By Steve Borchadt
Well, I guess now we all know how dinosaurs manage to stay young.
On Wednesday UFC officials revealed that self proclaimed "Young Dinosaur" Vitor Belfort did in fact receive a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy prior to his UFC on FX 7 TKO victory over Michael Bisping in Brazil last month. This news confirmed what many observers with two functioning eyes and the deductive reasoning ability of at least your average third grader had suspected all along after the utterly shredded Belfort refused to give a definitive answer when asked by ESPN's Brett Okamoto if he had ever considered TRT. No word from paleontologists yet on whether or not Tyrannosaurus Rex would still be walking the earth today had synthetic testosterone been available back in the Mesozoic Era, but dollars to donuts some Hollywood producer is currently working on a Jurassic Park remake based on that premise with Chael Sonnen slotted for the starring role.
But hey, who needs dinosaurs when you've got fighters as jacked up as Belfort? I mean the man has a physique that looks like it was chiseled out of solid granite to glorify a Greek god. One look at him with his shirt off and you'd think he was a real life super hero. What makes his accomplishments in body building even more amazing isn't just the fact that the Young Dinosaur has managed to sculpt such an impressive frame at the age of 35, but also that he's been able to do so despite being afflicted by hypogonadism - the same testicular condition Sonnen suffers from that results in lowered levels of testosterone.
Ah, but that's where the TRT comes in. Thanks to the miracle of modern medical science Belfort was able to get his testosterone levels "up to normal" again by taking regular injections of testosterone under his doctor's supervision. This sounds fairly innocuous on the surface, but upon closer inspection there are a number of problematic issues that pop up like acne on a bodybuilder's back when we examine the use of TRT in MMA.
For example, the Nevada State Athletic Commission allows a testosterone to epi-testosterone ratio of 6:1. In Belfort's case, since his fight with Bisping took place abroad the UFC itself acted as the regulatory body overseeing his TUE rather than a local governing body like NSAC. I contacted UFC Executive Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner and asked what the UFC considers an acceptable testosterone to epi-testosterone ratio for fighters with a TUE, but he declined to give a number, citing medical confidentiality.
As for what led to Belfort's hypogonadism, understandably that too falls under the purview of medical confidentiality. There are, however, three potential causes of hypogonadism that seem particularly relevant when talking about professional fighters: traumatic brain injury, weight cutting, and anabolic steroid use.
Belfort is a 17 year veteran of 32 mixed martial arts contests, not to mention countless hours spent sparing in the gym, so it's certainly possible some combination of all those blows to the head and the effects of cutting weight could have damaged his endocrine system. However, Belfort tested positive for an anabolic steroid after his Pride 32 loss to Dan Henderson back in 2006, which means it's also a possibility past steroid use led to his hypogonadism.
And that's the thing I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around in all this. I thought one of the requirements to obtain a TUE for testosterone was that the applicant couldn't have a record of past steroid failures. Turns out I may have just been naively optimistic to assume known steroid users wouldn't be given a free pass to take synthetic hormones in perpetuity.
This might be where cynics throw up their hands and suggest why not just do away with PED screening all together? After all, what purpose does it serve to make Thiago Tavares - who tested positive for the anabolic steroid drostanolone at UFC on FX 7 - take a time out in the corner for nine months because he resorted to chemical enhancement when evidently it's OK for Belfort to do the same as long as he's got a note from his doctor? If Tavares suddenly comes down with hypogonadism a few years from now will he be approved for a TUE also? Why not just end the whole dog and pony show altogether and quit wasting everybody's time?
Well for starters, there's that whole fairness thing. For instance, take a fighter like Michael Bisping who is an outspoken opponent of steroid use and TRT. Since dropping to middleweight in 2008, Bisping has lost to three men in the UFC: Belfort, Sonnen, and Dan Henderson. The common denominator between all three? Go to the back of the class if your answer didn't consist of a capital R sandwiched between two T's.
Bisping is just a few weeks shy of his 34th birthday, so he may have seen his last hope at fighting for the middleweight title slip through his fingers after the loss to Belfort. What must make this a particularly bitter pill to swallow for Bisping is that the biggest opportunity of his career - and his biggest potential payday - was snatched away by a fellow thirtysomething who was receiving a treatment that left him flush with a hormone that naturally decreases as a man enters his third decade on earth. Where's the justice in that for a fighter who doesn't want to resort to artificial enhancement?
Some may have the caviler attitude that fighters who choose to compete clean should just suck it up and deal with the fact that they're sometimes going to come across opponents who are using PEDs. Testing is always going to be one step behind innovations in doping, so realistically you'll never be able to clean up any sport 100%. But isn't that all the more reason to make testing more rigorous in order to at least catch a larger percentage of users? And once you do bust cheaters, how about hitting them with stiffer punishments that would serve as a stronger deterrent for anyone out there who might be contemplating gaining better results through better chemistry?
Like for starters, maybe it would be a good idea not to give someone a TUE for testosterone if it's possible he may have screwed up his endocrine system due to past anabolic steroid abuse. The UFC granting a TUE to a guy like Belfort who has a known history of using steroids sets a precedent where fighters might look at his case and think they too could one day get a TUE even if they happen to first get caught doping, thereby providing one less incentive to stay clean.
Beyond the issue of fairness, what makes TRT and other PED use so dangerous is that, unlike traditional stick and ball sports, the whole point of MMA is to inflict bodily harm upon your opponent until he or she either gives up or is simply knocked unconscious. It's a brutal business, but one made palatable by rules and regulations that contextualize it as sport. We can enjoy MMA with a clean conscience because we know the competitors are protected by guidelines designed to reduce the likelihood of someone suffering lasting harm in a fight.
But what good are all the safeguards in the world when a fighter is allowed to use an anabolic steroid - and yes testosterone is a steroid - that may enable him to inflict more devastating punishment on his opponent, and do so for a longer duration of time, than he would be capable of if he weren't using? Isn't that the very definition of putting fighters at an unnecessary risk of long term harm?
Look, PED's or not, this is a dangerous sport. This past Tuesday's episode of The Ultimate Fighter demonstrated that in emphatic fashion when Urijah Hall knocked out Adam Cella with a devastating kick to the face that rendered Cella unconscious for five frightening minutes. Just to be perfectly clear, I'm not in any way implying Hall isn't a clean fighter. However, his brutal knockout of Cella brought with it a sobering reminder that just because nobody has died inside the UFC Octagon so far, when we're talking about a sport where causing head trauma is a typical pathway to victory, it's certainly a possibility. What happens if that grim day comes - and god forbid it ever does - and the fighter administering the fatal blow is on TRT?
Obviously this is a worst case scenario. It isn't likely a fighter on TRT will ever inadvertently kill an opponent in a tragic accident. What's far more likely, hell downright inevitable, is that competitors like Bisping are going to continue to get shortchanged by a system that allows their opponents to use synthetic testosterone as long as they have permission from a doctor. What's more, those who have ruined their own endocrine system due to past PED use will likely be able to continue receiving artificial enhancement indefinitely.
Maybe it's time for the MMA community as a whole to take a serious look at the ethics of allowing TRT exemptions, especially in the case of fighters with past steroid test failures. Unless something is done to shore up the TRT loophole in MMA, concepts like fair play and justice might just end up going the way of the dinosaurs.