How do you like your athletes? In modern sports, fans have lined up in one of two camps. One side wants their sports heroes all-natural, with no (or at least limited) supplementation and chemical intervention. If you were to ask them what they define as athletics, they would respond that sports are a celebration of what the human body is capable of when refined and pushed by the human mind. Incorporating drugs and other scientific breakthroughs to improve athletic performance is to flout the very essence of competition. I like to call this the purist position. Others don’t share the enthusiasm for the moral ideals behind sports, particularly in professional sports. They believe that in professional sports – amateur competition such as the Olympics is another matter entirely – the main purpose is the entertainment of the audience. I’ve dubbed this point of view the spectator position.
Spectators have no interest in what the athlete does for their abilities to reach the height that they do. They channel the essence of Nike and demand they just do it. They believe we live in the age of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), and if we can’t beat it then we might as well embrace it. Anabolic steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), beta-2 agonists, selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), blood boosters, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT); they don’t care. Just do what you have to do to be the best. This is, of course, unimaginable heresy in the eyes of the purists.
Personally, I would line up in the spectator camp most of the time. As long as everyone is transparent about what they’re using, and they’re monitored by a medical team to ensure that none of this biological hacking reaches dangerous or irresponsible levels, I say go for it. We’re deluding ourselves as a society if we believe that any aspect of our modern lives are natural, be it our diet, medication regimen, or medical intervention. Cheez Whiz is still edible over a year after it’s been opened, and there are poor souls who shove that god-awful, artificially immortal imitation cheese down their throats – in between doses of Prozac – some of whom were furious when Peyton Manning used a stem cell procedure to repair his neck and continue playing at a legendary level. The cognitive dissonance is astounding. Some of the worst things you can do to your body aren’t being sold by the shady guy in the gym locker room, they’re being sold in your grocery store.
Processed dairy tangent aside, I do have limits. Firstly, if one person gets to use them, then everyone does. It isn’t fair to have people juiced up and crushing their all-natural competition. Second, we need full disclosure. If you want to juice, then juice, but don’t hide it. Last, no PEDs in combat sports; none, zilch, nada.
Hear me out. Most professional sports consist of two groups of grown men in different outfits chasing a ball or a puck. The rules and the objectives are different, but ultimately the focus is getting that ball/puck in between two posts, in a net, or across a line. People’s bodies collide along the way, but ultimately it’s still just a game. Combat sports aren’t a game, it’s a fight. The objective is to hurt the other person until they can’t continue, or to at least be the one who did the most damage when time runs out. If all of these fighters were walking around jacked up on whatever PED is the flavor of the month, they’d just accumulate more damage during each fight and shorten both their careers and their lives. It’s irresponsible and there’s no place for it. Which is why the recent ruling by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) banning testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is a great thing.
Up until now, it was possible for fighters who tested positive for low testosterone to get an exemption from the athletic commission that allowed them to use TRT for their training and their fights. TRT works by supplementing whatever testosterone is missing from the user with synthetic testosterone, which allows much older men to walk around at the same testosterone levels as their colleagues in their early 20s. It was highly controversial for several reasons. Besides being lambasted as a PED, there was also the fact that most men in their late 30s don’t experience significant testosterone depletion, not at the level these fighters were being tested at. Interestingly, prematurely low-testosterone is symptomatic of past anabolic steroid abuse, and some of the fighters who had been granted TRT exemptions had been busted for steroid use in the past. Many people viewed the exemption program as, in a sense, rewarding aging fighters who had used steroids with a legal method to enhance their abilities. These are some of the fighters in the UFC who had applied for exemptions, and will now have to continue their careers without it.
4. Frank Mir
Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir only began using TRT late in his career. Prior to that, he was known as the man who handed Brock Lesnar his first loss in MMA, and as a perennial contender in UFC’s heavyweight division, having made his debut with the promotion in 2001 at ‘UFC 34: High Voltage’ at just 22 years of age. He successfully applied for TRT exemptions for his fights against Junior Dos Santos at UFC 146, Josh Barnett at UFC 164, and Alistair Overeem at UFC 169. Unfortunately for Mir, it didn’t seem to do him much good. All 3 fights were a fairly one-sided affair, with Mir taking much of the damage. His fight against Overeem marked his 4th consecutive loss, a stat that would mean unemployment for most UFC fighters. That being said, Mir’s a true veteran and a former champion, so expect to see the UFC give him one more chance. Maybe he’ll be able to recapture some of his old magic and secure his first victory in 2 ½ years.
3. Chael Sonnen
‘The Gangster from West Lynn’, Chael Sonnen, infamously said a few years ago that if he stopped taking TRT, he would die. While I suspect that may have been a bit of hyperbole, there’s no doubt that Sonnen truly believes TRT is essential if he wishes to continue his career. He’s gone on record to say it’s saved him from depression and improved multiple aspects of his life. Sonnen’s love of the spotlight and masterful ability to hype his own fights have made him a mainstay of the UFC in recent years, so it would be tough to see him bow out because of the change in regulation. Sonnen is scheduled to face Wanderlei Silva in Brazil on May 31st, a fight between two men who do not like each other at all, and one that’s been years in the making. Sonnen has acknowledged publicly that he may have to stop competing because of the ban on TRT. His decision will most likely rest on the result of his performance against Wanderlei. If he does choose to hang up the gloves, at least he can rest assured that MMA fans won’t forget him anytime soon.
2. Dan Henderson
Dan Henderson might be the original face of TRT in MMA. He’s been successfully and legally using it since 2007, and there’s no doubt it’s played a part in his incredible longevity and continued success in the ring at 43 years of age. Throughout his lengthily career, ‘Hendo’ has made his mark as a big draw and a headliner in the UFC, PRIDE, and Strikeforce. His fight against Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua in 2011 is regarded as one of the finest MMA fights in the history of the sport, and one in which he emerged the victor. The ramifications of the TRT ban will be particularly pronounced for Henderson, who is no doubt used to life with it after nearly 7 years of use. He’s scheduled to face ‘Shogun’ in a rematch of their legendary 2011 clash at UFC Fight Night 39: Shogun vs. Henderson 2, and has received what will most likely be the final TRT exemption in MMA by the Brazilian Athletic Commission. As for what his future holds, we’ll have to wait and see.
1. Vitor Belfort
Finally, we come to the man who became the face of TRT throughout this entire debate. Vitor ‘The Phenom’ Belfort made his UFC debut at UFC 12, a one-night heavyweight tournament that he went on to win. He would alternate between stints in the UFC and PRIDE throughout the early 2000s. Throughout his career he has been both the UFC Heavyweight champion and UFC Light Heavyweight champion. Today, at 36 years of age, Belfort competes at middleweight, where he has experienced a career renaissance. Belfort hasn’t lost a non-title fight in almost 5 years, as his only 2 losses in recent years come against Anderson Silva and Jon Jones (both championship fights).
Since beginning to use TRT, Belfort has transformed himself into a terrifying specimen of a fighter, hell-bent on inflicting pain and suffering. I exaggerate slightly, but there’s no denying that Belfort has been as dominant as can be in his last 3 fights (2 KO’s, 1 TKO), none of which lasted longer than 7 minutes. He was scheduled to face Chris Weidman at UFC 173 for the UFC Middleweight Championship, but was forced to withdraw after the new TRT rules, as he needs at least 90 days for it to leave his system. Lyoto Machida will replace him at UFC 173, and he’s been promised the winner of Weidman v. Machida by the UFC. Whatever happens, we’ll finally be able to see if Belfort’s career renaissance came from a breakthrough in training or TRT.