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Vitor Belfort will challenge Chris Weidman for the UFC Middleweight Championship this summer, but in some ways Belfort has already lost. The 36-year-old Brazilian’s use of testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) continually draws ire from fans, fellow fighters, and UFC President Dana White, whose drug testing policy caused Georges St.-Pierre to take an indefinite leave last December.
The MMA world is against Belfort, and he knows it. With the NFL and MLB implementing harsh penalties for repeat drug offenders the UFC has to make an example out of perpetrators, including but not limited to contract terminations. For this, admitted users have NSA-like vigilance paid to their pre and post-fight drug tests.
But what of fighters like Belfort and Chael Sonnen who argue that TRT is their only means of leveling the playing field? In some cases athletes need the drug as a temporary fix for a physical limitation. The bottom line is that users see TRT as a way of maintaining their abilities, while opponents argue that steroids illegally improve a fighter’s diminishing skill set.
Among the benefits of TRT are increased energy levels, muscle gains, and a higher bone density. The latter is vital in combat sports, as we learned when Anderson Silva wrapped his shin around Weidman’s leg last month. Long-term negative side effect of TRT are unknown because its ever-evolving form complicates research. Also, it is mainly prescribed to aging men with health complications.
The issue with Belfort’s use of TRT is that it seemingly give him an advantage, despite repeated therapeutic use exemption (TUE) allowances. And if accredited doctors condone TUE’s, then the only grip is with those receiving the short end of the stick. TRT is allowed on a case-by-case basis because it is a necessity, much like medical marijuana potentially alleviates pain and nausea.
Comparisons can be drawn between the two drugs because they allow users to recover and replenish their bodies. Obviously marijuana slows down an individual’s motor skills and reaction time, but TRT, when taken in prescribed dosages, helps a fighter compensate for low testosterone levels.
The difference between steroid use in MMA and other professional sports is that MMA is lenient with their no-tolerance policy. Fighters have a loophole that football and baseball players can’t wiggle through and they takes full advantage, whether it is ethical or not. According to the New York Times’ Michael Schmidt, the NFL and MLB grant about 100 exemptions a year for attention deficit disorder and hypertension among various conditions. The fighter isn’t at fault if the system allows him an exception based on a medical condition. Some see it as shady, maybe even crooked, but it’s legal.
Earlier this week, TRT disputants got support from the Association for Ringside Physicians (ARP) who noted that the use of TUE’s are rarely justified. “TRT in a combat sports athlete may also create an unfair advantage contradictory to the integrity of sport. Consequently, the Association of Ringside Physicians supports the general elimination of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for testosterone replacement therapy,” their statement read.
Whether Belfort uses TRT medicinally or not is questionable, but given the ARP’s announcement, his days of using are numbered. All that remains is for individual state athletic commissions to follow suit.
Many argue about the black cloud TRT casts on combat sports, but few will look past its negative connotations. What one sees as an unfair advantage, may actually be an equalizer that keeps the competitive seesaw in place. If Belfort steps into a Las Vegas Octagon this summer it will be under heavy scrutiny and with the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s waning blessing.
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