It was Vitor Belfort’s shin being slammed across Dan Henderson’s face that started the rivalry between legends, and it was Belfort’s shin that ended it on Saturday night at UFC Fight Night 77.
The adrenaline-fueled cheers from thousands of Brazilian fans packed into the Ginásio do Ibirapuera in Sao Paulo signaled big problems for Henderson. From the moment Belfort emerged from the locker room tunnel, it appeared that the 45-year-old Henderson might be in over his head.
Belfort, one of the greatest knockout artists in MMA history, looked every bit the phenom in intensity as he walked to the cage with a blend of a Brazilian chant and the “300 Orchestra” blasting in the background.
The rubber match was nine years in the making.
Henderson drew first blood back in 2006 with a decision victory over Belfort in Pride, and Belfort returned the favor by knocking Henderson out in the first round of their rematch two years ago at UFC Fight Night 32. It was the first time Henderson had ever been knocked out in a fight. He desperately wanted an opportunity to avenge the loss so much that he called up UFC President Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and put in a personal request.
Henderson got everything he asked for on Saturday night when he locked eyes for a third time with the former UFC light heavyweight champion.
There was a significant amount of hesitance shown by both fighters right out of the gates. Being the speedster, Belfort patiently waited for the right opportunity to pounce on an opening and sprint to the finish. Henderson was also patient this time, as he had obviously learned his lesson from attempting to brawl in the second fight.
And then it happened.
Belfort shoulder feinted a straight and caught Henderson over the top with a left high kick. The aged legend immediately went stumbling back like a wounded animal, which usually signals the end for any fighter competing against Belfort. As Henderson wobbled drunkenly into the cage, Belfort darted in like a predator to clean up the pieces. Henderson fell to the ground, and a flurry of punches followed, signaling the end of the rubber match at 2:07 of the first round.
Even at the tender age of 38, Belfort looks to be one of the most explosive athletes on the entire UFC roster. This is especially rare considering he has nearly 20 years of professional fighting under his belt. The average human being would have broken down a long time ago, but Belfort’s has managed to maintain top form for two decades.
Perhaps the scariest thought to process is that he’s actually improving. We are seeing a more patient fighter with a more diverse striking attack. Old school Belfort was happy teeing off with straight-line punches, but now we’re seeing kicks and feints.
“I want to thank everyone out here with me tonight — my team, my kids back home — and I want to say something to Brazil. This is a moment of exchange. Sometimes you fall down, but you pick yourself back up,” Belfort said after the fight, when speaking with UFC commentator Jon Anik.
Belfort is definitely back in the thick of things in the middleweight title picture, despite losing to UFC champion Chris Weidman in May. He’ll need a few more wins before he can go knocking on the door for a rematch. Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Yoel Romero appear to be the frontrunners for now.
But Belfort proved on Saturday that his time as a UFC contender is far from over. He’ll be seeing one of those fighters, if not all, very soon.