he hams it up for passersby. Next to him, a giant who is dressed as Darth Vader glares silently at the same crop of tourists. The hillbilly is performing for tips, but The Dark Lord, on the other hand, will only deign to have his picture taken for a flat fee of $5. People of all stripes mingle in between the behemoth hotels and casinos—tourists waiting to be fleeced, hardened gamblers who know the score, honeymooners in love, and hustlers passing out brochures for escort services all intermingle with families on vacation. All the various components of American society have been thrown together, mixed up, and poured out on the Strip: the baser part of the American Dream on display and bathed in flashing neon lights.

 

Off the Strip, the buildings get more run down, the people more grim, the cars more beaten, and the city gets real. Nevada’s been kicked in the teeth by the recession, and while the Strip still puts on a good face, the rest of Vegas shows some bruising. As I pull into the parking lot of Xtreme Couture, I notice that Randy’s gym still seems to be going strong, but there are more vacant buildings and empty lots in the vicinity than the last time I visited.

 

I’m here to meet a man who has been at the top levels of the sport as long as anybody in the MMA world. Vitor Belfort made his bones in the sport back in the mid to late 1990s, when Dana White still had hair and nobody had ever heard of Chuck Liddell, The Ultimate Fighter, or Zuffa. Belfort burst onto the scene in 1996 with a combination of skill, speed, and power that was unlike anything the sport had ever seen. In many ways, he was a precursor of the modern mixed martial artist, and in fact, one of the first athletes to be worthy of the title. In those days, the sport was still dominated by entertaining brawlers and fighters who sought victory through the mastery of an individual style. Vitor was one of the first fighters who combined world-class athleticism with a balanced skill set, which is conventional MMA wisdom today, but back in those days, Vitor and his fighting gifts were a revelation.

 

Vitor became known for destroying his opponents like a lightning bolt. It took the 19-year-old Vitor an average of 46 seconds to knock out the first four men he faced in the cage. Back in those days, Mike Tyson was making 50 million dollars a year to do little more than show up and snarl on cue, and many people thought Vitor was on course to be an MMA version of Tyson, not only interms of in-ring dominance, but also, if he kept it up, in terms of marketing and earning power. He was considered unconquerable. The only debate was whether anyone could even make it out of the first 90 seconds.

 

As often happens whenever an athlete is deemed unbeatable, someone comes along and proves otherwise. In Vitor’s case, that person was a 30-something ex-wrestling coach from Oregon State named Randy Couture. Oct. 15, 1997, at UFC 15, in what was supposed to be another easy blowout for Belfort, Couture introduced the MMA world to Greco-Roman wrestling, and he introduced Vitor to the deep end of the pool. Couture used clinches, a steady barrage of ugly, clubbing punches, and constant pressure to negate Vitor’s superior speed and explosiveness. It was a leap ahead in the development of the sport— “dirty boxing” had been born, and Vitor Belfort was on the wrong side of it. Describing the way it felt when he broke an opponent’s will in the cage, Couture once said, “It’s like feeling a twig snap.” In his fight with Vitor, the twig snapped at 8:14 as Vitor collapsed under the barrage, his aura of invincibility collapsing with him.

 

The genie was out of the bottle. Vitor earned the reputation as a front runner—someone who could win and win impressively as long as things were going his way but who would fold psychologically once his opponent offered meaningful resistance. Stories circulated of Vitor refusing to fight anyone except carefully screened opponents, of him being crippled pre fight by bouts of nervousness and panic, of his refusal to come out of his dressing room before fights, of having to be almost forced by his handlers into the cage. When he was on his game, he still could win in overwhelming fashion—like in his 47-second destruction of a primed Wanderlei Silva. However, every time he seemed to build a head of steam, he’d lose a high profile fight with a listless, safety first performance. Meanwhile, Vitor had become a huge crossover star in Brazil, marrying one of the country’s most beautiful TV actresses and even trying his hand at television acting. His interest and commitment to MMA seemed sporadic at best, and then in 2004 came the traumatic ordeal of his missing sister. Between 2004 and 2007, Vitor continued to fight, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. The fire and ferocity that had characterized his early fights was now a distant memory. Vitor lost five of seven bouts, and his career went into a nosedive. It was during this time of personal and professional crisis that Vitor began an outspoken religious conversion. He is still turning heads with his pre- and post-fight comments, attesting to his commitment as a born-again Christian. He is undefeated in his last five fights, two of which reminded people of the excitement and devastation he is capable of unleashing.

 

At Affliction: Day of Reckoning, he starched the highly-regarded Matt Lindland in 47 seconds, and at UFC 103, he overwhelmingly dominated former UFC Middleweight Champion Rich Franklin in three minutes of the first round. Is the old Vitor finally back? Supporters say that he has always had a unique set of athletic gifts and has tallied up some of the most impressive wins in the sport’s history. Skeptics will point to the fact that the man has never won a tough fight where he had to overcome any adversity.

 

“If Vitor thinks he can win, he’ll blow you away. If his head is in it, it’s always an easy fight,” Vitor’s former manager Jorge Guimaraes tells me. “But sometimes he has psychological issues, and it can go the other way.” Jorge is a king maker on the Brazilian fight scene and managed Vitor in the mid-2000s. “I mean, he’s a fighter and he’ll never quit, but he just sort of dials it back and goes into survival mode.” Jorge also mentions seeing Vitor’s infamous nerves firsthand. “The night before he fought Dan Henderson in Pride, he didn’t get any sleep the whole night. I was with him the whole time, and it was contagious man—he got ME nervous!” Jorge is usually as cool as cucumber, so I can imagine what it would take to get him jittery. “He had all the tools to beat Henderson, but he didn’t put it together,” he says, his voice betraying frustration even after all these years. Belfort lost an uninspired decision to Henderson who was then at the top of his game in the Pride organization in Japan. “Listen, I believe in Vitor, I like him very much. People used to tell me ‘Oh, you’re wasting your time with Vitor—he’s done,’ but I’ve ALWAYS believed in him. I think he’s the most talented fighter in the sport.”

 

I am surprised to hear Jorge admit this before he jumps in to correct himself, “him and Anderson, of course.” Today Jorge manages current UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, who will defend his title against Vitor in one of the biggest fights that the sport has seen in years.

 

THE PHENOM

 

Vitor is busy preparing for his title fight against Anderson at the gym of his old nemesis, Randy Couture. The fight has captured the imagination of fans. The two fighters match up well stylistically with the smooth counter striker Silva hoping to fend off the blitzkrieg attacks of Belfort. The word around Couture’s is that it may be an easier fight than many expect. Ray Sefo, who is balancing his established career as a highly-ranked kickboxer with a newer one as a sought-after striking coach, tells me that Anderson is overrated and has been the beneficiary—ala Chuck Liddell back in the day—of complimentary matchups. “Anderson isn’t that fast. He just seems fast because his experience level in striking is so far above everybody he’s fought.”

 

“If Demian could hit him…” I point out, referring to how BJJ stylist Demian Maia got frustrated with the wily Anderson in their match in Dubai at UFC 112 and was able to land some good punches once he rushed him. And Chael Sonnen caught him early with a south paw straight left, a punch that Vitor throws straighter, faster, and harder than any man in MMA. “That’s what I’m talking about,” says the huge Samoan, getting hyped up the way trainers do when they build up their fighters. “Anderson will never have seen anything like what Vitor can bring.”

 

I also speak with Shawn Tompkins, a man who will be in Vitor’s corner for the fight. I ask him if Vitor has the heart to win a tough fight. “Let’s say it’s going into the fifth round,” I ask Shawn, “and Vitor’s behind and needs a knockout. Does he have it in him to pull it out?” Tompkins thinks it’s a moot point. “Anderson’s a good bully fighter. He does well against guys who stand back and give him too much respect. Vitor’s going to be right in his face. The question isn’t whether Vitor will be there in the last five minutes of the fight, but whether Anderson will be thereafter the first three.”

 

When Vitor arrives at the gym, he marches straight past me to his conditioning coach and begins his session. He’s focused, standoffish, and diffident. He runs through an hour of conditioning, glancing at me out of the corner of his eye occasionally. Then he begins working with Sefo on striking combinations. They work on closing the distance between Vitor and his opponent behind short explosive three-punch combinations—the type Vitor has always employed to such devastating effect. After that comes an hour of grappling practice, where he drills a small portfolio of moves over and over and over, practicing the movements slowly and precisely.

 

Vitor’s father, Jose Belfort, a silver haired, noble gentleman, sits next to me as we watch his son train. “Ever since he was a kid, Vitor was a talented athlete—swimming, soccer, tennis. He always had lots of coordination.” Jose was a star athlete himself in his day, and was on the Brazilian National Volleyball Team in the 1960s. Vitor started in the martial arts when Jose took him to a judo class when he was just 9 years old. “I wanted him to learn discipline, confidence, balance, and character,” he intones proudly. He says Vitor took to the martial arts right off because it fit the young boy’s temperament. “He always saw himself as a protector,” Jose Belfort says of his son. “He wanted to be a cop. He always saw himself as helping the vulnerable, even as a little boy.”

 

Vitor’s natural athleticism and the discipline and drive inculcated into him by his father made him an athletic success in his youth. Vitor saw success as a BMX biker, a swimmer, and champion tennis player and soccer player. But by the time Vitor got into his teen years, the martial arts became his favorite. “When he was 15 years old, he was playing tennis and soccer, and he told me, ‘Tennis is a sport for rich people,’” says Jose, mimicking his son’s sneering dismissal of the pampered offspring of Rio aristocrats that Vitor was dominating on the courts.

 

Jose was initially skeptical of his son’s ambitions to be a fighter because, in that day, nobody really had a career at it. But once Vitor got in with the famous Carlson Gracie Team, the rest was history. “He’s always sought perfection, sought for a way to make it to the top of whatever he’s doing, so I helped him.” Jose says that he encouraged Vitor to train with anyone and everyone who could make him better—a decision Vitor took heat for in the early days from the clannish Brazilian fight gyms. “Back in those days, it was very tight and there were big rivalries between the different academies,” Jose explains. “I always used to say to Vitor, ‘Never get into that; always be open to learn new things. Always be open to training with different people and always look to be number one.’”

 

When Vitor started to succeed in the UFC, Carlson went so far as to offer to adopt Vitor and give him the cherished Gracie name. This did not sit well with Vitor’s father. “I called Carlson, who was a very good friend and said to him, ‘Carlson, I respect you as a Gracie and you are like a second father to Vitor, but while I am alive, his name will be Belfort and that name will start to shine very soon.’” The proud old man’s face shows the slightest hint of a flush as he relates the conversation. When I ask about his son’s famous nerves, he admits to them, saying it is because of the nerves that he doesn’t attend Vitor’s fights anymore. “His mind has to be in it for him to win. And I think if I am there at his fights, he hears my voice always in his head—‘win—win—win!’—and it becomes a distraction to him.”

 

As Vitor winds up his training, I ask Jose what he thinks Vitor would have ended up being if not a fighter. “Oh, a pastor,” he says immediately, and then after thinking about it for a second, he amends with a sly grin, “or a politician.”

 

LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE

 

After three hours of training and a shower, Vitor is in the mood for a steak, and soon I’m in my rental car following a small caravan that includes a new, black Mercedes and a giant Cadillac Escalade with a sign that says “BELFORT” on the back.

 

Vitor, his father, his friend David Frears (from the church he attends in Las Vegas), and Vitor’s personal assistant, Pedro, all sit at the table. Vitor is polite but stand offish and has the refined communication skills of a man used to celebrity.

 

I ask him about the famous breakup with his mentor Carlson Gracie all those years ago. “Carlson wanted to get paid, but he wasn’t teaching me. I was the first guy to break away from his team, and everybody was against me, calling me a traitor, but I told them, ‘You guys don’t understand because you don’t have anything to give to him yet [financially], but one day you will, and you’ll see why I’m doing this,’” he says as he looks around the table for support before continuing. “All the guys in the gym were, you know, ‘traitor this and traitor that,’ but you know what, after a couple of years, everybody struck out from Carlson just like I had been the first to do.”

 

Vitor’s attitude on training has been derided in the past as mercenary, but really it’s just pragmatic. A fighter’s instrument is his body and the skills he can pickup along the way. If he can increase his skills by training with anyone and everyone, then he should do it. He comments on the proliferation of fight teams in the sport. “In Vegas, a lot of people are opening gyms and putting their names on the gyms like Wanderlei, and it becomes all about them and their “team.” Fighting is about the individual, and they’re trying to become teams. But you can’t be a team unless you’re paid like a team—like the Lakers or the Phoenix Suns or Boston Celtics. They are teams because they’re paid to be a team and train together to win.”

 

“I train at Couture’s, TapouT, Throwdown, Shawn Yarborough, Shawn Tompkins, Ray Sefo—I was training karate in 2000,” he says. I’m at a moment in my life where I need to get better in every area possible, so I pick the people who are going to be really good. Sometimes I pick a guy, and it doesn’t work out, but I have an open mind and am always willing to learn.”

 

Sefo tells me that Vitor is a maniac in the gym, and, if anything, his trainers have to keep him from pushing too hard and overtraining. I remember what his father told me at the gym about always instilling intoVitor from a young age the drive to succeed and an open-minded willingness to learn. I ask him about why his father no longer attends his fights. He offers a different perspective than Jose. He leans his chair on its back legs and crosses his arms.

 

“It’s not good for my father to be at my fights. It’s not for me, it’s for him. I get in my zone, and I try to block out everything around me, and it can be difficult for people around me. I don’t talk to anyone, not because I don’t like you, it’s just that I’m in my zone. Sometime my friends are like ‘Oh, Vitor doesn’t like me.’ It’s not that I don’t like them. I’m just in my zone.” Soon after this, Jose and Pedro excuse themselves from the table.

 

Vitor is polite but seems bored by thetalk about fighting and training. He perks up when the conversation turns to his spiritual life. “Religion seems to be a big part of your life,” I mention.

 

“I’m not religious at all,” he surprises  me. “I’m the opposite; I’m relational,” he explains, carefully articulating the word “relational.” “If you’re religious, you follow men and what men tell you about things. I am relational because I have a relationship with the Bible.”

 

He says that, while he made mistakes in the past, his highest goal now is to live by how he interprets the Bible.

 

“We fight against our flesh, and it’s a real fight. It’s really a fight and you have to go to battle, man. It’s hard to battle against temptation because sometimes we cannot face it and we just have to run. You just have to be man enough to run.” “What does that mean?” I ask.

 

“It’s like in a fight—I don’t want to get punched to show everybody I can take a punch. You avoid it.” He dodges an imaginary punch at the table. “Same thing in life—some things are too strong to be resisted. You have to not be there. That’s it. I don’t negotiate.”

 

“This is a particularly difficult city to take that sort of attitude in,” I comment. “It is called Sin City.”

 

“Everywhere is Sin City, bro—everywhere—Brazil, Russia, America. Everywhere is Sin City.”

 

I ask him if he thinks things are getting better or worse in the world, and he says emphatically, “The human race is getting worse—more violent, greedier. I saw this video game that they’re allowing in the U.S. where you get points if you rape and kill someone. Imagine that! You see a rape, you score. You rob a bank, you score. What does that teach kids? Or like that football player who sent naked pictures and he’s saying that he’s so ashamed. Good! He should be ashamed.” This elicits nods of agreement from David. “You can’t be a role model and send naked pictures of yourself. You’re a hypocrite if you do that—a fake. That’s the worst thing I could ever be—a fake. I will never be fake.”

 

Vitor pulls out his cell phone and starts to quote from something someone Tweeted him.

 

“You cannot control what people sayand do, but you can choose to follow them or not. Follow Jesus.” He stops and turns, jarringly serious, as if I have offended him by not comprehending the significance of what he has told me. “Pay attention. Put this in your interview,” he commands sternly. He softens and reads again, very slowly, enunciating every word. “You cannot control what people say or do, but you can choose to follow them or not. Follow Jesus.” He stares at me and there is an uncomfortable pause.

 

“I got it,” I say, motioning with my head to the small digital voice recorder on the table.

 

As if to head off any questions that I might have about his checkered fighting career and any of the rumors that swirl about him, he volunteers, “The past is hard to talk about. Yesterday’s a canceled check, tomorrow is a promissory note, today is cash in hand. I can only talk about how I am now.” He punches the table with his finger. “I’ve made many mistakes in the past, have many regrets. But we learn, you know? We learn what we did wrong and what we did right, and we move on. That’s the beauty of life, you always move on.”

 

“The tragedy that happened with your sister,” I proceed carefully, “that’s the sort of thing that can either shake your faith or strengthen it.” He takes a moment to compose his thoughts, then continues thoughtfully. “Everything in life should bring you closer to God,” he says. “Tragedies happen, but then, so does lots of good stuff, too. The bottom line is that being strong in victory is just as important as being tough in times of tragedy.” He begins to talk quickly, leaning into the table like he’s sharing a secret.

 

“Everybody’s life is filled with all kinds of moments—happy moments, sad moments, painful moments, rejoicing. The problem is what you do with all those moments. That’s what makes you the person that you are. That’s my life, man. Right Now. That’s how I live life.” Vitor seems like a different person than I met at the gym. He has a natural charisma when he’s really interacting with you, and I find myself getting caught up in the conversation. It’s obvious to me that it’s extremely meaningful for him to get all this out, to tell people about the things he’s passionate about.

 

“Everything is important. Everything you do is important: brushing your teeth, when you watch your daughter, when you leave to go to your job, and it doesn’t matter what kind of job you do, that’s the most important thing in life—to be in the moment and do your best in that moment.”

 

“The preacher said the other day that when we die, we’ll all stand before God, and whatever talent we had in life, he’ll take it back, and he’ll ask what we did with it.” He pauses before continuing in a reverential whisper, “That’s a scary thought, bro. Don’t you think? A scary thought? Hey bro, everybody says I’m the best. I don’t consider myself the best. I’m not the best, but I’m trying my best.”

 

When the interview ends, which has lasted longer than any of us expected, we exit the restaurant and go back out onto the teeming sidewalk of the Miracle Mile Shops. Vitor throws his arm around my shoulder and points to a bar across the street. The façade has a giant 20-foot statue of a garish, impossibly buxom woman with two horns protruding from her forehead and bright red lipstick. She’s complete with pitchfork and a long, pointed tail, which swirls suggestively up her thigh. “Everywhere, bro,” he says motioning to the commotion around us. “What’s everywhere?” I ask.

 

“Preaching, bro. You just have to hear the message. His fierce good looks standout against the sea of mediocre-looking people milling around him. He motions with his arms. “This whole place is preaching to us right now.” He points to an arcade on our side of the street. “Over here it’s saying, ‘come in, play a game, have a good time,’ over at the casinos, it’s preaching, ‘come in and lose your money.’”He points to the giant statue across the street. “And look at that!” he says emphatically. “What does THAT preach?” “EMBRACE THE DEVIL!” he exclaims exasperated. Vitor begins to testify, his voice rising in a rhetorical pitch, and Ican see why his father said that he had it in him to be a preacher. “Preaching is everywhere. It’s going on around us all the time. You just have to listen for the message.” The crowd of people hurries around Vitor and his evangelical display, which is infectiously energetic, slightly unhinged, and completely captivating. He’s putting on a show for his friend David and me, but he also makes sure to carry his voice so that anybody else who might be listening will hear.

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