For the first three or four minutes of any fight, there aren't a whole lot of guys scarier than Vitor Belfort. Fists a-blazing, the Brazilian comes charging out of the gates like an angry bull with dinner reservations.
Early in his career, this resulted in a lot of comparisons to Mike Tyson. Unless it's prefaced by at least two or three qualifiers, that's a comparison with more than a little foreshadowing built in, perhaps on purpose.
Not that Belfort is completely wrong to treat every fight like a sprint. For one thing, he's far more successful when he gets to go home early. Of his 19 victories, 13 have come in the first round. Of his 13 TKO wins, all but two have come in the first round.
In fact, when a fight goes more than one round, Belfort is an unimpressive 6-6. When it goes three, his record drops to 2-5. What do all those numbers and dashes tell us? In Belfort's case, it suggests that for all his physical gifts, "The Phenom" has some serious issues in the mental game.
As he prepares for the fight of his life against UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva at UFC 126 on Saturday night in Las Vegas, it's hard not to think that it's these psychological deficiencies that could torpedo him once again.
Unlike most fighters who fade in the later rounds, Belfort's problem isn't cardio. That would be a relatively easy fix. You get with a good strength and conditioning coach, jump some hurdles or toss around some kettlebells -- whatever the trend of the moment happens to be -- and boom, you're still in the fight when and if the later rounds roll around.
But it's not so simple for Belfort. The inconsistency in his career has stemmed from something that looks a lot more like self-doubt in the cage than self-preservation in the gym.
It's not that he can't physically go out and beat anyone between 185 and 205 pounds on any given night. More and more, it seems like his problem is that he's never completely sure of his own ability, especially when things get tough late in a fight. It's like he's always wondering whether tonight is really his night, and all it takes is someone willing to keep getting off the stool to convince him that it's not.
If you don't think so, then take a minute and list your favorite comeback victories by Belfort. Name all the fights you can think of in which he faced adversity and persevered. Name a fight in which, like Silva did in his last title defense, against Chael Sonnen, Belfort turned around a bleak situation simply by never giving up. Now see if you don't have a very short, possibly nonexistent list on your hands.
That's not to say Belfort can't possibly beat Silva. A man who walks around with that kind of power in his hands always has a chance. One or two well-placed punches and Silva could be yet another fighter who goes in against Belfort feeling prepared and confident and wakes up confused about how the fight could be over already.
The problem is, of all the things the middleweight champ has been called, reckless isn't one of them. Especially in the first few minutes of the first round, Silva is likely to do more watching and thinking than fighting. Maybe that presents Belfort with the perfect opportunity to charge forward and surprise him with an all-or-nothing assault before he can figure out the rhythm of his challenger's movements. Then again, that strategy didn't work so well for the admittedly slower, but mentally tougher Forrest Griffin.
If Belfort is going to fulfill the potential of his early career and unseat one of the greatest champs in UFC history, he needs more to lean on than one big punch. Even if he gets lucky and lands it, a significant title run requires a solid and consistent mental game; otherwise, you're just keeping the belt warm until its rightful owner comes along.
After all, while comparisons to Tyson might be unflattering in the long run, it could always be worse. You could be compared to Buster Douglas, only without the mammoth payday.
If Belfort's ever going to be free of the doubts -- both his own and those of outside observers -- he needs to prove that he can be just as terrifying in the final minute as he can in the first. You only get so many chances to do that as a pro fighter, and Belfort has already let several slip by. If he misses this one, he has to know he'll probably never get another.