Belfort and the shelf life of a 'Phenom'

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. -- Vitor Belfort is the longest-tenured UFC fighter, an ante-Zuffaian heirloom who was Jon Jones long before there was a Jon Jones. If he’s distinguished, it’s because he’s learned to adapt within the meanest landscape in sports.

Now 35, he’s facing the Jon Jones of today -- the Jon Jones. Jones, the invulnerable. Jones, the colossus of the light heavyweight division, a division Belfort hasn’t fought in since 2007. It’s a legit old-meets-new with a sense of “martyrdom” underwriting it all. To go by the specs, Jones -- at 25 years old -- is the new “phenom.” Belfort, in his twilight, is the new “unenviable.”

Welcome to Toronto!

By now, it’s past the point of marveling at how UFC 152 came together through wild controversy and swerving circumstances. We saw UFC 151 go belly up; the Jones-Belfort main event is the consolation.

But Belfort makes his headlong clash into Jones seem like it’s always been in the cards. If you know anything about him, you know that when things happen by chance -- no matter the situation or how clumsily it falls into existence -- Belfort senses the divine hand in play. As a man of faith, his is always a macro view. He’s winking at the cosmos, with a secret he’ll happily let you in on.

And that is this: There is orchestration at work far greater than Jones versus Belfort. Anything can happen, Belfort reminds us, with faith and belief (and more immediately, a timely left hand). Remember when he was the "Big Thing" at 19 years old, and Randy Couture knocked him down to size at UFC 15 all those years ago?

These things are funny. Now the shoe’s on the other foot.

“I think the toughest fight is always the fight that is next,” he told ESPN.com. “Everyone has a different style, different body type -- every fight is hard. Nothing’s easy. In this sport, you don’t have easy things. You just have to enjoy the process and enjoy the journey. I don’t look at an opponent thinking, oh, my god. ... I look to the opponent as a chance. As a prize. Here’s my prize. I have to hunt that prize. But you have to enjoy the process.”

Belfort’s process is never dull, and the chances he takes, he rarely regrets. He’s currently training in southern Florida with a star-studded cast of sparring partners who have come to be known as the Blackzilians. What began as an orphanage for wayward fighters has become a who’s who of expatriates, former champions and promising upstarts. Belfort arrived in August.

And filling in the Delray Beach gym around him is a who's who of talent -- everyone from Eddie Alvarez and Gesias Cavalcante to Melvin Guillard and Matt Mitrione; from Thiago Silva and Michael Johnson to Tyrone Spong. Some of his training partners are guys he previously went to war against in the cage. There’s Anthony Johnson, the after-picture of a one-time welterweight who lost to Belfort earlier this year, and Alistair Overeem, a hulk who looks nothing like the man who defeated Belfort at the Pride middleweight grand prix back in the day.

But Belfort’s main coach for this camp is the only one with an insider’s track to Jones, and that’s Rashad Evans. Evans is readying Belfort to do what has been so far impossible, and that’s pass through an immovable object ... that’s to get inside an 84-inch reach and try to lower the boom ... that’s to prove a man vincible who has heretofore been flawless. Belfort’s job, in a roundabout way, is to rearrange our perception about what can and can’t be done. That’s what’s ultimately at stake when it comes to one-sided matchmaking.

Beating Jones is something Evans himself could not do.

“I’m training with high-level guys, and we’re helping each other,” Belfort says. “Rashad’s been so important for me -- he has so much knowledge, so much experience. It’s so good to look into somebody’s eye, and you really trust that person and you bind with that person. There are amazing guys here helping me every day, different body types, guys who look you in the eyes.

“If you want to go to a jungle and you want to hang with the lions, you cannot be with the zebras and hyenas, you’ve got to go in the midst of the lions. So that’s what I did.”

No, Belfort is not rattling off "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" analogies just to produce a strong sound bite; he genuinely believes he is the Jones antidote. Jones is the latest obstacle in Belfort’s journey, a journey that can’t be fairly judged by simple wins and losses.

It began when he and Carlson Gracie came to the United States when he was 16 years old, and faith was the only game in town.

“He taught me so many things,” Belfort says of the late Gracie. “I brought him here. We motivated each other. He believed in me; I believed in him. So we made history, and we wrote our names on history, and nobody can erase it.”

Things have careened every which way since.

Belfort has fought and won magnificently (remember the original UFC Brazil, when he stormed Wanderlei Silva with one-twos the length of the cage?). He has lost heartbreakingly (the split decision to Tito Ortiz at UFC 51) and decisively (the dreaded Anderson Silva front kick at UFC 126). He has experienced triumph (winning the UFC light heavyweight championship against Randy Couture) and crisis (his sister being kidnapped in 2004). He has bounced around organizations, from the UFC to Pride to Cage Rage to Strikeforce and Affliction, and back to the UFC, in numerous countries from the United States to Brazil to Japan and Europe. He has been busted for elevated testosterone levels, back at Pride 32 following a bout with Dan Henderson.

The same Henderson, of all people, who is now TRT exempt. It’s been a lot of twisting and turning.

Belfort has worked at finding “the heart of God,” got married, started a family and has been posterized by a kick that later was accredited to Steven Seagal. All of it goes into his tapestry. And back in 1998, it was Belfort who was the young unbeatable, when he faced Couture at UFC 15.

If anything, Belfort has an empathy edge on Jones. In fact, he empathizes with Jones at a time when almost nobody else in the world can (or will).

“I remember there was a lot of pressure,” he says of the Couture fight. “I remember being so young -- I had a lot of pressure. Everything happened instantly for me. But the tendency before was, ‘Oh, I have to do this -- I have to.’ Now it’s, I want to. I turned the have to and want to. I have to be a good fighter? No, I want to be a good fighter. I have to be a good husband? No, I want to be a good husband. When you turn have to and want to, your life gets better. You see life different. You enjoy every day differently.”

In 1997, when Belfort first earned the nickname “The Phenom,” he knocked out a pair of heavyweights -- Tra Telligman and Scott Ferrozzo -- in a combined two minutes at UFC 12. He followed that impressive turn a couple of months later against the UFC’s most notorious barroom Hun at the time, Tank Abbott, at UFC 13. That time, he needed only 52 seconds.

He was barely 20 years old and, inarguably, by strict definition, a “phenom.” But it’s a handle that comes with a gradual expiration date, isn't it? Phenoms are generally young, those whose first impressions make the previous standards seem ordinary, right?

At 35 years old, can you still be a “phenom”?

“Yeah, to this day I enjoy it,” Belfort says. “It’s pretty cool, and I try to live to bring it to reality, to my inner man that I have. My inner man, something that the cameras and people can’t see. For me, a phenom is a guy who could be a father, a husband, a human being, a guy who loves God, a guy who lives by what he preaches -- that’s a phenom. Being a performer, winning championships and being a great athlete, that’s just your job. But I believe phenoms are people who can go out there and live their private life the best way they can live it.”

Part of what makes Belfort Belfort is that he talks in such celestials. There’s very little separation between the “inner man” and the “outer man.” You ask him about a specific fighter or circumstance -- as with Couture and UFC 15, say -- and he takes you to the broader reaches. His sermonizing is legendary but never judging.

And really, whether you believe in the higher power that he does or not, there’s a simplistic thing Belfort acknowledges that could serve as inspiration: that life is a running thing. That real life is always now. Say what you want about the level of Belfort’s competition the past few years, but he makes the most of his moments.

It’s no surprise that he didn’t hesitate to fight Jones.

“At the end of the line, we’re all going to die,” he says. “It’s how you live your life. How you leave your fingerprints in every moment of your life. Every moment is a moment when you can do something.”

Does he stand a chance? We’ll have to wait and see. But Belfort believes he does, enough that he volunteered to try. Yet, to put his attitude in perspective, if he “shocks the world” and beats Jon Jones, don’t expect him to be shocked along with it. He’s been knocked from the perch, and he believes it’s in his power to return the favor.

And at the bottom of all of the undercurrents and karmic nods, there’s a man who practices what he preaches. Losing to Jones won’t change that. And neither will winning.

But imagine if he does win, for a minute -- Vitor Belfort, the old “Phenom,” recapturing the light heavyweight championship and bringing his career full circle at 35 years old. That’s just storybook stuff right there.

In fact, it’s almost beyond belief. Good thing Belfort has enough to go around.