Looking down on a room packed with very good fighters, Al "Stankie" Stankiewicz took my wrist and growled: "Vitor Belfort, he's the best."
Little has changed when it comes to Stankie pumping up Belfort. Since the inimitable boxing trainer befriended the Brazilian some 14 years ago, the "coulda beens" and "will bes" and "somedays" are still a part of Stankie's linguistic equation.
"I knew I had a champion," he said about Belfort. "I knew he could fight and he had everything it took."
These days, though, the talk is more fantastical than reality. The almost-70-year-old trainer will tell you a lot can happen to a fighter in a decade and a half. And few have experienced more -- both positive and negative, inside the cage and out -- than Belfort.
People have gone in and out of Belfort's oft-dramatic life, but Stankie has been one of the few consistent players. And as Belfort prepares for his 26th career fight, a middleweight bout against Matt Lindland at Affliction's "Day of Reckoning" on Jan. 24, it's no wonder that both Stankie and his favorite fighter are still on the same page. Both feel rejuvenated. Both understand a lot has changed since the 19-year-old first stepped foot in the cage. Both know the "coulda been" is no longer, and the "someday" is now.
"[Stankie] has known me a long time," Belfort said. "He knows my life, he knew me when I was a nobody. I grew up. I got mature. I learned."
Like his last fight in July, a rousing victory in his middleweight debut over TerryMartin, Belfort will make his way to Las Vegas for a training camp led by Shawn Tompkins at Xtreme Couture. Stankie, whose career as a trainer was recently resuscitated after participating on the eighth season of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter (Stankiewicz was still donning the red "Team Nogueira" jersey at the Affliction press conference Wednesday) will join the camp and help work Belfort's corner during the fight.
Instead of the teenage heavyweight monster that burst into the UFC in 1997 on the strength of fast, powerful hands honed by Stankie, Belfort is actually decreasing in size as his career progresses. When he steps in to fight one of the better middleweights in the world, Belfort will be more than 40 pounds lighter than the day he made his professional debut. He'll also be a married man (having tied the knot with former Playboy model Joana Prado) and a father of two, with his third on the way.
"He's finally got it together," Stankie said. "My wife said to me, 'Al, he's a man now, no stopping him.'"
After testing positive for steroids in Nevada following a decision loss to DanHenderson in 2006, Belfort has won his last three fights. Against Martin, he appeared sleek and fast before scoring a beautiful second-round knockout.
"I don't even like to say the 'old' Vitor is back," Tompkins said. "No, there's a new Vitor Belfort now. We all see the potential in him, but he's the kind of guy that needs to be pushed and needs to be led. He's a great athlete. He's a great fighter."
Inside Xtreme Couture, Belfort is also nothing special. That's not a knock; the gym houses some of the mixed martial arts' best champions. And the Brazilian is learning what it's like to be just another guy in the room -- a new experience for someone who's always been the focal point.
"He sees these young athletes taking the place of where he was when he was 19," said Tompkins, "and he realizes he has to work twice as hard."
Actually, he works too hard, and Tompkins admits he's often forced Belfort to quit. Beyond conditioning and the physical aspects of the game, Belfort has benefited from playing the role of mentor. There are few fighters as uniquely qualified to talk about the highs and lows associated with being a champion, and he's happily availed himself to some of the younger kids in the gym.
"Relationships are about giving and receiving," Belfort said. "So I make sure I give what I have and receive what they have."
One of those mentees is former IFL fighter Chris Horodecki, who joins Belfort on the Jan. 24 Affliction card against fellow up-and-coming lightweight Dan Lauzon.
"He tells me 'you gotta stay levelheaded,'" said the 21-year-old Horodecki. "'You are who you are. Don't let this stuff go to your head. That's what destroys champions.'"
Belfort has spoken before of learning from past mistakes, of maturing and growing. The difference today, he said, is actually doing instead of merely talking.
"Bottom line," he said, "I feel young, just like Horodecki. I feel that way right now. I don't feel like I did a lot in my career. I feel like I have a lot in front of me, so I have to regain what I had and gain what's ahead of me. It's going to be a good ride."