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On This Day in MMA History: The New Old Vitor Belfort TKO’s Rich Franklin at UFC 103

If not for the PED controversies that have plagued him since 2006, Vitor Belfort would be one of the most inspirational figures in MMA history. We’re talking about a fighter who picked himself up after each high-profile defeat and kept clawing his way forward, who started his career as a young destroyer at heavyweight, then reinvented himself as a light-heavyweight when that didn’t work out, then reinvented himself as a middleweight when that didn’t work out, then floated anywhere between 185 and 205 pounds depending on what the moment called for.

This December, after more than 18 years in the sport (!), the 37-year-old Belfort will challenge Chris Weidman in a middleweight title fight at UFC 181. The fight represents yet another career peak for Belfort, and will define his third stint in the UFC, which began five years ago today — September 19th, 2009 — when Belfort TKO’d Rich Franklin at UFC 103.

Heading into the fight, Belfort was enjoying the kind of momentum that had been rare in his career. Following his decision loss to Dan Henderson (and positive steroid test) at PRIDE 32, Belfort won a pair of fights under the Cage Rage banner — becoming the promotion’s light-heavyweight champion in the process — then dropped to middleweight and brutally KO’d Terry Martin and Matt Lindland in Affliction. Shortly after Affliction’s ugly demise, the UFC re-signed Belfort and booked him for a 195-pound catchweight fight against former middleweight champ Rich Franklin, who had gone back up to compete at light-heavyweight and 195 lbs. (aka “Franklinweight”) since his second loss to Anderson Silva. Fun fact from the UFC 103 wiki page:

It was announced on July 20, 2009 that Rich Franklin would headline UFC 103 against Dan Henderson. It was then announced on July 31, 2009 that fans were not happy with the announced headliner of Henderson-Franklin 2 so they changed the main event to feature Rich Franklin vs. Vitor Belfort. “Fans didn’t like it, so we changed it,” White said.

I only vaguely remember this moment in UFC history where fan sentiment could actually influence which fights get made. Now, we pretty much have to eat what they give us.

Belfort vs. Franklin served as the main event of a wild UFC 103 pay-per-view card in which all five scheduled matches ended by stoppage. Notably, Josh Koscheck punched Frank Trigg’s head off, Paul Daley scored a vicious standing TKO against Martin Kampmann, and Junior Dos Santos battered Mirko Cro Cop until the Croatian quit in the third round due to an eye injury.

The headliner was just as violent. After sparring with Franklin for the first half of the opening round, Belfort bounced an overhand left across the top of Ace’s head, dropping Franklin to the canvas. The finishing blows were ferocious and untamed — at least two of which landed squarely on the back of Franklin’s head. And sure, if we wanted to follow the Unified Rules to the letter, maybe Belfort should have lost the fight by disqualification. On the other hand…VITOR vs. ANDERSON??? As questionable as the victory was, a genuinely viable challenger to Anderson Silva was the best possible outcome.

And what a challenger Belfort was. What a story. The young man who couldn’t quite live up to his fearsome potential, traveling the globe trying to find himself, and returning to the Octagon as a 32-year-old somehow carrying the speed and power of his youth, but now with an added maturity blah blah blah or something like that.

Then, he got highlight-reel KO’d by Anderson. Then, he became the poster boy for testosterone replacement therapy. Belfort’s late-career achievements while on TRT were enough to earn him yet another title fight in the year 2014, except now he’ll have to compete without it, and he might not look like the same person. Personally, I expect to see a depleted, deflated version of Vitor Belfort enter the cage on December 6th.

But my God, what if he wins? Then, Belfort becomes mythical, the Roy Hobbs of MMA. The fighter who died and was reborn — a few times, actually — before achieving the greatest victory of his career. Like I said, an inspirational figure. Who would believe a story like that?


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