After more than four years away, Vitor ‘The Phenom’ Belfort is finally set to make his return to the UFC.
On Saturday night, Belfort will face former middleweight champion Rich Franklin in a 195-lb catchweight bout in the main event of UFC 103. This bout features two of the most well-rounded fighters in the sport, one that should produce tremendous fireworks for the fans in attendance at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas and those watching from the comfort of their home.
A lot is at stake in this matchup. Belfort wants to make a statement in order to drum up instant interest in a bout with reigning middleweight champion and pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. Franklin wants to score another win against an elite opponent to hopefully move him one step closer to his first title challenge at light heavyweight.
What will happen once the action gets underway? Let’s take look behind the numbers and break down this tremendous matchup.
This bout will be contested at a catchweight of 195 lbs, which is the equidistant mark between middleweight and light heavy. The weight makes perfect sense because Belfort is returning to the UFC to make a run at Anderson Silva’s middleweight title, whereas this is Franklin’s fourth fight since formally departing the 185-lb masses to prospect among the big boys at 205 lbs.
Both men stand right around six feet tall. And both have to work to get down to the 195 lb weight limit. The combatants will appear to be of very similar size when they stand opposed for the traditional post-weigh-in faceoff. Physical size won’t be an issue at UFC 103. Physical strength, however, is a different story.
There is no doubt that Belfort is the more powerful athlete. He is widely considered to be a freakishly gifted physical specimen. After facing the Brazilian in the 2001 Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championships, Ricco Rodriguez claimed that Belfort was the strongest human he ever competed against, claiming that Belfort broke his rib from squeezing during a body lock.
Franklin is a monstrous middleweight, but has always appeared to be an average, if not a bit of a smallish, light heavy. He may be the same general size as Belfort, but he is not known as a guy with otherworldly physical strength.
On the surface, Belfort, who turned 32 earlier this year, appears to be right in the midst of his fighting prime. One must balance that assumption with the fact that he has been competing as a professional since he was 19 years old. Of course, he has only competed in a total of 26 bouts across the world, so there is not much mileage on that fighting Ferrari. Whether he remains at his very best or is an old 32 will be very apparent on Saturday night. My bet is the former.
Franklin, by contrast, turns 35 16 days after UFC 103. Interestingly enough, he did not make his MMA debut until nearly four years after Belfort, despite the fact that the Cincinnatian is three years his senior. Franklin looked as spry in his most recent bout, a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 99 on June 13, 2009, as he did when he debuted inside the Octagon with an impressive first-round technical knockout win over Evan Tanner at UFC 42 on April 25, 2003. Father Time has not yet paid Franklin a visit, and that won’t happen on Saturday. Count on it.
Age will not be a factor in this fight.
Both Belfort and Franklin are very experienced professionals. As mentioned above, Belfort sports an 18-8 career record with 12 knockouts and two submissions. Most of those bouts have come on the world’s largest stages. His combined UFC and PRIDE record is 12-7 with seven knockouts and two submissions.
Belfort has had less success against the best of the best. He has faced five current or former champions in a total of seven bouts in his storied career. It will shock most to read that he only has two wins in those seven fights—a 44-second knockout win over Wanderlei Silva at UFC Ultimate Brazil on October 16, 1998 and a 49-second technical knockout win over Randy Couture at UFC 46 due to a bad cut suffered by the then-champion when Belfort’s fist grazed his eyelid.
Franklin’s overall career record is a very impressive 27-4 with one no contest. Thirteen of those wins have come by way of knockout, and he has nine submissions to his credit. He is 12-3 with eight knockouts and one submission in the UFC.
Unlike Belfort, Franklin has had good success against current or former champions. He is 3-1 against champions not named Anderson Silva, though he suffered two knockout losses to the middleweight champion to even his record against the best of the best at 3-3. Nonetheless, 3-3 is much better than 2-5.
In Belfort’s defense, his losses to Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson and Randy Couture all occurred at light heavyweight or heavyweight. His two wins over Couture and Silva occurred at light heavy. All but three of Franklin’s bouts against current or former champions occurred at middleweight. The two exceptions are his first bout against Tanner, his controversial loss to Henderson, both of which were contested at light heavy, and his catchweight (195lbs) win over Wanderlei Silva. Thus, the two records don’t completely align for comparison purposes.
Suffice to say, both men have seen it all. Neither will be star struck by fighting the other. Neither will be a doe mesmerized by the bright headlights that shine on UFC main event bouts. And neither will be surprised by some unknown technique. This fight will be just another day at the office, albeit a brutally difficult one.
Experience will not be a factor in this fight.
Interestingly, ‘The Phenom’ has but three meager wins in the seven UFC and PRIDE bouts that have gone the distance, including three straight losses on the judges’ cards. Franklin, on the other hand, has three wins in four UFC bouts that have gone the distance (and many believe that he deserved the decision against Henderson in his lone loss on the cards).
Unlike their respective records against current and former champions, this trend highlights a very important factor in Saturday’s bout—cardiovascular conditioning.
Cardio has been Belfort’s Achilles’ heel since the day he began fighting. It is no secret that the Brazilian spent far more time adding bulk in the weight room than filling his gas tank with hours of roadwork. Nothing much changed later in his career, either. Whether it is improper training or an abnormal ratio of fast-twitch muscle fiber that leads to his less-than-full gas tank, it is very likely that Belfort will struggle against Franklin in the third round, if the fight lasts that long, because Franklin is known as a cardiovascular machine.
Another disturbing trend is the fact that Belfort has lost four of his last five fights in the UFC and PRIDE. One of those losses was a split decision dropped to Ortiz at UFC 51 on February 5, 2005 that many, including this writer, feel should have gone the other way. Even with that concession, his recent record is nothing to write home about. Granted, those were all contested at light heavy, whereas his bout at UFC 103 will be against a smaller opponent in the 195-lb Franklin. But that trend is noteworthy nonetheless.
On the positive side, Belfort is 2-0 with two awe-inspiring knockouts since moving to middleweight. It took him less than four minutes in total to dispatch UFC veterans Matt Lindland and Terry Martin.
Franklin has three wins in his last five bouts. Again, his most recent loss was ultra close, so he could easily be 4-1 in those five fights. Suffice to say, Franklin has had more success on the world’s biggest stage recently.
It has been 238 days since Belfort last competed in a live mixed martial arts bout. He was scheduled to compete back in July on an Affliction card before the apparel company decided to close down its fight promotion arm. The bout was supposed to be at 185 lbs, so it is safe to assume that Belfort has kept his weight under control during his rather lengthy absence.
238 days, however, is nowhere near his career long. When Belfort suffered a unanimous decision loss to Kazushi Sakuraba at PRIDE 5 on April 29, 1999, injuries and other issues kept him out of action for more than a year—403 days to be exact. In fact, Belfort has had several lengthy absences throughout his career. Four of those were longer than 238 days. His 3-1 record in bouts following at least 240 days out of action demonstrates that competition rust is not a factor when Belfort takes a long hiatus from the fighting.
It probably isn’t a shock to anyone that Franklin has fought with much more frequency during his career. It has been a scant 98 days since Franklin scored a hard-fought decision over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 99 on June 13, 2009. Assuming that he didn’t suffer any injuries in that bout, he should be very fresh and still very sharp from the continuity of training since June.
Franklin’s longest absence from the Octagon since he began fighting regularly in the UFC is 224 days. That really has no bearing on his fight against Belfort, but I thought I’d throw it out there for stat buffs in any case.
Again, there is no advantage here.
Despite the trends, which paint a picture of a seemingly even matchup, or possibly one that favors Franklin, I’m going to jump off the reservation and take Belfort in this matchup.
Forget the numbers. Forget the trends. None of that will matter on Saturday night.
Belfort will win this fight because he is better than Franklin in every facet of the game. Take a look at any of Belfort’s seven losses in the UFC or PRIDE. In each of them, his opponent held a matchup advantage in one or more categories.
Couture and Ortiz were bigger, stronger wrestlers. Henderson was just a better wrestler, period. Liddell was a bigger, more powerful striker. Alistair Overeem was a better kickboxer with a tremendous size advantage.
Franklin doesn’t hold an advantage anywhere. Belfort has faster hands. His strikes land with far greater force. He has better kickboxing and boxing techniques. He is a better ground fighter, both in terms of his wrestling and jiu jitsu. He is physically stronger than Franklin. He has a better chin. And he is generally a better athlete.
That doesn’t mean that Franklin is nothing more than a fall guy for Belfort’s UFC return. Quite the contrary is true. Franklin is about as steady as they come in mixed martial arts. He gives very consistent performances in every fight. He is always well prepared and in amazing shape. So, it is easy to predict that Franklin will bring his A-game to the fight.
Nobody can be so certain when it comes to Belfort. There are several different Vitor Belforts who compete. The confident, well-prepared Belfort is as talented as anyone in the sport—period. The Belfort who is unsure of himself is not such a tough guy. It’s all a mind game for him.
If Belfort shows up and fights with hesitation, he will lose. If he is not in great shape and cannot get Franklin out of there before the end of the second round, his chances of winning drop significantly.
But I think that the Belfort has been reborn at 185 lbs, reborn to the point where he is mentally right for the first time in a long, long time. He has such tremendous physical advantages over most middleweights that he can be the bully who struck fear in the hearts of anyone who watched him buzzsaw through Tank Abbott in 1999. And those physical advantages will be apparent at UFC 103, even though this is a 195-lb catchweight bout.
Belfort will show up confident and ready. He is going to win the fight in impressive fashion, which will create instant demand for a championship challenge against Silva.
How is that for a confident prediction on a fight that truly could go either way?