The call came from Joe Silva without much expectation. On the receiving end was Alan Belcher, aptly nicknamed "The Talent" yet someone who in the prior 21 months watched his MMA career flash before eyesight nearly reduced to one-half and 3:48 of service time inside a UFC Octagon with his dismantling of Jason MacDonald. Belcher’s rapid rise up the middleweight division was halted by the harrowing experience of having his vision suddenly betray him while training in Brazil. A victory in his return bout was remarkable, but surely he needed another tune-up fight or two before resuming his swim with the sharks, right?
Silva, the UFC’s matchmaker, had a different idea, let’s see how far this kid is willing to go by offering him an opponent who’s made his name distorting heels and arms. The guy in mind for Belcher’s second comeback fight was a stocky, 5-foot-8 technical Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master named Rousimar Palhares. "Toquinho’s" mission is not to knock someone out cold, but to make him scream uncle, for 10 of his 14 wins have come via submission. Belcher has tapped just once in his career, April 7, 2007 to Kendall Grove’s Brabo choke at UFC 69. Silva loved the idea of matching a submission specialist against someone that doesn’t feign stupidity when explaining he has no clue about the meaning of the word quit.
That’s because in the game of life, you simply do not doubt Alan Belcher. He didn’t blink when presented such a dangerous opponent. Where there’s major risk there’s the potential for perks, lots and lots of perks. And when everything is on the line, that’s when Belcher brings out his best. This Saturday night at UFC on FOX 3 in East Rutherford, N.J., Palhares would be wise not to expect anything less.
"This is what I wanted," Belcher said. "I fight best whenever I have some pressure and some nerves, and there’s a challenge. That’s why I’m so excited about this fight. I don’t think Joe Silva thought I would take that fight. When he mentioned it to me he assumed I wouldn’t take the fight. I guess maybe some of the other guys in the division didn’t want to risk it by fighting Palhares. But I want to lay it out there and risk it all and prove that I have what it takes."
When you think about what may be at stake for Belcher, and that’s serious consideration for title contention in a division that will need new blood once Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen settle their blood war, you have to consider how he defeated an opponent more devastating than anyone Joe Silva can toss his way. The Palhares fight is his second since having two rounds of surgery to repair a detached retina in his right eye that sidelined him for 18 months.
It’s hard to justify it when you’re stuck in such a sandstorm, but Belcher realizes that those trials have bequeathed him opportunity. His fight will be broadcast before a national television audience eight miles from America’s largest city that’s roadblocked from hosting MMA events. Hardcore fans of the sport know Belcher’s story and credentials. Those new to MMA clued in by the FOX marketing machine will see a human-interest side strong enough to win over anyone either on the fence or a few knucklehead politicians who still don’t get it.
"It’s a huge stage, national television against one of the world’s top middleweights," Belcher said. "It’s what I’ve been working for, right?"
"If that helps people relate with me, absolutely. In the New York area hopefully I can gain some new fans. There’s always something that’s held me back. I think people can relate to that. They can see me and my success and my comeback as motivation to prove that you can do it. It’s not easy at all, but if it were easy everyone would do it. It’s just not."
Belcher worked his way through the door of prominence with a breakthrough performance at UFC 100. The record books list a split decision loss to Yoshihiro Akiyama. Popular opinion suggested that it was Belcher who actually won the fight. He explained to SBNation New York why he’s better since that night in Las Vegas, how one learns more from the battles he or she loses and why your opponents are your best teachers. Although a big deal was made about the UFC’s centennial event, for Belcher it was a setup for greater pastures.
"This is a lot bigger than that, even," Belcher said of the UFC’s third take on the FOX platform. "I’m a different person now. That experience helped build me into who I am today. It’s one thing that really helps with my preparation. I’m not thinking about how many people will be watching or anything like that. I realize that if I don’t win, I don’t go forward."
The betting lines have Palhares, one Belcher admitted as his most treacherous opponent to date, a favorite at -280 compared to Belcher at +240. Perfect, says the Talent. The times he thought he was winning, he got cocky and lost. Whenever he was the underdog and respected his opponent, he reached peak performance. He holds Palhares in high enough regard, which suggests that win or lose he’s going to bring it.
"It’s a very challenging match," Belcher said. "I have a lot of respect for him and I’m not underestimating him at all. I believe whoever wins this is in the top two or three in the division and really close to a title shot."
Belcher is close enough to where Silva decided his moniker matched his skill close enough to create this ultimate challenge. Palhares has made prior victims scream in agony, but even with a victory over Belcher, he won’t break him, because Belcher has already survived the greatest challenge of his life.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC