*Author’s Note: This column was written before Anthony Johnson severely missed weight, thus changing just how much pressure Vitor Belfort faces. While a loss would still be damaging to him, it would be marked with an asterisk.*
Pressure in sports is a funny thing. Some athletes rise to the occasion, even if they’re not superstars, while some athletes shy away or crack from the pressure, even if they’re the best player in the sport.
The best pressure players are the ones who want the ball when you need the basket or a strike out or a touchdown. Even if they don’t come through 100% of the time, it doesn’t matter to them because you know in the next game, they’re going to want the ball again. They’re going to forget about the shot they missed, demand the ball again, and get a better shot.
In MMA, Anderson Silva is the greatest pressure fighter. If he has a bad performance or two, it doesn’t matter because you know, when the lights are the brightest, he’s going to deliver. Fighting a former light heavyweight champion after back-to-back lackluster performances? He turns in the most masterful performance of his career. Down to his final two minutes as a champion? He locks on a triangle choke. Fighting a fellow Brazilian superstar who UFC said was the faster striker? He delivers the best knockout of the year. Fighting in Brazil against the last man to hold a victory over him? He finishes him in the second round.
When the pressure is on and he needs to turn in a performance to silence any type of criticism, he delivers.
Then there’s Vitor Belfort.
Throughout his career he’s constantly cracked under pressure.
Built up as an unstoppable phenom, he was slowed down by a controlling wrestler. A chance to beat a legend in his home country, he laid on his back and wanted little to do with the fight. Needing to prove his UFC title victory wasn’t a fluke, he was once again slowed down by a controlling wrestler. Getting a shot to dethrone the pound-for-pound king, he was front kicked in the face. And that doesn’t even count the times he was defeated by a former champion after dominating the first round, fell into a guillotine with 30 seconds left in the round, or lost a fight and was then popped for steroids.
When the waters get deep or the lights get brighter, Belfort either drowns or gets burned.
The lights will be bright once again on Saturday night in Brazil. Fighting in his home country for the first time since 1998, “The Phenom” faces off against Anthony Johnson, who makes his middleweight debut.
Make no mistake about it, Belfort is the biggest MMA star in Brazil. Ever since he appeared on a Brazilian TV show sucking on toes and marrying a model, he’s been the face of Brazilian MMA and despite the number of great and legendary Brazilian MMA fighters out there, Belfort still trumps them all in popularity.
Not only is he fighting in his home country, he’s already been tabbed as the first ever coach of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil opposite Wanderlei Silva. It wouldn’t look too good on him, or the show, if he’s coming off a loss as they’re trying to build up a rematch between the two men.
Even though he’s never done well in clutch fights, at least he’s been in them. He’s fought for UFC titles, he’s fought in PRIDE, he’s been in main events, he’s battled legends and champions like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Silva, Alistair Overeem, Kazushi Sakuraba, ect…. Johnson has never had that experience. His biggest fight was a co-main event bout against Josh Koscheck on a PPV that less than 400,000 people purchased. Because he’s been in this situation before, we expect him to, at least know how to handle, even if history tells us that he hasn’t handled it well.
Add in the fact that Belfort desperately wants another shot at the middleweight strap, and by all means, this might be the most pressure Belfort has ever faced in his career.
Believe it or not, Vitor is no longer a young man. He’s 34 now and has been fighting since 1996. If he loses at UFC 142, he may never sniff another title shot.
By all accounts, Belfort is in a good place in his life. He’s found a home at Xtreme Couture where he’s working with some of the best trainers and sparring partners, there’s nothing going on in his personal life to distract him from the fight, he got to Brazil last week to get soak everything in and get acclimated to the environment, and he’s creating his own atmosphere.
There are no excuses for him on Saturday night. It’s up to him to perform, to silence critics who believe he’s a mental flake, to stand up to the moment and unload a barrage of punches, knocking it, and Johnson, out in the process.
No pressure, Vitor.