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After spectacular loss to Silva, Belfort climbs back on saddle

It must be a terrible feeling to go from highlight-reel hero to victim. When you're the one knocking people out in perfect timing with the drum beat of some classic rock anthem up on the big screen, it's like your glory days will never end. When you're the one crumpling to the mat, it's like reading the diary entry from the worst day of your life over and over again, only with 15,000 fans looking over your shoulder.

Vitor Belfort now knows both sides, thanks to Anderson Silva's unbelievable front-kick finish at UFC 126. It was probably the closest the 34-year-old Belfort will ever get to another UFC title, and it ended with him on the business end of a clip that will live on in UFC highlight-reel infamy.

Whether the fighter who's been just as big a head case as a talent at times can put it behind him and move on, well, that's what we're all waiting to find out at UFC 133 this weekend.

On paper, Belfort should beat Yoshihiro Akiyama every time. He's faster, has much better hands, and possess the kind of finishing ability that Akiyama just hasn't shown so far in the UFC.

But Belfort's problem has never been that he's not a good enough athlete. Rarely has he ever stepped into the cage against an opponent who was physically superior to him. Ask anybody who's seen him in the gym and they'll tell you: the man is gifted. It's what goes on between his ears that's the problem.

For the first few minutes of any fight, Belfort is a terror. His quickness, his punching power -- most opponents are lucky to still be standing when the first horn sounds. Thirteen of his 19 wins have come in the first round, and many of his wins past that point came against the kind of competition he probably could have finished whenever he felt like it (no offense, Terry Martin).

As for his defeats, six of the nine came beyond the first round, though that number goes up if you count his first loss to Randy Couture in the UFC (which came just past the eight-minute mark) and his submission at the hands of Alistair Overeem (9:36 of round one, thanks to those lovely 10-minute first rounds back in Pride).

It's almost as if Belfort becomes less sure of himself every time he has to get off the stool to start a new round. If Akiyama can last long enough to exploit it, that may be the best chance he has in this fight.

Pairing these two up for this particular fight at this particular time is another example of the underappreciated matchmaking genius of the UFC's Joe Silva. You have Belfort, who is as talented as anyone in the UFC, but suffering from mental roadblocks at an especially vulnerable time following his loss to Silva. Then you have Akiyama, who is known to last through almost anything and force an exciting fight out of every opponent he faces, even if so far in the UFC he's come up on the losing end of his Fight of the Night performances twice as often as the winning one.

Belfort needs to bounce back in a big way, while Akiyama needs to show he's more than an entertaining loser. Only one of them can get what he wants, but together they might create something memorable.

What makes Akiyama such a great opponent for Belfort is the extremely good chance that he'll still be there by the end of the first, no matter what the Brazilian throws at him. He's not a fighter who goes away easily, which makes him exactly the kind of guy who can give Belfort problems.

But if Belfort can't beat a fighter like Akiyama -- someone who can't match him skill-for-skill, but can perhaps hang around long enough to let Belfort beat himself -- where does that leave him? He's already lost his bid for a UFC middleweight title, and if he retired tomorrow his legacy would be based more on what he did when he was MMA's boy wonder than on what he's done as a grown man.

Akiyama may not present the kind of physical test that Silva did, but for Belfort it's a test that's just as important. As flashy as the first-round finishes are, he could use a win in the deeper waters, if only to prove to himself that he can do it.

No one has ever questioned his raw ability, but in this sport, athleticism is just one ingredient in the strange alchemy that makes up a great fighter. The others come out when talent alone doesn't get it done.

As much fun as it might be to relive his own highlights, once his career is all over Belfort might want something longer to sit down and watch. Coming out on the winning end of a battle with Akiyama could make for just that kind of full-length feature.

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