Vitor Belfort's legacy is complicated

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Vitor Belfort, in 2015, after the use of TRT was outlawed. (AP)

Vitor Belfort is going to retire after his fight with Nate Marquardt Saturday at UFC 212 in Rio de Janeiro.

Or, like hundreds of fighters before him who said a particular bout would be their last, he might not.

It’s wise never to believe a word a fighter says when it comes to injuries or retirements. They’re always healthy, at least until the fight is over and you find out that, oh, there was this issue of the torn ligament and the broken hand and the bruised bone and who knows what else.

And after they’ve been around for a while, and get tired of making weight, waking up sore and miserable, getting kicked in the head, punched in the face, questioned by the media and taunted by their fans, they speak, often wistfully, of retiring.

More often than not, though, this crazy business somehow seduces them and they rarely wind up leaving of their own volition.

Belfort said he’s going to retire. He’s also said he wants to keep going.

It’s a pretty good guess that as you read this, even Belfort isn’t sure.

Belfort has quite the complicated legacy. He’s 40 now, and been fighting more than half his life. His nickname, “The Phenom,” came as a result of his extraordinary physical gifts that he showed when debuting as a 19-year-old at UFC 12 in 1997.

He fought the best of three separate eras. He was part of the dawn of MMA, before the unified rules came along, and he battled the likes of Randy Couture and Wanderlei Silva and Tank Abbott.

When the unified rules came along, Belfort was still a significant figure and fought the likes of Chuck Liddell and Couture (again). And then, in the post-The Ultimate Fighter modern era, he fought Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin, Jon Jones and Rumble Johnson, Luke Rockhold, Jacare Souza, Dan Henderson, Michael Bisping and Chris Weidman.

He kept those incredibly fast hands for much of his career, and even now, as a 40-year-old, he is one of the sport’s finest strikers.

His bout with Marquardt will be his 40th, which includes 25 wins (18 by knockout and three by submission), 13 losses and a no-contest.

Seven of his 25 wins have been over opponents who held either a UFC, Pride or Strikeforce world title. By most objective standards, regardless what happens against Marquardt, Belfort should be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

How Belfort’s career will be viewed depends significantly on your view of performance-enhancing drugs. His name is inextricably tied to the PED era and the TRT era of MMA, even though he failed just one post-fight test in his career.

In 2006, he lost a bout to Dan Henderson in Las Vegas, and tested positive for an anabolic steroid following the match. He was suspended for nine months by the Nevada Athletic Commission.

That’s the only time in his 20-plus-year career that he failed an official test. He fought the early part of his career when there was little to no drug testing and a huge number of fighters were openly using PEDs.

Also, Belfort became one of the more enthusiastic users of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) and it rejuvenated his career when he appeared on the decline.

That came at a time when many of his peers somewhat shockingly needed the help of anti-aging doctors, who prescribed many of them additional testosterone.

Belfort took the brunt of the criticism for it because the change in his body was the biggest, and he suddenly began scoring a series of dramatic knockouts.

Vitor Belfort, in 2013, before the use of TRT was outlawed. (AP)

He outraged many, including Bisping, the current middleweight champ, and former champions Weidman and Rockhold. The TRT was like a get-out-of-jail-free card for him, prolonging his career and making him countless dollars he may never have made without it.

Not counting his tournament win at UFC 12, Belfort fought for a UFC world title five times. Those attempts came at ages 26, 27, 33, 35 and 38. Most fighters, particularly ones like Belfort who turned pro at 19, decline post-30. Belfort actually improved post-30 and got three of his five title shots after his 33rd birthday.

He was 14-8 before his 30th birthday, and 11-5 after he turned 30. And that 11-5 mark includes consecutive losses as a 39-year-old, both of which came after the use of TRT was outlawed.

So whether Belfort knowingly cheated or took advantage of a loophole allowing him to use TRT, or whether it was necessary for medical reasons, as he claimed, it appears to have benefitted him significantly.

A vandal edited his Wikipedia page to include the phrase, “The roid up Brazilian monkey,” into his profile under nicknames.

It was a classless move, of course, but it shows the type of outrage he generated with his embrace of TRT.

Belfort’s brilliant talent is undeniable, but whether he’d even still be around now were it not for the benefits of the testosterone replacement he received is open to debate.

He was a terrific ambassador for the sport, and was always willing to promote it to fans and the media, even when he found himself under heavy scrutiny and was being accused of cheating.

Like many of us, Belfort was a complex individual who scored points on both sides of the ledger.

He’s never going to live down his association with PEDs, however, and it may cost him a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame (if he even cares).

He was, unquestionably, a great fighter, but it’s important to note that he was 1-4 in his title fights, and the only win came when the seam of his glove cut Randy Couture’s eyelid in a fight’s opening minute and left Couture unable to go on.

Other than that, Belfort lost all of his title bouts and was finished in each of them.

When he does hang up the gloves for good, he’ll be remembered fondly by some and not so fondly by others.

Few had his talent, but, in my opinion, few benefitted from drugs as much as he did.

My take is that the PED suspension and the TRT usage overshadows much of the good he accomplished.

Opinions of him, though, will depend largely upon your view of PEDs. If you don’t care, you’ll remember Belfort as a legend. If you do, you’ll say good riddance when he steps out of the cage for the last time.