Watching Vitor Belfort compete lately has been a counterintuitive experience for observers; he's doing at 36 years of age exactly what he was doing when he was 19. Except now the guys standing across from him in the cage are not eccentric overweight blowhards who created their own obscure system of mixed martial arts (read: Jon Hess), but modern day mixed martial artists with the assistance of the world's best modern trainers.
And all critics and fans can do is quote Jack Nicholson...."where does he get those wonderful toys?"
Vitor Belfort vs. Dan Henderson was a visceral experience. Henderson has been exhausted, and visibly hurt in fights, but never once against the world's best did he look like he was actually capable of being put to sleep.
Not until this past Saturday in Brazil when Belfort literally lifted Hendo off his feat with an uppercut, and then finished off Dan with some sweet chin music for the official KO 1:17 seconds into the bout.
The less obvious explanation for Belfort's spectacular KO is that he was forced to listen to Toby Keith a few minutes prior. But the more likely one is that TRT has aided his resurgence to a 10-2 record in his past 12, with 8 of them coming by way of TKO/KO.
It's true that Vitor Belfort is hastily singled out in the TRT debate, despite beating an opponent who himself has been on TRT. There are plenty of reasons for this. For one, Belfort has been popped for actual PED's before. And two, he says a lot of strange things about TRT. "Why do you think Alex Rodriquez gets more publicity about steroid use than Bartolo Colon? Relevance" notes Danny Downes.
In addition, and this goes out to the science geeks, he's also an incredibly vivid example of the effects testosterone are said to have on animals. Rhesus monkeys engaged in duels for rank experience a tenfold increase in testosterone; a correlation that's sensible in a context where we know of increased muscle mass as a side effect, in addition to "sharpen a type of visual skill known as visuo-motor scanning" notes John Coates in his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf.
Coates is talking about the "winner effect" in biology (the idea that success breeds success and that testosterone plays a big role), so while we know little about the complexities of it in humans, Belfort seems to be telling science what it suspects all over the collective microscope.
They don't call him 'the Phenom' for nothing.
But even if we assume the worst about Vitor; that he's a cheat. And that his current success is owed to his elevated testosterone levels, this doesn't change the basic fact that Vitor...is not where observers should be pointing fingers.
Ok well maybe some finger pointing is necessitated, but ultimately, his future and his status are enabled by the UFC.
The UFC has a choice to employ him, give him big fights that allow him to climb the ranks into a title shot, and avoid taking him where athletic commissions are skeptical, or not. And they chose all of the above. Just like they chose to employ Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, and the list goes on.
I'm not arguing that Belfort is not to blame for anything, or that he doesn't deserve criticism. But Belfort alone doesn't represent the TRT issue in MMA. I'd argue that what exists right now is not an individual failure, but an institutional one.
Zuffa has the authority to test its fighters rigorously or not. They have a choice to decide what kind of climate they want its fighters to compete in. And they have the final say on what kind of culture should exist among its competitors who must pay the price for those policies.
Belfort symbolizes that jagged edge of the debate, a reminder of our uncertainty about performance enhancing drugs in MMA. We quietly forgot the issue if street justice takes care of the karma befitting of a steroid cheat, but persistently chant when justice is absent in the presence of a violent victory for the 'cheater'. And lost in all of this is what and who allows this scenario to manifest itself in the first place.