On Saturday night, Vitor Belfort entered the cage for the 39th fight of his storied career, facing an up-and-coming prospect in Kelvin Gastelum. Over the past 21 years, Belfort has been at the center of the MMA universe. Belfort has won world titles. He has fought in all the major promotions and took part in some of the biggest fights in recent memory. But recent years have not been kind to the Phenom.
Since 2013, Belfort has gone 1-4 inside the Octagon, suffering four knockouts in the process. Following his latest defeat, Belfort declared that his body was beginning to fail him. And, called for an establishment of a legends division with a modified rule set. But is there a place for legends MMA. And, could it actually happen?
MMA has an ugly secret. Throughout the 90s and 2000s, the sport was synonymous with performance enhancing drugs. Many fighters who fought in the early days of the sport did so under the influence of anabolic agents. And while it is taboo by today’s standards, PEDs meant fighters could fight longer. It also meant they could recover quicker from bumps and bruises.
But in this post-USADA era, fighters aren’t afforded the benefit of steroids. With this in mind, their bodies are more exposed to swift declines. We’ve seen this on numerous occasions over the past few years. It’s wrong to think that a 40-plus-year-old, no matter how good they were, can compete with a 25-year-old in his prime.
There is definitely a need for legends to continue with their passion. But it is time for Belfort and company to realize that it will never happen within the UFC.
Since the sale of the UFC to WME-IMG, the focus of the company has changed substantially. The UFC is conscious of its public perception more so now than ever. Having old guys fight under modified rules will not work. Bellator has shown that people will watch legends fight, but the UFC and their stringent drug testing is not going to yield a renaissance of old-time greats.
Still, some options remain for the old guard. And I believe that one day it will be natural for fighters to shift into a legends division as they age like they already do in BJJ, Golf and Tennis.
Bellator has the opportunity to build the first bona fide legends league and with Ortiz, Sonnen Gracie, Shamrock and Fedor all on their roster, they have the basis to build upon. The issue that Bellator will struggle with is regulation. It’s been an issue of contention for the promotion since Dada 5000 almost died in the Octagon and Kimbo Slice died months after passing a medical within the promotion.
With Viacom owning the promotion, there are expectations that Bellator must be above board. And while the legends would bring in big numbers, the promotion needs to weigh the pros and cons of promoting aging athletes.
Japan is the home of freak-show MMA. We have seen baseball stars, pro wrestlers and TV personalities appear in PRIDE FC. And now PRIDE FC’s spiritual successor, RIZIN, is back promoting MMA in the land of the rising sun. The rise of JMMA could give legends the opportunity to compete in Asia, where drug testing is non-existent and the rules—which include no elbows—are more legend-friendly. Plus, Asian promotions have historically been more open to promoting fights with varied rule sets than US promotions.
Fighters should be allowed to retire on their own terms. But that being said, there is something ethically wrong about matching an aging legend against a young fighter in his prime. Unless fighters want their legacies to be destroyed brutally, they must look to find an organization willing to match them up with people their own age. And, allow them fight under a more suitable rule set.