Even by the volatile standards of mixed martial arts -- a sport where nearly everyone eventually gets a slice of humble pie -- Belfort's ride has been a special kind of roller coaster. One chock-full of skyscraper highs and particularly crushing lows.
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For a short time during the mid 1990s, he might have been the best in the world until UFC 15, when Randy Couture drew the world a map of how to beat him, and his legend has never really recovered.
Belfort went on to become champion, but he's also played the goat on numerous occasions. He's been called unbeatable, only to have his flaws exposed again and again. He's dished out some "Ultimate Knockouts" -- his 44-second blitzing of Wanderlei Silva at UFC Brazil comes to mind -- but last year also found himself on the receiving end of one of the sport's most electric KOs at the left foot of Anderson Silva.
At this rate, when it finally comes time to tell the story of Belfort's near 16-year run in MMA, he may be best remembered as a fighter who didn't quite live up to that early hype.
Unless … unless …
Do we even dare to dream it?
It would be disingenuous to imply that Belfort could erase the many past disappointments of his career with a single victory over Jon Jones. However, accepting a short-notice shot at Jones' light heavyweight title at UFC 152 does give him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to strike a resounding blow for his legacy.
All he has to do is pull off one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
Oddsmakers have made this the ultimate boom-or-bust opportunity for Belfort, installing "The Phenom" as the kind of prohibitive underdog we seldom see in MMA anymore.
Certainly not in the sport's premier organization.
Certainly not in a pay-per-view main event.
The 7-to-1 odds against Belfort (and the -1,000 betting line in favor of Jones) aren't necessarily historic, but as the marquee bout on such a high-profile card, you have to do some digging to find their equal. Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre was a comparable favorite against Matt Serra at UFC 69; ditto for Fedor Emelianenko when he took on Fabricio Werdum in Strikeforce in 2010.
Spoiler alert: The only reason anyone remembers those odds is obviously because Serra and Werdum pulled off unbelievable upsets. Had they not, well, they'd merely be the answers to trivia questions now. Or worse, the punch lines of jokes.
Belfort faces a similar situation against Jones.
As a 7-to-1 underdog against Jon Jones, former light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort has an opportunity to pull off one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
Nobody, for example, remembers that Dan Hardy was a 5-to-1 underdog against GSP at UFC 111 or that Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos went off at an amazing -2,500 against Jan Finney on the undercard of the Emelianenko-Werdum fight. Hardy and Finney were dogs who didn't bark, and their golden opportunities were quickly forgotten.
If Belfort wins, it'll be one for the history books. He can punch his ticket into every celebratory photo slideshow, retrospective and end-of-the-year awards piece on every MMA website worth its salt. He'll also be the UFC's 205-pound champion, which would be a pretty nice perk for a guy who doesn't even fight in that weight class anymore. Fans who were either optimistic or foolhardy enough to pay to tune in to UFC 152 can likewise brag to their friends that they were watching the night Belfort shocked the world.
If he loses, he'll disappear into the ether alongside Hardy and Finney and every other failed longshot matchmakers have drummed up when they couldn't find anyone else to fight their dominant champions. Belfort will go back to the middleweight division as a slightly more tarnished version of his already tarnished self and "that time Vitor fought Bones" will simply be another of the sport's many cautionary tales.
Safe to say Belfort already knows as much as he cares to about going for it all and coming up empty.