Vitor Belfort's contempt for the media is nothing new or surprising. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
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MMA is a freakish sport, and I know a sound like a broken record with how often I point it out. That doesn’t mean everything is surprising, though.
For instance, if I had no prior knowledge that Vitor Belfort balked at talking to Ariel Helwani on “The MMA Hour” this week because Helwani wanted to do his job and ask questions about Belfort’s testosterone use and Josh Gross’ recent Deadspin article and you came to me and said, “Guess who refused to do the ‘The MMA Hour’ this week over the potential questions that would be asked,” I wouldn’t need a second guess. Even if you had set up the scenario differently and said, “Hey, Vitor Belfort did something that was not well-received this week,” my first thought would be, “Oh, someone must have asked about TRT, and he took his ball and went home.”
Our beautiful sport might be strange, but it’s not always surprising: The sun rises, the sun sets and Belfort bulls---s us. He has done so for 19 years and counting, in fact. You could almost consider it one of MMA’s greatest traditions.
When I took to the radio on Tuesday and Wednesday, a few callers and emailers hit me with some variety of, “Has anyone ever asked you to not ask certain questions? What would you have done?” Anyone who has covered MMA -- and probably most other sports and avenues of public interest -- for even a moderate amount of time has been confronted with this issue. Theoretically, I feel the decision to press on or not should be based on whether or not the “forbidden” topics are material to the conversation at hand; I’ve had people not to ask me about controversial-but-inconsequential minutia from their past which has no real relevance to any story I might be interested in now. If a fighter had an acrimonious gym split eight years ago or made a sex tape in another lifetime, your integrity likely isn’t on the line by not broaching these matters.
What about in actual practice? Ninety-nine percent of what you’re being asked to not ask? It’s material. It’s the material, the whole damn thing. In this way, Belfort’s behavior is expected, both for the sport and certainly for him. Nonetheless, Belfort’s particular lack of self-awareness in this case makes it all the more craven, all the more duplicitous -- a perfect encapsulation of his near-20-year flim-flam.
Sometimes, there are appropriate times and methods to tell stories about historically controversial and disgraced individuals without necessarily probing those past indiscretions. Look at PEDs in MMA, specifically: You might have a negative or condescending opinion of Tim Sylvia, but “steroid cheat” is not the only consideration of the man. People still write odes to Royce Gracie, in spite of his testosterone levels being literally off the charts for the Kazushi Sakuraba rematch. Even if you don’t handle your failures gracefully, you can eventually control your narrative. Josh Barnett has failed three drug tests and has been far less than willing to discuss any of them in the past, yet not every conversation with the man or about the man hinges on steroids.
Belfort, on the other hand? What could this man possibly expect to discuss? It’s not just that Belfort is the posterboy for the testosterone replacement therapy era in MMA, but he’s also one of the earliest faces of suspected cheating in the no-holds-barred era, too. From Gross’ aforementioned Deadspin article, the words of Randy Couture: “I fought Vitor back in those early days, and to see him grow significantly over the course of time from his very first UFC fight to when I fought him, I didn’t have any knowledge firsthand but we certainly suspected he was doing something.”
After Couture shattered the Semaphore UFC regime’s wet dream by spanking Belfort, “The Phenom” took off to Pride Fighting Championships, where he was routinely a ripped 210-220 pounds without even a remote hint of PED testing. Along the way, he broke from his original trainer, Carlson Gracie, who lambasted him and suggested he may have taken a dive against Sakuraba at Pride 5, while Belfort contended his butt scoot-and-die routine was the product of a torn groin. After that, he broke from the Carlson Gracie splinter group Brazilian Top Team and went out for himself.
Kudos to Belfort in this way: He was ahead of the curve. Owing to his longstanding marketability -- I’m loathe to use the word “popularity” at this point despite his 1.4 million Twitter followers -- and insularity, he was one of the first MMA fighters to craft a team and training camp around himself. Long before “social media” was even a concept, Belfort was brand-aware and out for himself. The man got on a Brazilian reality show, sucked a Playboy model’s toes in a hot tub on national television, married her and had kids. In many respects, right down to his alleged NHB-era juicing, Belfort laid a trailblazing blueprint for MMA stardom.
Only dimly aware that the combination of lusty Semaphore’s “Brazilian Mike Tyson” promotion and proto-MMA media ooh’ing and aah’ing over his hand speed is what made him such a big deal in the first place, in true star fashion, Belfort is also viciously and arrogantly contemptuous of the media. Think about this: Knowing he didn’t want to discuss his TRT use or Gross’ article, what good would it have done for Belfort to appear on “The MMA Hour,” regardless of whether or not Helwani bowed to his silly gambit? Would he have just shown up, talked about Jesus, promoted his new gym and then peaced out? If that’s the case, consider how excruciatingly vain that is.
Sadly, it’s nothing new. This is the same guy who, rather than spend 10 minutes talking about his Alistair Overeem rematch with Gross and TJ De Santis on Sherdog Radio, handed the phone to Ed Soares and told Soares to pretend to be him. This is the same guy who, in the middle of his TRT-fueled 2013 campaign for the ages, stood on the dais after his brutal knockout of Luke Rockhold in Brazil and encouraged a room full of his countrymen to beat up MMAJunkie’s John Morgan for having the audacity to ask him about TRT. When Belfort does “open up” in any way, he sounds like an evangelical used car salesman, a human collage of sophomoric motivational quotes and wacky haircuts. There is no hint of humanity or candor, because he thinks you’re too dumb to notice he’s conning you.
Let’s say Helwani did cave. Belfort said he wanted to discuss only his upcoming Nov. 7 rubber match with Dan Henderson, but even that is next to impossible to talk about without delving into waters too deep for “The Phenom.” How do you discuss Belfort being the first man to knock out a fellow former TRT user the last time they fought, without putting it in the larger context of his juiced-up 2013 reign of terror? How do you have a conversation about their first fight, back in Pride, where Belfort tested positive for 4-hydroxytestosterone and was suspended for nine months in Nevada?
Speaking of that, how does your mind not turn to the fact that while suspended, Belfort flew across the Atlantic and fought in England for Cage Rage just six months later while still suspended? He then returned stateside for Affliction in California a year later and was granted a license. It’s no wonder Belfort is still this petulant at the age of 38, since the rules haven’t applied to him in so long.
Any conversation with or about Belfort that doesn’t discuss PEDs is inept and, frankly, pointless. It his career’s common thread, the ever-present spectre at every historical turn for almost two decades. The only person who wants to hear Vitor Belfort talk about anything other than cheating is Belfort himself. Nothing in prizefighting lasts forever, not even a long con.
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