Why the testosterone debate should provoke broader questions about MMA following UFC on FX 8

Josh Hedges, Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images

The discourse over testosterone, and steroids in MMA has chosen Vitor Belfort as its pariah, but the debate should be about more than pointing the finger at 'The Phenom'.

The career of Vitor Belfort is as inexplicable as it is profound. In a sport where time is unforgiving, here's a man who started in 1997 at UFC 12 when names like Tank Abbott and Scott Ferrozzo could be found on a professional prizefighting card. If you saw those names in a tournament in 2013, it would probably be on the undercard of a mud wrestling tournament in Plfugerville, Texas.

Other competitors, like Don Frye, Mark Coleman, and Gary Goodridge have faded from the cage, but Belfort still remains. It would be one thing if Vitor were competing just to compete; perhaps looking merely to collect a paycheck. But Vitor is still competing with a third title shot in the past two years looming on the horizon.

On paper, Luke Rockhold was a good opponent. Holding a win over the other brilliant performer of the night in Ronaldo Souza, and possessing an exciting difficult style (with toughness to boot), this seemed like anything but a softball for Belfort. But paper proved pointless, and Rockhold was dispatched in the first round with a supernaturally executed wheel kick.

And now the narrative turns not to Vitor's brilliance, but to his TRT usage. I feel like I'm cheating the Bloody Elbow faithful by writing yet another piece on TRT usage, so bear with me.

The unspoken hypocrisy to any debate about PED's, in my view, is nothing deliberate or sinister on the part of fans and media. But by design, there's the desire on everyone's part to watch human potential realized without ever really asking how that potential is reached.

The body is a frail assembly of carbon. To expect such a piece of hardwire to crash boundaries on a daily basis without the assistance of science would be foolish.

And so performers look for advantages wherever they can, and have been for decades. Nowadays a competitor in the 100 meter race takes just as much advice from his/her coach as his/her nutritionist, who has calculated that beet juice contains just enough nitrates to boost aerobic performance by 2 percent.

After a dismal performance for Australia following the 76 Summer Olympics that saw the country record only 5 medals, Aussies decided to dedicate $20 million to sports research to prepare for the 2000 Summer games they would end up hosting. That research, one might argue, that spent so much on hydrotherapy, compression garments, and motion analysis technology led to 58 medals that year. Coincidence?

The admittedly vague point here is that all performance is calculated, and quantified.

Fighters too are diligent in this regard. You have to know your yogurt because getting 18g of protein from Greek yogurt is better than the 8g contained in the regular. You have to know your mushrooms because you don't want to give your opponent the vitamin D advantage by not eating dried Shitaake*. Plenty of unnatural substances enhance performance, from caffeine to creatine, which helps provide energy to your muscles by increasing ATP production. Yet they are legal.

None of this is to argue that Vitor's TRT use is justified. His bizarre threats to reporters for even asking about TRT is enough to indict him as not just a user, but even better, to remind us of Ben Affleck's caricature of the steroid user. Though even some bioethicists who feel like athletes are better served knowing exactly what they put into their body...might argue for its justification.

On the side of the critics the other night was Brian Stann, who made an interesting comment/tweet following Vitor's victory stating that after having trained with fighters before and after testosterone use, there is a marked difference in speed and power.

So clearly there's an argument that a difference in degree as opposed to a difference in kind, when it comes to advantages, is just an equivocation. Caffeine, and creatine may provide advantages, but they are small by comparison when it comes to TRT.

Ultimately, however, a decision has to be made. Not just by the UFC, who needs to either ban it, or come out in support of it. But by the media and fans. If you want your athletes bigger, stronger, and faster then accept the consequences. If you want justice, then condemn not just Vitor Belfort, but Dan Henderson, Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen, Shane Roller, and the lot of those who reveal the truth about performance in sports; conviction alone is not enough to guarantee success.

*Props to Cameron Conway for his always useful blog.


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