Vitor Belfort, left, has pulled out of a May championship fight on the heels of the TRT ban.
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC UFC/Getty Images
It’s always been a puzzling paradox. State athletic commissions exist for the purpose of ensuring that events are contested safely and fairly. Naturally, a significant part of a sanctioning body’s duties involve policing the sports under its control to rid them of performance enhancing drugs. So why have commissions done precisely the opposite when it came to one particular PED? Why have they not merely looked the other way but actually affixed to that one substance their seal of approval?
That issue finally came to a head on Thursday when the Nevada State Athletic Commission met in Las Vegas to discuss the use of synthetic testosterone by athletes it licenses for competition. Over the past few years, the commission has issued exemptions to half a dozen mixed martial artists, allowing them the use of testosterone replacement therapy, and the influential bureaucratic body was bracing itself for a high-profile and controversial applicant expected to come looking for the same in advance of a UFC championship fight this spring. How did the NSAC dodge that hornets’ nest? By suddenly and definitively eliminating the stumbling block, unanimously voting to ban TRT, effective immediately.
Questions will be — and should be — asked about why the NSAC sanctioned TRT in the first place, and why it was silent for so long on the issue even as evidence mounted that its exemptions were unfairly tilting the playing field and placing athletes’ safety at risk. But for one day the commissioners were universally lauded by the MMA community — other than by the fighters to whom Nevada has issued TRT exemptions, one would assume — as nothing short of saviors of the sport’s integrity. (The body also sanctions boxing, which stages many of its biggest fights in Las Vegas, but according to an ESPN report on TRT, no boxers have even applied for exemptions.)
The swift, surprising move triggered an immediate and far-reaching domino effect. Within minutes the UFC had thrown its hefty support behind the ruling, had declared that it would similarly disallow TRT at its events in venues abroad where it serves as de facto regulatory body, and had called on athletic commissions in other states to follow suit. (That last part seems likely, as commissions tend to follow Nevada’s lead.) The UFC issued a statement, saying in part, “We believe our athletes should compete based on their natural abilities and on an even playing field.”
One of its athletes who won’t be competing on the octagonal playing field as scheduled is Vitor Belfort, the lightning rod the Nevada commission had been preparing to deal with. The 36-year-old Brazilian has become the poster boy for those who’ve argued against TRT. His career has been resuscitated and his physique transformed over the last few years, and in 2013 he won all three of his fights by knockout, each more vicious than the one before.
Significantly, all those fights took place in Brazil. That created the appearance that the UFC was keeping Belfort away from US commissions, which presumably would more closely scrutinize his TRT application. The fight promotion denies that was a factor in its choice of venues, but three straight in Brazil? C’mon. Even champions like Jos Aldo and Renan Baro and a legend like Anderson Silva don’t get that kind of home cooking.
Why was Vitor a hot potato in Nevada, whose commission has issued TRT exemptions to more fighters than any other? Because he had tested positive for elevated testosterone following a 2006 fight in Vegas, and based on that Keith Kizer, prior to his recent resignation as executive director of the NSAC, was on record as saying it was unlikely that Belfort would be issued a TRT exemption in his state.
So when the UFC declared Belfort to be the next challenger for middleweight champion Chris Weidman, and situated their May 24 bout in Las Vegas, it was evident that something significant was about to happen.
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Jeff Wagenheim: With testosterone replacement therapy banned, MMA finally gets an even playing field