Friday, August 28, 2015

Ricardo Libório and the Meaning of Greatness

Ricardo Libório imparting his knowledge

There are names that are spoken of in hushed tones in gyms where men and women learn what it means to not give up. Brazilian jiu jitsu has its heroes; athletes who ascend to the pinnacle of the competition circuit or transition successfully into mixed martial arts. Their names are invoked in casual conversation when discussing how to set up a new technique or execute a match-ending submission. 

But there is a still higher pantheon of jiu jitsu masters. Their feats are near mythical and their abilities merge with their personas to cast a larger than life shadow across the whole of the sport. American Top Team founder Ricardo Libório is such a man.

Libório began his jiu jitsu career under the tutelage of the great Carlson Gracie, son of the founder of Gracie jiu jitsu. Due to his childhood background in judo and his facility for grasping techniques quickly, Libório became one of Carlson’s prize students. His reputation quickly spread as one of Carlson’s fiercest competitors in all of Brazil. Very early in his career, Libório was talked about by his trainer and many of his peers as possibly the greatest of his generation.  At the inaugural Brazilian jiu jitsu World Championships in 1996, Libório entered two weight classes above his usual division and dismantled the competition. He captured a gold medal in the 100 kg weight class, closed out the open weight division with his teammate Amaury Bitteti and was voted most technical competitor.

As Carlson's focus shifted increasingly to MMA in the mid-90s, Libório became one of the main instructors at the academy. He continued his competition success at the World Submission Wrestling Championships hosted by the Abu Dhabi Combat Club, taking third place in 1999 and second in 2000. The legend of his otherworldly skills only grew during this period as Libório would disappear from the academy for weeks or months at a time due to a full time job at a Brazilian bank. According to lore, he would come in on lunch breaks, change his clothes and tear through some of the toughest fighters in the world in minutes before re-robing and heading back to the office.

Following a schism with his trainer, Libório went on to found the Rio Jiu Jitsu Club and then later the Brazilian Top Team (BTT) with his old teammates. He became the primary jiu jitsu instructor at BTT, developing the grappling game of their MMA fighters while helping coach jiu jitsu competitors such as Fernando Margarida Pontes and Ricardo Arona to World Championships.

In 2002, Libório decided to pursue new opportunities in the United States, opening the American Top Team (ATT) with Dan Lambert and Marcus and Marcelo Silveira in Coconut Creek, Florida. Immediately upon arriving, Libório set about infusing the academy with his character of openness and always being willing to lend a hand to someone in need. Fighters dropping into ATT to train with the fabled master were shocked to meet such an affable gentleman capable of making them feel so helpless in training. His merciless pressure and technical precision on the mat became part of modern jiu jitsu folklore as high level competitors left training sessions doubting everything they ever knew about the art.

Not content to keep his knowledge bottled up, ATT expanded and Libório began spreading jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts knowledge through his students’ academies. Over the years, Libório has trained a who’s who of mixed martial arts champions, including UFC Welterweight Champion Robbie Lawler, Bellator Champions Will Brooks, Douglas Lima, Daniel Straus and Hector Lombard, WEC Champion Mike Brown, Sengoku Champion Jorge Santiago and WSOF Champion Jessica Aguilar. He has also trained grappling and jiu jitsu world champions such as Jeff Monson and Marcelo Garcia. In 2009, he was named the head coach of FILA’s US Grappling team where he successfully led the team to a gold medal in gi competition at the World Championships.

Shortly after the birth of his daughter Bella, jiu jitsu would come to take on a whole new meaning for Libório. When she was just a toddler, Bella was diagnosed with a cranial ailment that caused her to lose her eyesight. Following a harrowing ordeal of surgeries and rehabilitation, her father turned to the art that had defined his life to give his daughter an extra set of tools to interact with the world around her. Drawing on a mastery of the art few on earth have attained, Libório devised a methodology for teaching Bella jiu jitsu, focusing on vivid verbal descriptions and the close contact that characterizes the sport. After realizing success, Libório did what he’s always done: spread his knowledge to as many people as he could. He has since pioneered a special jiu jitsu program for blind children and made ATT one of the largest gyms in the US to cater specifically to paralympic combat athletes.

In the often ego driven world of fight sports, it can be a challenge to find someone who balances near superhuman abilities to impose their will with unrelenting generosity and kindness of spirit. Competitive or commercial success can draw anyone down the path of believing their own hype and becoming unapproachable and withdrawn. But those who have met him will testify that the mythical status Ricardo Libório enjoys is tempered by the fact that he is so adept at simply being a man.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Conor McGregor and the Winds of Change

Conor McGregor celebrating with his paymasters

The cult of personality around celebrities of any stripe is always unnerving. The idea that a particular talent gives one's words more weight or that being well known makes any expression of basic niceness a sign of amazing virtue has disquieting implications for what it means to be a social individual in our mass culture. It also shows how easily taken in we can be by a little charisma from someone corporations have elevated for the sake of enriching themselves. It is touching the royal robe taken to an absurd extreme.

More disturbing is the idea that celebrities, but particularly athletes, owe their fans a perpetual obligation. They literally give us their flesh, on fields, courts, ice, tracks, mats, rings and cages. For this, they are well compensated, to be sure, but that compensation is between employer and employee. It's hard to imagine the level of effusiveness toward their customers required in sports being asked of any other profession. In most other vocations, workers are asked to treat their customers with courtesy, but most importantly, to do a good job. Somehow in sports, watching the athletes perform can feel like we are participating (and because of the profit structures, in a sense we are). Through this quasi-participation we demand our pound of flesh, but we also demand a sort of deference that borders on servility. It is not enough that athletes, and fighters in particular, give us their bodies and receive payment for it, but we also demand they be grateful to us for allowing them to make that sacrifice. For all the glorious pretense of sport, there is still something deeply ignoble about earning money with one's body and so we insist on supplication to enforce illusions of status over people who are physically gifted.

In light of the grueling training camps and weight cuts fighters go through and the documented trends of severe social anxiety among those who choose beating and getting beaten as the best way to earn their daily bread, it seems they can be forgiven for not always being affable. Brooding over entering a cage to hurt or be hurt is a grim affair. The fighter who can approach it with enough aplomb that managing mass fan interactions is an easy assignment seems more suspicious, not less.

And more importantly, populists who give the media and fans the "corn," as Ali called it, can be mistaken for deserving more than they do in the naturally meritocratic fighting world. At this point, most people don't even debate that Conor McGregor should be in a title fight and when they rationalize how he managed to earn it, it's mostly promotional regurgitation. It is only the invincibility of Jose Aldo that has created this opportunity. McGregor's talent is real, but it is the loudness of his questioning Aldo's invincibility that has made the fight of interest. Due to the tactics employed, there have even, startlingly, been comparisons to Muhammad Ali, which tragically misconstrues the context of resistance to oppression in which Ali's performances operated.

In drawing Chad Mendes instead, the narrative changes to being more about Conor proving his worth, though the promotional engine would have one believe it's simply a coronation. Mendes represents a bulwark against the subversion of meritocracy in MMA in favor of base hype. A meritocratic rise to the top fueled by a pure love of combat is fairly sacred among fighters and some fans. It's one of the reasons why taking dives or easy fights is considered so deplorable as just performing for the money is insuffficiently transcendent to fit the metaphors we would graft onto watching people batter each other. Talking big and gladhanding fans is an equally reprehensible way to the top in some quarters, but fighters know how hardscrabble the business is, so few will object unless they feel overlooked or unless pressed by a relentlessly questioning media.

Conor McGregor is unique right now, but he's barely treading new ground. A victory over Chad Mendes, however the fight came about, will launch him into serious conversation in earnest, but until he accomplishes such a feat, the show he and the Zuffa promotional team are putting on should be greeted with skepticism. It may bode ill for the sustainability of our sport despite the short term spike in revenues it brings to a UFC that has gotten used to flash in the pan stunts in the wake of becoming a global brand. For McGregor's sake, I hope he's everything he claims to be. After UFC 189, we will at last be able to judge him based on what he's done rather than what we've been told. How fandom reacts or is reshaped by this bright and unexpected star may well impact the sport for some time to come.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Template to Victory: Fabricio Werdum vs. Cain Velasquez

Werdum battering Velasquez at UFC 188

UFC 188 is officially over and we have a new undisputed UFC Heavyweight champion in Fabricio Werdum. To me there were 3 things each fighter did (or didn't do) that led to the result.


  1. Relentless assertion of the plum: The thai plum clinch is definitely Werdum's comfort zone on the feet. He's been working it into his game for years now and has only gotten better at it during this current run in the UFC. Prior to the fight, I didn't think he would be able to assert the plum because I felt Cain was too bull necked and had good level changes. I was right until Werdum's determination made me wrong. Throughout the first round, Werdum couldn't get control of the head every time he tried for the plum clinch. In the second, he kept going after it and secured it on a few key occasions that either led to a knee or to a stiff jab when Cain snapped back out of it. This pattern continued in the third and led to some pivotal shots that wobbled Cain and sapped his juices.
  2. The jab: Werdum kept his jab in Cain's face the whole fight. Every time they disengaged, Werdum made sure to touch Cain's face with his jab before he could get into his usual head movement pattern. Cain's couldn't string together his combinations because the jab was touching him before he could get space to reset. The jab also allowed Fabricio to set up the right combinations at the appropriate range, maximizing his reach advantage.
  3. Controlling the arms: In the first round, Cain used his usual bullying style to press Fabricio against the cage, but Werdum constantly worked to establish control at the bicep and shoulder and worked to take away Cain's clinch. When Cain got double underhooks, Werdum used his control of the bicep (with his hands) and shoulder (with his elbows) to create space and snatch the plum. When Cain reacted, Werdum pummeled in. During their brief ground exchanges, Fabricio used his control of the bicep to roll through to a turtle from side control and then at another point used wrist control to stand back up. He definitely miscalculated a few times against the cage and ate some heavy shots for it, but overall he timed his control well.


  1. Forgetting about the body: Cain's generally a headhunter, but in the Dos Santos fights, he used body shots to keep his opponent honest and accumulate damage. In this fight, neither fighter went to the body much, if at all. A guy with a height and reach disadvantage like Cain had here should have been looking to roll under that jab and punish the body, but it seemed Cain just decided to headhunt this time around. Werdum's timing with the jab was a big contributing factor, but at no point did attacking the body seem to be part of Cain's strategy.
  2. Disorganized kicking: Cain landed a lot of kicks on Werdum's legs, but they all seemed like kicks of opportunity rather than set-ups for combinations or finishers themselves. Werdum came forward or cut off his angle and Cain kicked to punish, but didn't really seem to have a second or third option off the kick. I put this down to Werdum not allowing himself to be walked down and trading in the pocket, but typically Cain uses kicks very well to set up his punches or clinch work. This time, they were just flicked out there.
  3. Hands down, chin up: If there's ever been a weakness to Cain's striking, it's his willingness to fight with his hands close to his waist and his chin jutting out. While he seemed to use this as a ploy to lure Junior Dos Santos in off the jab, he couldn't get a rhythm going against Werdum, so this technical choice failed him. If he was trying to draw the jab, he was successful, but unfortunately, he couldn't move under it in time, owing largely to his quickly depleted gas tank, but moreso to Fabricio's timing the jab very well. Realistically, even more than the jab, this posture allowed Werdum to snatch the stretch plum and reel him in and then make him fight an exhausting fight to punch or roll his way out.

While Werdum got a definitive victory, I think Cain could potentially make the adjustments to win. The thing to remember about Velasquez is that he's only had 15 fights in his career. In this era of fast tracked champions, that seems less relevant, but it matters. He's a young dude with a lot of talent, great work ethic and he seems to be a sponge for learning. American Kickboxing Academy has shown difficulty with getting their guy through when he's the nail instead of the hammer, so I'll be interested to see if they can adapt his game. Werdum is such a scrappy fighter. His own ability to adapt is what's kept him in the game so long. I hope we get to see both of these excellent fighters in a few more great wars.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Strange Odyssey of Fabricio Werdum

Like many of the great grapplers of the modern era, Fabricio Werdum first came to most people's attention at the 2003 edition of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club's Submission Wrestling World Championship (ADCC) in Sao Paolo. This was the event that served as the coming out party for Marcelo Garcia, Roger Gracie and Jacare Souza among others. Where Marcelo and Roger elected to stay in BJJ for a few more years, Werdum quickly transitioned into MMA, being one of the most high level competitors to do so (along with Jacare).

In the opening round, Werdum defeated well known UFC HW contender Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (TK). Sadly this match, like many from ADCC 2003, is lost to time owing to the production crew somehow fouling up their recording. This match would take on a certain historical significance however as TK was the first man to ever defeat Fedor Emelianenko in the RINGS promotion on a cut stoppage. Most wrote off the loss as an undeserved blemish on the great Fedor's career. Ironically, it would be Werdum who would hand the great champion his first incontestable loss a decade later.

An upset over then perennial medalist Tata Duarte would see Palestinian-American wrestler Jehad Hamdan draw Werdum next. Werdum dispatched both Hamdan and another wrestler in Mike Van Arsdale in the semi-finals. In the final, Werdum met reigning Mundials champion Marcio Pe de Pano Cruz, falling to a head and arm choke submission. Despite the loss, Werdum put on a decent showing and at the time was considered an intriguing rival for the seemingly unstoppable Pe de Pano due to the fact that he had a similar build and weight (thought to be a decisive factor in Pe de Pano's victories).

Werdum vs Pe de Pano at ADCC 2003

Miraculously, these prognostications were proven accurate the very next day as both Werdum and Pe de Pano entered the absolute. Werdum demolished Olympic wrestler and MMA fighter Matt Lindland and Pride Fighter Akira Shoji, both by armbar. In the semifinals, he lost a lackluster match to Cacareco Ferreira, but he would go on to face Pe de Pano in the 3rd place match. He would defeat the celebrated champion on points, causing his star to shine ever brighter. Just a few months later, Fabricio would win a gold medal at black belt at the IBJJF Worlds.

A month after his win at the worlds. Werdum jumped right back into MMA. He had already had a few fights against the always tough James Zikic and GSP's coach Kristof Midoux, both of which he won, but it would be against Gabriel Napao Gonzaga at the inaugural Jungle Fight (co-promoted by famed Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki and Carlson Gracie black belt Wallid Ismael) that Werdum would really jump onto people's radar. Gonzaga was a well respected black belt who had only recently taken 2nd in the absolute at the CBJJO World Cup (an event Werdum competed in successfully as well). The sweltering heat made it a miserable affair for these two young prospects, with Gonzaga controlling the opening frame and even mounting Werdum at a certain point. Werdum seemed to have the better gas tank, however, and he'd go on to defeat Gonzaga by TKO in the 3rd.

Now these accomplishments may sound straightforward, but they're really not when you put them in the context of Werdum's life. First, he was a black belt under Sylvio Behring, who he came to when his original instructor, Marcio Corleta, merged his team with the Behrings to create Winner/Behring. We've all heard the story of how Werdum ended up at Corleta's gym after being submitted by his ex-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. What's usually omitted from that story is that Werdum was only a teenager when that altercation took place. After he started training, Werdum tried and failed to challenge the guy to a rematch. Werdum soon moved off to Spain with his mom, but continued training, building his own academy as a purple belt, only training with his inexperienced students. Despite the lack of sparring partners, he still managed to take 3rd at the Worlds as a brown belt in 2002 and follow it up with his ADCC wins and his Worlds gold medal at black in 2003. As such, Werdum was, from the outset, the outsider's outsider. An interesting footnote is that Werdum's old coach Corleta would face Pe de Pano in the 2001 worlds twice as well, winning the weight class over him, but getting tapped out via triangle in the absolute.

Werdum followed up his Jungle Fight win with another in the second show held by the promotion, retiring veteran fighter Ebenezer Fontes Braga by KO. It was following this victory that he made a connection that would change his life. In 2004 K-1 fighter turned MMA superstar Mirko Cro Cop was scouring Europe for high quality BJJ instruction. Owing to his familiarity with the continent and his championship pedigree, it was Werdum who answered Cro Cop's call. Werdum and one of his coaches from Winner/Behring, Mauricio Pereira, went to Croatia to help Cro Cop build a decent ground game, while also learning the fundamentals of striking. Not everyone was thrilled with this move, to say the least. Some Brazilians took exception to the fact that Werdum was helping the Croation defeat jiu jitsu, but others had more personal concerns. Sylvio Behring felt the exchange was not even. At the time he said jiu jitsu is easy to learn and pick up quickly whereas kickboxing can take years to master the timing and cadences. He worried his pupil would be seduced into thinking he was better than he was on his feet and his chin would suffer the consequences. Years later, Sylvio would claim Werdum had turned his back on him.

Cro Cop, Mauricio Pereira and Werdum

Mauricio and Werdum continued their exchange, however. Cro Cop went 10-1 during that period (losing only via flash KO to Kevin Randleman) and earned himself a title shot against Fedor. Thanks to Cro Cop's influence, Werdum would be given a contract with Pride. He handed the always fearsome Tom Erikson his second MMA loss and also submitted Red Devil team up and comer Roman Zenstov in his first couple Pride fights. Throughout this period, Werdum would always make time to go back and compete in BJJ events, with mixed results. But he had a return to form at the 2005 edition of ADCC taking third at weight after losing a tough semi-final to Jeff Monson and defeating Daniel Simoes Gracie. Weirdly, he faced his old instructor Marcio Corleta in the weight class quarter-finals. He didn't fare as well in the absolute, losing to Roger Gracie via RNC in the quarter finals.

Back in the MMA world, Werdum lost a close decision to Sergei Kharitonov and then proceeded to decision Jon Olav Einemo. The Einemo match was actually pretty significant for its time because it was two very high level grapplers going at it in MMA and they actually chose to contest a significant portion of the fight on the ground. Sylvio Behring's admonitions about Werdum becoming too comfortable with the striking game started to seem founded in these two fights as Werdum would frequently stiffly charge forward flailing strikes with little regard for either defense or sitting down on his punches. Despite that, the Werdum/Einemo fight was pretty fun to watch and still is.

In the opening round of the 2006 Pride HW Grand Prix, Werdum was looking like a decent contender. In the opening round, he submitted Alistair Overeem, who was not yet the Reem he would one day become, but was no slouch either, having not too long prior won the ADCC European qualifiers. Immediately afterward, tragedy struck. Mauricao Pereira, Werdum's coach and friend, was tragically gunned down back in Brazil following an argument. A short few weeks later, Werdum had to face his toughest test in former Heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Minotauro Nogueira. The fight was remarkably close considering the circumstances. Few doubted that Werdum was a more talented grappler, but Big Nog's boxing was considerably sharper and his experience deploying jiu jitsu in MMA made him savvy enough to avoid trouble on the ground.

Werdum submits Alistair Overeem

Werdum took some time off following the loss of his coach. He submitted Fedor's younger brother Aleks at a 2 Hot 2 Handle promotion in Holland. He would then sign with the UFC following the immolation of Pride. He went 2-2 in his early UFC career, kicking things off by losing an uninspiring match to Andrei Arlovski. He made time to jump back into ADCC, taking gold in his weight class, though he benefited from a pretty thin bracket on his way to defeating Rolles Gracie in the final. He returned to the UFC the following year, beating a resurgent Gonzaga and an in between weights Brandon Vera. He was knocked out by Junior Dos Santos in the latter fighter's UFC debut and inexplicably released.

Werdum found new life in Strikeforce and made a transition to training with Chute Boxe to sharpen his kickboxing skills. At the time, there was a schism in the famed muay thai academy as top masters Rudimar Fedrigo and Rafael Cordeiro decided to part ways. Werdum stuck with Cordeiro and moved to the US. Under his tutelage, he went 2-0 in Strikeforce and still found time to go back and win another ADCC, outpointing Saulo Ribeiro and Cyborg Abreu along the way. When he returned to MMA this time, he would finally face the man his career had been dancing around for years: Fedor.

Werdum and Fedor at the Strikeforce weigh-ins
By the time of their fight, Fedor had been undefeated for 10 years. Werdum was absolutely not considered to be the guy who was going to break that streak. Fedor had, after all, made most of his career pummeling the best submission grapplers in the world into the mat. But Werdum had gotten a lot of looks at Fedor. He'd helped Cro Cop train for him. He had only a couple years prior defeated his brother. He outgrappled the last guy who beat him and he had faced at least two of his proteges in Kharitonov and Zenstov. Whether that factored into his shocking submission win over Fedor or whether it was just a pure hail mary triangle choke is anyone's guess. What we know is that Werdum ended Fedor's streak. He finished Fedor. It's worth revisiting this truth from time to time.

After defeating Fedor, Werdum had a mostly listless and forgettable rematch with a timid Alistair Overeem. The less said about that match, the better. He returned to ADCC in 2011 and faced the toughest bracket in years. He still managed to look sharp, outpointing Alexander Trans and submitting Jeff Monson. He would again defeat Roberto Cyborg Abreu in the semi-finals, but lost a barnburner of a match against Vinny Magalhaes by points in the finals. Most notably, he had Vinny in a tight, perfect armbar, but Vinny managed to somehow squirm out. The match is definitely worth watching if you haven't seen it.

Werdum vs. Vinny Magalhaes at ADCC 2011
With Strikeforce having folded, Werdum returned to the UFC. This Werdum looked like a completely different fighter having finally after over a decade really figured out his striking game. He decisioned an always game Roy Nelson and took apart Mike Russow. He also finally avenged his loss against Big Nog via submission in a fight we really didn't need to see. His next fight saw him upset Travis Browne by completely picking him apart with his muay thai skills and those same skills would earn him the interim Heavyweight title when he KOed former K-1 champ Mark Hunt with a flying knee.

Now Werdum faces Cain Velasquez to unify the belts and settle who the real Heavyweight champion is. To call it Werdum's stiffest test would be to overlook a life and career that's been filled with them. Werdum is the guy who finds a way to defy the odds. He has done so by remaining an outsider in a sport that puts so much pressure on athletes to hunker down with a particular team or training philosophy. Fabricio Vai Cavalo Werdum has done a great deal by following the beat of his own drummer. Will it be enough to stop the juggernaut that is Velasquez? It seems unlikely, but with Werdum, that doesn't seem to matter. It will be an interesting style match up of wrestling and American kickboxing vs. Brazilian jiu jitsu and muay thai. This new iteration of Werdum seems willing to impose his game rather than waiting for the fight to come to him as he's sometimes done in the past. This is a testament to Werdum's ability to reinvent himself, which is difficult for any fighter, but particularly a veteran. Win, lose or draw, Werdum will come to fight hard and will likely defy expectations.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Ever-Evolving Vitor Belfort

Vitor Belfort has had perhaps the most significant evolution of any fighter or athlete period who's stuck around their sport for as long as he has. It's been fun to watch him add tools to his game. In fact, I would argue no championship caliber fighter in the history of MMA has transformed their game as radically as Vitor Belfort has over the course of his career. The only one who comes close is Anderson Silva, who totally reinvented himself upon his arrival in the UFC. It was weird to see the old Anderson return, with shoulders held high and a careful plodding style, in the fight against Nick Diaz. The samba was gone from his hips. Randy Couture also added tools to his game at a certain point in his career that made him more dangerous, but only as a means of setting up his bread and butter dirty boxing and clinch game. Vitor, owing perhaps to his youth when he entered the game, has been a master of technical and strategic reinvention.

Vitor started as a BJJer under the legendary Carlson Gracie, then grafted boxing skills onto his BJJ courtesy of trainer Al Stankie. He wasn't a very good boxer in the beginning, but had very fast powerful hands and seemed to have laser sharp accuracy. These skills allowed him to quickly defeat his opponents in the UFC 12 Heavyweight tournament where he burst on the scene. His fight with Randy Couture at UFC 15 showed how far he had to go in developing his boxing skills and his wrestling and clinch work was pretty unremarkable as well. Way back when, I interviewed Randy and he told me the key to beating Vitor was that he had a "click" where he would move backwards and then he would sort of pause and that's when you knew the flurry was coming. As long as you jabbed him on the click, you could beat him. Randy's boxing coach figured this out in 1997, having only seen a little of Vitor in action, but he said he used the same strategy when they fought years later in their third fight.

Belfort finishing Joe Charles at UFC Japan

At UFC Japan, we finally got to really see Vitor's BJJ skills when he dismantled Joe Charles. People ridicule that fight, but the "ghetto man" had at least been around against some names (albeit in a mostly uninspiring career). That Vitor contested it exclusively on the ground was a testament to his confidence.

After an unimpressive loss to Kazushi Sakuraba, we saw a Vitor who started to take his wrestling more seriously in his matches with Gilbert Yvel and Daijiro Matsui. Darryl Gholar was training with some of Carlson's guys at the time and would follow them to the formation of Brazilian Top Team. The difference in that Vitor was noticeable as he played a safer, more patient game, working his takedowns and learning to use his hands for ground and pound rather than just mad dash flurries. The fights were incredibly boring, but it was clear he was maturing.

Funny aside: I bumped into Vitor just by chance on the street in San Diego right after the Yvel fight. It was weird to me at the time how young he was because he seemed older on screen. He told me to go around the corner to Rodrigo Medeiros' academy where they were all watching the fight. He's like "Hey, I just fought in Japan. It was really great. The fight was really great. You should check it out." I was like "awesome!" So I go to the gym with these people all huddled around the screen and suffered through like half an hour of Vitor throwing potshots in Yvel's guard. Vitor comes in with a big smile and gives me a thumbs up so I didn't dare leave.

Belfort facing off against teammate Ricardo Arona at ADCC 2001

Vitor's BJJ was high at the time from working at BTT and his wrestling had really come along. He showed it off to good effect at ADCC 2001, taking 3rd in the absolute (though how legitimate his match with BTT teammate Ricardo Arona was can be left up to the imagination). His BJJ was the difference maker in his fights against Bobby Southworth and Heath Herring. He seemed to rob Herring of a win in a highly questionable decision, but there were a few times he was in trouble that his BJJ made the difference.

By the time he faced Chuck Liddell at UFC 37.5 we saw a transitional Vitor who had finally learned how to box a little bit and was even kickboxing. To me, the Vitor that showed up to fight Liddell was the beginning of the modern Vitor. He still hadn't shaken the click, but he was picking his shots better, using footwork and attempting to incorporate low and high kicks into his game. In the fight with Marvin Eastman a year later (a decidedly lesser opponent) he was able to really show the benefits of the muay thai training he'd been doing, unleashing brutal knees on Eastman and opening up one of the worst cuts in MMA history. Vitor was finally learning to put it all together.

Vitor and wife Joanna Prado holding photos of Priscilla Belfort

It was around this time that Vitor's sister Priscilla Belfort disappeared, a victim of an apparent kidnapping. Vitor soldiered on and fought Randy Couture anyway and landed that one in a million seam of the glove shot that won him the light heavyweight title. It would've been interesting to see how that fight would have looked if it had continued considering where Vitor was in his training. Belfort's timing and patience had changed tremendously by then. Sadly, by the time he and Couture rematched, his sister's death was a certainty, so who can know how much of a role it played in his training and disappointing in cage performance. The click was allowing Couture to get his set ups and Vitor just couldn't handle Randy's clinch game or superior wrestling. Vitor would have similar troubles in his fight with Tito Ortiz, despite a creditable effort, and the fighter who was submitted by Alistair Overeem in Pride seemed like a ghost of his former self.

Vitor waded through a few fights over the following years, winning some, losing some, but he often seemed either ill prepared or non-committal. At a certain point he started training his BJJ with Checkmat and he started experimenting with integrating some new tricks against lesser competition. His fight with James Zikic is especially interesting to watch because of how methodical he was, but he really put an MMA clinic on Zikic who gave him all he had. It's actually one of Vitor's best performances as a complete fighter. He used beautiful set ups to get the fight to the ground and was moving between hand and foot attacks well. His BJJ looked phenomenal.

A more patient version of flurry Vitor returned for the fights with Terry Martin, Matt Lindland and Rich Franklin, but was derailed by Anderson Silva's mighty front kick. Vitor was a true veteran in every sense of the word by the time he fought Anthony Johnson. AJ managed to put him in trouble, but Vitor's scrambles on the ground were still legit and he weathered a few storms to find the submission. It was clear he was slowing down a bit, but he had become a cagey, crafty vet. His short notice fight with Jon Jones proved this as well as he hung around with the champ for four rounds and even managed to be the first person to ever put him in any danger with a slick, tight armbar.

Belfort locking in an armbar on UFC LHW Champion Jon Jones

Back at 185 lbs. following those fights and with the aid of TRT, Vitor dispatched Bisping, Rockhold and Henderson using a completely well rounded attacking game, mixing excellent spacing, timing and footwork with varied leg and hand attacks. No one who saw any version of Vitor would have ever predicted that he'd become a head kick KO artist. But he did, rounding out an impressive growth as a fighter and truly showing the blueprint for how to evolve with the game.

Sadly, I think it's possibly too late at this point as his age, combined with changes to his supplement regimen, will make his endurance a question mark against a Chris Weidman who really knows how to put pressure on his opponents (an area where Vitor struggles) and has learned in just a few years what it took Vitor about eighteen to master. Still, I'm sure he'll have a few good moments in their fight. Vitor's not quite as quick as he used to be, but unlike other fighters who let the loss of speed completely disintegrate their game (Roy Jones Jr. perhaps being the best example), Vitor has adapted his skills to stay relevant in a sport where most of his peers have hung up the gloves. No matter what happens at UFC 187, it's been a fun career.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Return of the Axe Murderer

Cung Le marches to the octagon with the air of Liu Kang from Mortal Kombat. Every fevered dream of a fighter we've had in our kung fu ninja anime fueled adolescence converges on his person as he dances in the cage garbed in Topps trading card company decals. If anyone deserves to be immortalized on cardboard as the symbol of martial artistry, it would be Le.

Despite being in his hometown of San Jose, some jeers are audible. Perhaps they recall Le's back kick careening into Channing Tatum's chest and imagine he's not the real thing anymore. He looks a little doughy around the midsection and there's a hint of disinterest in his eyes. He stretches his leg skyward, flaunting and limbering up in the same motion. His professional seeming team hovers on the cage in near silence.

The lights dim. Darude's Sandstorm swells inside the HP Pavilion crawling through the seats and briefly remaking them in the image of Saitama.  A familiar figure steps through the curtains flanked by CSAC officials in royal blue blazers. 

Wanderlei Silva evokes a different kind of dream. His physique is the yield of the lessons of colliding meat in the sweltering humidity of the Brazilian jungle. His eyes, made friendlier through the deft manipulations of a cosmetic surgeon, have hollowed a bit with age making him resemble more the old butcher who stained many a chalk colored canvas with his unrelenting barrages of violence.  Recognizable warriors such as Rafael Cordeiro and Fabricio Werdum trail him. We hear that his former comrade Anderson Silva served as one of his training partners. His eyes tell us the part he will be playing on this night is no act. Despite the relative comfort he today enjoys, hunger grumbles in Silva's belly.  

He stretches his arm, looking old for a moment, then begins his familiar bouncing from toe to toe. His eyes lock on his target and he seems to forget about trivialities like winning and losing. Le looks skyward to retreat from that menacing gaze.

The referee signals for them to begin and Le mistakes Silva's backpedaling for caution, pressing the action. Le employs his unorthodox striking, creating enough confusion to knock the axe murderer to his knees. The golden boy may yet defeat the monster. Perhaps the bogeyman isn't so scary after all. Perhaps the years of battle have made the ability insufficient to match the heart of the once ferocious warrior. Le's fans awaken and begin a cascade of chants demanding the initiative.

Blood flowing from over Le's eye after a straight shot relatively new to Silva's arsenal changes things. The veteran finisher snorts and catches the scent of victory. His paranthropic hooks seek and find firm purchase on every part of Le's upper body. His shin bursts capillaries in Le's leg and then grazes the side of his head. The horn sounds and Silva impatiently turns to his corner, almost ashamed at having settled for punishment instead of decimation.

As the second frame begins, Le attempts to keep the mauler at bay, but Silva's fists seem to drift through the air with a surety borne of having sent so many men to slumber.  The former Pride middleweight king settles back until his moment arrives then explodes forward unleashing a maelstrom of punches, kicks, elbows and the knees that still keep Tony Petarra awake at night.

 Le defends like a traditionalist and is consigned to history like one, falling to his back then belly in hopes of finding a reprieve from the onslaught.  The referee gives it to him.  As Wanderlei leaps atop the cage to bathe in the adulation of the crowd, there is a sense of alignment with the natural order of things, even in a sport so built on the whims of chance. The world is put on notice. The Axe Murderer still walks among you.

Sunday, November 6, 2011