By Steve Borchardt
In more than one sense of the word Vitor Belfort was jacked. Just a little after midnight local time, a ridiculously muscular Belfort sat straddled atop the Octagon and beamed an effusive smile that for a few fleeting seconds saw the leather faced veteran of almost seventeen years of cage fights resemble an overjoyed fourth grader whose team had just won the Little League World Series. Mere seconds earlier Belfort had been competing in the main event of the UFC's maiden voyage to the Brazilan municipality of Sao Paulo, a bout that ended when the native of Rio de Janeiro landed a slick head kick on opponent Michael Bisping that opened the door to a TKO victory. Now the 35 year old veteran was riding high on the emotional rush that accompanies a win over another man in single combat and the incomparable feeling of 9,116 of his fellow countrymen showering him with adulation. Vitor may have been a heel last time he fought in Brazil, but on this night at least he was embraced with open arms as the conquering native son.
However, there were a few in attendance at the Ibirapuera Arena who weren't sharing in Belfort's joy. In fact, they were probably downright despondent after watching the Phenom get his hand raised by referee Dan Miragliotta.
Chief among their number was undoubtedly Michael Bisping. A momentary lapse was all it took to perhaps forever dash the outspoken Brit's hopes of fighting for the middleweight title. One minute he's attempting to wear his heavily muscled opponent down through superior conditioning, and the next thing he knows he's laying crumpled on the mat and attempting to recover as the referee steps in and signals the end of the fight. So much for hard work paying off in the successful realization of dreams.
The thing was, it should have been easy. All that stood between Bisping and a date with the greatest fighter alive was the mere formality of weathering the early storm and then outlasting the notorious frontrunner Belfort. That's not how it went down on fight night though. Instead, Belfort didn't gas out in the first round and Bisping once again came up short when it mattered most. The crestfallen Count did his best to remain positive after the loss and cut a promo in the Octagon where he proclaimed, "I'll be back at the top of this fucking pile before you know it." However, at 33 years of age Bisping may have just run out of chances to prove to the world he's a truly great fighter as opposed to just a really good one.
Father Time is also gunning for another man who, while undoubtedly great, was surely disappointed by Belfort's victory: middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Just months away from his 38th birthday, the question mark hanging over the Spider's career is just how much longer will he be able to perform up to the superlative standard his past fights have set? It doesn't help matters that Silva is a notoriously mercurial personality and feels he's earned the right to call the shots when it comes to who gets a crack at his belt. It wasn't an accident the Spider was in attendance for the Bisping/Belfort clash. Silva was interested in a fight with Bisping because he correctly felt the Brit was the biggest name available in the middleweight division from a marquee perspective. Unfortunately, Bisping failed to live up his end of the bargain and there's nobody else in the division who excites the champ at the moment.
This paucity of top middleweight contenders leads to a booking conundrum for a group of men in attendance this past weekend who must have seen visions of dollar signs going up in smoke when the referee pulled Belfort off of Bisping's battered form: Lorenzo Fertitta, Joe Silva - and watching from his compound in Las Vegas - Dana White. With the clock ticking on Silva's legendary career it simply isn't good business for him to sit on the sidelines for the majority of 2013 while the division attempts to sort itself out, but there isn't an obvious next opponent that jumps out from the middleweight pack right now.
There was a groundswell of support for Chris Weidman after the Serra/Longo prospect dismantled Mark Munoz back in July of 2012, but that fight was witnessed by a mere 211,000 average viewers - hardly the kind of platform that lends itself to the creation of a star. Likewise, Strikeforce champ Luke Rockhold's biggest victories came on shows many UFC fans didn't see, which makes him a far from ideal candidate. Hector Lombard is only 1-1 in the UFC and would need at least one more impressive victory over a top talent to erase the damage done to his reputation by his lackluster showing in a split decision loss to Tim Boetsch. After that who else is left at middleweight? Costa Philippou may have won five in a row, but he's also Costa Philippou. No disrespect intended, but at this point he's hardly a marquee name fans are clamoring to see against Silva. So who does the champ face next then?
Perhaps the best suggestion I've seen so far came from MMAFighting.com's Mike Chiappetta, who suggested Rashad Evans drop down to middleweight and face Silva for the belt. While this fight might not make the most sense from a pure sporting perspective when you consider the fact Evans has never competed at middleweight in the UFC, it's probably the biggest money match available for Silva right now outside of the ever elusive superfights with Jon jones and Georges St. Pierre. Although Silva would undoubtedly be the favorite, Evans' wrestling ability and well-rounded game would provide an interesting stylistic matchup for the seemingly invincible champ. Even better, Rashad has the promo ability to drive serious business if paired up with the right opponent, which Silva would almost surely be. The one catch is that Evans still needs to get past Antonio Rogerio Nogueira next month at UFC 156. While most expect Evans to emerge the victor in that contest, this past weekend provided a lesson about counting your contenders before they win.
Then there's Vitor Belfort, the man whose devastating high kick threw a monkey wrench in the UFC's, Silva's, and Bisping's best laid plans. After his victory the self proclaimed "young dinosaur" cut a blistering promo where he called out the champion in emphatic, if syntactically-challenged, fashion. Unfortunately there was just one problem: he called out the wrong champ. Yes, after knocking out a fighter poised to face middleweight champion Anderson Silva with a victory, Belfort puzzlingly campaigned for a fight with light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones - a man who just defeated him handily in a title match back in September of 2012.
It's hard to guess just what was going through Belfort's head when he assumed one win at middleweight was enough to convince the UFC to scrap its plans for Jones/Sonnen at the culmination of the forthcoming season of the Ultimate Fighter, but quite frankly it's a challenge to make sense of most of what comes out of Belfort's mouth. Take for instance the young dinosaur's bizarre answer when a reporter recently asked for his take on TRT.
"If a question is private, I have the choice to answer or not," replied Belfort. "If I make it public, it’s not private anymore. If I want to say something private I will say it, but I keep to myself and I respect the laws of the sport. Whatever the organization, whatever the law, they know what to do. This is too controversial, why am I going to say something that doesn’t accomplish anything?"
While there certainly isn't any proof Belfort was on TRT leading up to the Bisping fight, the combination of his evasive answer on the topic and his utterly ripped physique certainly raises a few red flags. Belfort will be 36 in just a few months, which is an age where the body naturally begins slowing down and it becomes increasingly difficult to walk around looking like a statue of Hercules chiseled out of granite. It's easy to see how TRT might be seen as a tempting remedy for an aging fighter searching for the fountain of youth.
This doesn't do much for Michael Bisping though, who has gone on record stating his belief that TRT should be considered as illegal in the sport as unregulated anabolic steroid use. Bisping is getting uncomfortably close to that point in middle age where the body simply can't perform as it once did, which means he may just be nearing the finish line as a legit middleweight contender. Privately his two prior failed bids to secure a title shot must sting all the more when you consider Bisping lost to a pair of men in Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen who were both receiving TRT.
With Silva now closer to his fiftieth birthday than his twentieth, it's a legitimate possibility age could catch up with him at any time virtually overnight. The challenge for the UFC is keeping Silva busy before Father Time manages to do what nobody has been able to do for the past seven years and knock him off his perch atop the UFC's middleweight division. It would be a shame if a largely meaningless victory by the aging young dinosaur cost the world one of its few remaining chances to witness Silva's genius on display in a fight that matters. What would be an even greater shame is if the the specter of TRT was revealed to be hanging over the whole affair. Let's hope it was just training and prayers that led to Vitor Belfort's impressive physique this past weekend and not athletic commission and UFC sanctioned "vitamins."
In a sport where aging can have such irrevocable effects, it would be nice if the playing field was level for all competitors who are waging what will ultimately be a losing battle with Father Time. Unfortunately, until the TRT loophole is closed for good that won't be the world we live in.