ESPN The Magazine
Fighting to Remember
Vitor Belfort can't untangle his past even as he tries to recapture his MMA glory
AND THE FIGHTER PRAYS. Vitor Belfort, UFC middleweight, cinches the prayer circle with his dangerous hands. Wife, children, cousin, pastor. It is nighttime in Rio de Janeiro, July, behind the secure gates of a Barra da Tijuca development, far from the events that have disordered the fighter’s life into the shades of scattered memory. “Jesus, we love you,” he says.
On Saturday, in Toronto, Belfort will fight Jon Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion. Belfort was a champion, a name of the ’90s, relying on the knockout, his hands landing faster than any opponent could interpret them, scattering memory in his own way. Belfort is 35 years old now, a long shot.
“Jesus, please let the Lord into his life.” Belfort’s voice is rising. He is breathing deeply. The prayer is inducing a physical reaction. “Jesus, we love you.” His eyes are closed. In the blackness of his vision lives his life. But he does not see his life. Instead, he sees the memories of his life. He pulls everyone close to him. He prays, “Lord, please guide his pen as he writes this article.”
“FREE THE CHICKEN,” says the man sitting in the kitchen. Free the chicken and release the burden. It is present day. It is Vitor’s father — but not his only one. Vitor is in the next room, leafing through The Book. He hears, but he doesn’t listen. Other verses occupy his mind. He has many fathers, least of all this one. “Free the chicken,” says the man. He howls. “You must free the chicken.”
VITOR IS DRIVING down Avenida do Brasil, on a warm day in July. “This is the most dangerous road in Rio,” he says. “My friend took a wrong turn here. He tried to turn around. They shot up his car. He got away, with a bullet hole in his arm.” In the Complexo do Alemão overlooking the road, two girls in bikinis sunbathe by the traffic on tin rooftops.
AS A BOY, Vitor hears the story many times. In his retelling, the father has a son, and the son must suffer. Carlos Gracie learns jiu-jitsu from Mitsuyo Maeda, the Japanese master. Carlos teaches his younger brother, Hélio, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu becomes a new form, the forebearer of mixed martial arts, of the UFC. Carlos has a son, Carlson, who becomes a master. He takes down the fighter who had beaten Hélio, upholding the Gracie name in a 1955 match that still lives on in the gyms of Rio de Janeiro. But Carlson’s not a promoter, not a businessman, and he watches Hélio and his seven sons take control of the Gracie story, easing his family line from the picture. The clan splinters. Carlson fixates on betrayal. “If it wasn’t for me, they would be selling bananas,” he says. He opens a rival academy in Copacabana, training an army of fighters to beat his uncle and cousins. “I’m gonna show you guys I can build champions.” He is now the general, and in his army, the father seeks a son.
VITOR HEARS ZE LARENCO call it a lightning kidnapping, a random daytime abduction that is so quick and haphazard one cannot prevent it. Such incidents have grown routine for Larenco, the chief of Rio’s anti-kidnapping unit. But this case is different: No one has tried to take money from the victim’s ATM card. No one has used the victim’s phone. The case gains publicity, and anonymous tips pour in. Larenco focuses on Rogerinho and the other members of his Providencia gang: Pateta, Romulo and Bafino.
THE WOMAN DRIVES teenage Vitor through Beverly Hills and up Alpine Drive. The palm trees remind him of Rio. The car pulls into the driveway. The house is a stone mansion from the ’20s, a Gothic manor set on three acres. Tom Cruise lived here. The woman leads him into the living room. “I’d like you to meet Jon Peters,” she says. Peters made “Flashdance,” “The Color Purple,” “Rain Man,” “Batman.” He is one of the biggest producers in Hollywood, the head of Sony Pictures. “What do you want?” Peters asks. Vitor says, “I want to fight in the UFC.” Peters looks at Vitor and sees a star. Peters says, “I’m going to be your father. And you’re going to be my son.”
VITOR GOES TO ONE church and then another. He sees through the lies the preachers tell him. They pretend to have all the answers. Vitor walks into a man’s living room in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The house belongs to Dan Duke, an evangelical Christian missionary, born in Oklahoma but a traveler of the world. “Why would God allow this to happen?” Vitor asks. Duke says to him, “I don’t know. But you need to accept it.”
NO ONE CAN BEAT Jon Jones. Let alone Vitor of four fathers. He prepares for his walk to the Octagon. People understand that he will lose, that he has accepted this challenge out of desperation, or overconfidence. He is 10 years too old. He is moving up in weight. His hands have slowed. He has no chance. Vitor does not hear the talk. He hears only himself. “Now I have a philosophy,” he says. “It’s a reality.” All he feels is the kingdom within him.
VITOR IS BORN into a loud household. Shouting is all he hears. His sister, Priscilla, three years older, tender and calm, is his only ally. He comes to Carlson Gracie in Copacabana at 8 years old. Vitor is different from the others. His hands are fast. He takes to vale tudo, the Brazilian everything-goes discipline. He takes to boxing. He lifts weights. He is not the slender jiu-jitsu tactician, although he earns his black belt. Carlson watches. He has his own vision, that Vitor will be a great fighter, a new kind of ultimate warrior, competent in several disciplines. The other soldiers in Carlson’s army can see what’s happening as the energy shifts to Vitor’s development. Young Vitor sees more, sees the family troubles haunting his teacher. “He is so bitter, he is like a sinking boat.”
VITOR FINDS THE WITCH in São Paulo. She rolls her hips. She wears boots, a bikini and a veil. She is Joana Prado. She plays Feiticeira, the witch, on the popular Brazilian TV show “H.” She appears in Playboy, and she tempts men on TV, but she never yields. She is the most visible embodiment of sexual energy in Brazil, more famous than Vitor, and later, Vitor will take the witch for a wife.
A POSTER HANGS in the gym. Vitor is smiling, the UFC light heavyweight belt resting on his shoulder, something heavier weighing on his soul. He has to get rid of it. He must free the chicken. This is July, and his next opponent is out there. He is wrapping his hands. He is jumping rope. His neck is thick. He has a broad forehead, a flattened nose, mangled ears. He is handsome. He is beastly. He shadowboxes in the cage. The mat cushions his dancing. He grunts as he throws, the lefty leading with the right, his fast hands flashing like when he was young, sweat slickening his arms, fighting to the buzzer. Christian rock plays on the stereo. The words are: “He was going through a time of severity to increase the mourning.” Vitor’s many shadows, projected by many lights, overlap one another as he orbits the area where the blood lets out.
VITOR’S SISTER, Priscilla, is in trouble. She is 16, an exchange student in the U.S. She takes too many sleeping pills. She survives. Something is wrong, and back in Rio a doctor tells Vitor’s family what it is. Priscilla is bipolar. She should not be left alone.
VITOR CALLS. Carlson says, “I’m training somebody to beat you.” Vitor says, “I’m not calling you to argue. I’m calling you to ask for your forgiveness.” Carlson says, “I forgive you. But I invested everything in you.” Vitor says, “It was both ways. I love you.” Carlson says, “I love you.” Looking back, when Vitor considers Carlson’s life, he thinks, “The worst thing in life is not to die, but to live with bitterness.” Vitor thinks of himself also.
VITOR MOVES to Belo Horizonte after the tragedy, escaping the frenzy of Rio de Janeiro. He can’t train in Belo Horizonte. He can’t focus. He loses and keeps losing, five of seven fights. The UFC is no longer interested. Vitor tests positive for elevated levels of testosterone. He blames a supplement he bought over the counter in California. He fights in PRIDE, Cage Rage, Strikeforce. He fights for money, and not for glory. He trains with one group, then another, earning a reputation as a mercenary. He ostracizes himself. “That thing became a ghost,” he says. He cannot free the chicken.
YOUNG VITOR MOVES into Jon Peters’ guest house on Alpine. He eats what the personal chef makes him. The beautiful woman in the red Porsche drives Vitor around L.A. She drives him to the Carlson Gracie gym, which Peters bankrolls. Peters lives with his girlfriend, Catherine Zeta-Jones. She plays guitar and sings. “Vitor,” she says, “I’m going to be a big movie star one day.” Peters tells Vitor to marry a rich woman, as he had done, taking Barbra Streisand as his longtime live-in lover. Peters drives him to the set of “Wild Wild West” to meet Will Smith and Salma Hayek. Vitor gives Hayek private jiu-jitsu classes in her home. The father is teaching the son, and what the son learns is that “Hollywood is a trap.” Peters throws a party on his tennis court for the Oscar De La Hoya-Julio Cesar Chavez fight. Kevin Costner is there, and so is Spike Lee. “I would like you to meet Vitor,” Peters tells everyone. “He is my son.”
IN BRAZIL, there is no money in fighting. Just the pride you earn in calling another man defeated. In the U.S., you can make a business from fighting. In 1994, Carlson goes to L.A. to open his own Gracie gym. His protégé joins him. They live in West L.A., in a small apartment off Sepulveda Blvd. They live like father and son. Vitor is 17. Carlson gives him a T-shirt. On the back is written: Vitor Gracie. “I want to adopt you,” Carlson says. “I want you to take the Gracie name.”
PRISCILLA TELLS HIM to make a website. “Why do I need a website?” he says. “I just need to knock someone out and collect the check.” His sister wants to please everyone. She goes to Vitor’s fights. She gets a boyfriend, and Vitor takes him aside and asks, “What are your intentions with my sister?” Priscilla complains to Joana: “It’s hard for me to have a boyfriend because of Vitor.” She lives with Vitor in L.A., in his new apartment in Hollywood. He trains to fight Tank Abbott and she helps around the gym.
VITOR MIGHT BE DOWN, but jiu-jitsu is the last resort of the samurai who has lost his sword. “You need to sleep in the gym again,” Joana tells him. “You need to smell like the gym. You need to forget your wife, your kids.” It takes two years of winning before Vitor returns to the UFC in 2009. He’s been gone four and a half years, but he wins again. “Freedom lives inside of us,” he thinks. “It’s not easy for me. But it’s clear.”
PETERS APPROACHES VITOR like a movie production. Peters develops a new regimen. He thinks Vitor is too skinny. He wants Vitor to gain 30 pounds. He wants Vitor to focus. He has a way. The father wakes the son at 6 a.m. He hands him a joint, makes him smoke it. They have breakfast. Vitor swims laps. They have lunch. They smoke another joint. Vitor lifts weights, practices his jiu-jitsu, goes to bed. Tomorrow the same, their family ritual.
IT IS JULY. The people smile when they see him. All work in the printing press stops. Vitor is there to meet the publisher of his new book, “Lessons of Guts, Faith, and Success.” The faces of the Brazilian workers say what they have no words for: Vitor has come into my life and touched my life. He is mine, my son.
VITOR WORKS OUT at LA Boxing, at 24 Hour Fitness. He meets Tupac Shakur at a party. He meets Mickey Rourke, and the two train together at Gold’s Gym. Vitor has the cauliflower ears, and those who admire toughness gather around him. Vitor meets Samir Bannout, a former Mr. Olympia, who takes him to a rich man’s gym on Olympic. “Are you an actor?” a woman asks him. “You’re a good-looking guy. Do you want to act in movies?” Vitor shakes his head. “I wanna be a UFC fighter,” he says. The woman smiles at him. “I know someone who would like to meet you.”
VITOR HEARS THAT POLICE have found bones in Providencia. The DNA test fails to match. A woman comes forward. She says that she is involved. She says the body is buried in an empty lot across Guanabara Bay. An ambitious prosecutor holds a news conference, but excavation turns up only the bones of cows. Ze Larenco interviews the woman and says she is a liar. “We didn’t find the body,” he says. “So it’s a big mystery. There is somebody who knows what happened. And this person lives in Providencia.” One by one, Rogerinho, Pateta, Romulo and Bafino all fall to bullets in the favela wars. There is no one left to talk.
HONOLULU. 1996. SuperBrawl 2. The Lakers are in town for an exhibition. Vitor is 19 years old, preparing to fight, his first pro bout in the U.S. The referee comes into the locker room. The opponent, Jon Hess, has asked that all rules be suspended, says the ref. He wants eye-gouging allowed, kicks to the groin. “He can bring a shotgun, an AK-47, a knife — whatever he wants,” Carlson says. “My rooster will knock him out.” The locker room door opens again. Shaquille O’Neal tells Vitor, “I know the Gracies. I’m betting a Rolex on you.” Vitor doesn’t know what a Rolex is. He knocks out Hess in 12 seconds. The next night, Vitor is sitting on the Lakers bench. Art Davie, UFC’s producer, signs him to a contract. Four months later, he wins the UFC open tournament. People start calling him “The Phenom,” and the name sticks.
THEY COME FROM UNDERGROUND, where they limp, bounce from toe to toe on strained joints, their faces disfigured by this torture they have chosen as their business. They take the stairs and appear in the cage. It is here they suffer together, where they find a strange euphoria in shared suffering. It is addictive. Vitor says, “People don’t know what pain is until they suffer.”
VITOR NAVIGATES HIS PATH through the crowd in Anaheim, in January 2009. His hair is cut short. His body is in perfect shape. If he wins this fight, the UFC will open the door. His opponent is Matt Lindland, an Olympic silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling. A hand grabs Vitor as he steps up to the ring. A man hugs him and kisses him. It is Jon Peters, and Vitor is surprised, all the memories coming back to him. Vitor knocks out Lindland with his first punch.
CARLSON SPREADS HIMSELF thin in the U.S., rents the Gracie name to any fighter who is up for a purse, eagerly disseminating his version of the family story. The son is now just another fighter. The son needs training, but the father is training others. Vitor wins, and Carlson demands a cut of the purse. The son leaves the father, as all sons must do.
THE NIGHT OF the kidnapping, Vitor walks through Providencia asking people what they have seen. He searches the morgues. He goes to the mental wards in Copacabana, where the crazies hang on him, compounding his anguish. He appears on Brazil’s national news, a national hero in tears, pleading for the return of what is his. People come to him with visions. Cops in São Paulo say they have made a discovery. Someone fitting the description is wandering Belo Horizonte. A man calls Vitor’s grandmother asking for a ransom. Informants tell the police about rape and murder. Vitor phones several drug traffickers in prison. “We don’t do kidnapping, only drugs,” they protest. Vitor says, “I don’t want to know who did it. I just want to bury the body.”
VITOR IS HOODED as he walks toward the cage at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas. He is fighting Tito Ortiz, the “Huntington Beach Bay Boy,” a former champion like himself. It is 2005, one year since the disappearance. Vitor has lost his light heavyweight title to Randy Couture. In this fight, he will look sluggish, gassed, his mind elsewhere. As he weaves his way through the crowd and to the Octagon, he tries to focus on the fight, to block out everything else. But he can’t. He hears the voice before he sees the face, the voice of the father. Carlson is there in the crowd. He yells, “Traitor!”
IT IS 2004, summer in Rio, and Priscilla has not been to work in a week, sunken in a depressive state. Her mother drives her along Avenida Presidente Vargas in downtown Rio. Priscilla rides the elevator to her secretarial job at the city’s Secretary of Sports. She makes several phone calls. She tells her coworkers that she is going to lunch. She leaves around noon. A colleague passes by her on Rua da Conceição. He says hello. She says nothing, lost in the dream of her depression. She heads toward Avenida Marechal Floriano and its many restaurants catering to the lunchtime crowd, a few blocks from the edge of the Providencia favela.
DAN DUKE TELLS Vitor that his questions are not important, that it is important to find a way to live with his questions. And Vitor says he learned of two lives. “In the natural life, we eat, we drink water, we give birth, we pay taxes,” he says. “In the spiritual life, we can only reach it by faith.” He says that Jesus spoke to him and told the fighter to write in his Bible: “Today your case is resolved.” And this was his revelation. “I can resolve things even if they’re not resolved. I will resolve everything in the spiritual.”
VITOR CLOSES HIS EYES and speaks of one final memory, a future memory. It is this Saturday night, and The Phenom leaves the dressing room at the Air Canada Center in Toronto. “I’m in the competitive zone,” he says to himself. “Now we’re gonna decide.” He has the confidence from training with Rashad Evans, the last man to face Jon Jones, taking him the full five rounds. “Everything I did in training, I’m gonna put into practice.” He makes his way through the crowd. “No second chances. It’s now.” He does not see Carlson on his walk to the ring, nor hear him. “Don’t bring any doubt into my mind.” He does not need a kiss from Jon Peters, though he feels it there. “It’s not, ‘I have to win.’ It’s, ‘I will win.’” There is one father now, and the sister is whole, her face on the poster at his side of the cage. “You don’t see love. You feel love.” The chicken is free, and he says it to himself. “When you’re not living free, you’re a slave.” He enters the Octagon. He opens his eyes. “I’m here for a season. I don’t know when I’m gonna die.”