by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
At one point, Vitor Belfort was “THE” fighter in MMA. Coming into the sport as an 18-year-old phenom out of Brazil, Belfort quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with.

After debuting successfully at Superbrawl 2, Vitor headed to the UFC and went on to defeat fighters who were much older than he was, as he won the promotion’s first ever heavyweight-only tournament at UFC 12. Belfort followed that up with a 53-second stomping of the company’s poster boy, Tank Abbott, three months later.

Even after a tough loss to Randy Couture at UFC 15, Belfort continued to impress, winning his next two fights, including his highlight reel demolition of Wanderlei Silva at UFC: Ultimate Brazil in 1998.

At that point, it appeared that Vitor would be among the elite fighters in the world for a long time, but it’s been a rocky road since, culminating in this past weekend’s uninspired and sloppy loss to Alistair Overeem at the Strikeforce event in San Jose, California.

Since his initial run of greatness in the SEG-era UFC, Belfort has been plagued by inconsistency, personal troubles, and what appears to be the general downgrading of his once trademark relentless aggression.

Vitor began to show signs of this degradation when he left the UFC for Pride in 1999. Losing his first fight for the company to Kazushi Sakuraba at Pride 5, Belfort didn’t look much like the fighter he had been in the UFC.

While winning the remaining four fights with the Japanese promotion, Vitor wouldn’t display the hand speed and KO power that he had in his earlier days. Instead, he opted for a controlled, ground-based attack, leading to only one decisive finish (a rear naked choke victory over Bobby Southworth at Pride 13) in his four wins.

Perhaps missing the American-style MMA game, Belfort returned to the UFC and face off against Chuck Liddell at UFC 37.5, losing via unanimous decision and again not looking like the Vitor of the past.

After taking a year away from the sport, it appeared as if Belfort might be returning to his previous form when he quickly walked over Marvin Eastman at UFC 43 in similar fashion as he had in his early UFC days.

An unintentional cut to the eye of Randy Couture at UFC 46 would give Vitor his only MMA championship, but the glory was short-lived. Just seven months later, Belfort would be grounded and pounded by Couture to lose his title in his only defense.

Since losing to Couture for the second time, Vitor has lost three of his next four fights (two of them to Alistair Overeem). In the process, he has failed to look like the fighter he once was. Now with nearly ten years in the spent and still in his 20s, it looks as if Vitor has aged 50 years instead of ten, no longer possessing that which he once had.

So, what could be next for the once great phenom of the UFC?

Belfort is still a marketable name, but he needs to choose between his fighting career or life outside the sport if he is truly to return to being one of the sport’s most feared and respected fighters.

Should Vitor’s high-profile personal life in his native Brazil, multiple team changes, and shifting focuses continue, it may be that his days of being a title contender are long behind him. If he continues down his current path, we may see a replay of the career path of another once highly touted fighter, Pedro Rizzo.

Right now, Vitor Belfort stands at the crossroads of his career. It’s possible for him to reinvigorate his career, as other fighters have done in recent memory, or he could fade away. It’s all up to Vitor where he goes. For better or worse, it’s in his mind which Vitor Belfort we’ll remember, The Phenom or simply The Once Was…