Anderson Silva's invincible aura has lost much of its sparkle over the past 10 months. The UFC middleweight champion barely tried during a win in Abu Dhabi last April, and he came within two minutes of losing his belt in August.
Vitor Belfort won't judge his fellow Brazilian, who's widely considered the world's top mixed martial artist despite his recent struggles. Belfort simply believes he can finally interrupt the UFC middleweight champion's remarkable unbeaten run at UFC 126 on Saturday.
"I think he's an amazing fighter," Belfort said. "He brings inspiration for all of us. You know he has all the tools -- ground, striking. He's a great fighter, and I'm very honored to be fighting the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world."
The Brazilian brawlers are expected to fight mostly on their feet when they meet on the UFC's annually stacked card during Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas. Rich Franklin will fight Forrest Griffin in a meeting of popular veterans, while Jon "Bones" Jones meets Ryan Bader in an intriguing matchup of elite light heavyweight prospects.
Silva (27-4) has won 12 straight UFC fights while making a record seven title defenses since winning his belt in October 2006, when he stopped Franklin with a knee in the first round. He has never lost in the UFC, and hasn't lost any MMA bout since getting disqualified for an illegal kick in January 2006 for a smaller promotion in Hawaii.
But in Oakland last August, Chael Sonnen largely dominated Silva for four rounds with wrestling skills, preventing Silva from unleashing his potent strikes. Silva saved himself with a remarkable submission move, but the thorough thrashing so soon after his passive performance against Demian Maia in the Middle East led some to wonder whether the Spider had lost his passion.
While Belfort speaks fluent English, Silva doesn't say much even in his native Portuguese. The champ still reaffirmed his motivation before stepping into the octagon at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
"I'm not doing this for the fame," Silva said through a translator. "I'm not doing it for the money. I'm not doing it for the belt. I'm doing this because I love doing it. I've been doing this since I was a kid. I feel very comfortable doing it."
Belfort (19-8) rediscovered that love in recent years as well. He was the youngest fighter to win in the UFC as a 19-year-old back in February 1997, but he's long removed from his youth as the striker known as "Phenom" who seemed poised to take over the game with his fantastic skills.
Belfort famously beat UFC hero Randy Couture in January 2004 -- also at Mandalay Bay -- to take the light heavyweight title. But Couture reclaimed the belt seven months later, and after a narrow loss to Tito Ortiz in early 2005, Belfort was out of the UFC.
He bounced around four MMA promotions and even made his boxing debut, but fought his way back to the UFC in September 2009, scoring a first-round knockout of Franklin in his return. With his tantalizing talent still on many fans' minds, Belfort almost got a title shot from UFC president Dana White last January despite his thin resume at middleweight.
"Sometimes we make bad decisions, but guess what, next day we can make it better," Belfort said. "Every time that I'm out of my job as a fighter, I try to improve everything else in my life."
Belfort trains at Couture's Las Vegas gym, but hasn't fought in 16 months while recovering from surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder. The former 205-pound champion doesn't think he has lost any power in slimming down to 185.
"Not a lot of people in the world of martial arts can have the chance that I have," Belfort said. "It's a privilege to fight one of the greatest fighters on the planet. I have to earn it."
Belfort once trained at Silva's Black House gym, but they aren't friends, and the Brazilian press is filled with stories of icy exchanges between the two. When asked during Wednesday's news conference if Belfort is the best striker he has faced, Silva -- sitting nearly motionless behind dark glasses -- answered: "No."
Belfort is among the most talented boxers in MMA, and he believes he can match Silva's speed and power. He knows Silva can unleash a dizzying array of strikes -- kicks, elbows and knees -- when he gets an advantage on an opponent, and Belfort has worked on his defense.
No matter the outcome, both fighters are eager to cement Brazil's reputation for breeding champions heading into the UFC's debut in Rio de Janeiro in August.
"In Brazil, a lot of people are talking about this fight," Silva said. "It's two of the greatest fighters that ever came out of Brazil. Everybody is going to watch this fight."