Vitor Belfort is not a sympathetic figure. Whether it's the succession of hairstyles that bear more resemblance to smashed-up roadkill than a project in which a barber would willingly participate, his display of a level of self-awareness that would shame a particularly hive-oriented honeybee, his occasionally (okay, often) bizarre public statements and attitudes, his overwhelming desire to proselytize under any and all circumstances, or perhaps most importantly the well-publicized positive steroid test in 2006, there are plenty of more or less legitimate reasons to harbor a strong aversion to Belfort.
What I didn't include in that list, however, is Belfort's use of testosterone replacement therapy. In the wake of the NSAC's decision to ban the practice, and even for some time before, Belfort has become the poster child for TRT and fears about its abuse, the overarching symbol of everything that makes fans and the MMA media uncomfortable about the current state of medicine and the institutional structures that are supposed to maintain the integrity of the sport.
Make no mistake, this is a large factor in the visceral reactions to Belfort's recent success. It's not natural, some claim, for a man of his age and with his mileage to be capable of the jaw-dropping things that he's demonstrated in his recent outings in the UFC. It's not fair to Belfort's opponents, say others, for a fighter with his experience to have the vitality of a man in his mid-20s. He's gaming the system, says a third group, by using TRT to compensate for the deleterious consequences of steroid abuse earlier in his career.
Inherent in all three of these lines of reasoning is the contention that hormone replacement is qualitatively different than other treatments for injury or chronic conditions. "Natural" is an utterly useless descriptor, a semantically empty term, when we're discussing the modern state of sports medicine. There's nothing natural about replacing a shredded ligament with a piece of cadaver tissue, as in the case of Dominick Cruz, or using a patellar tendon graft, as Georges St-Pierre did. There's nothing natural about pulverizing scar tissue with ultrasound waves or any of the hundred other treatments that physical therapy has to offer. There's nothing natural about stem-cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma therapy. There's nothing natural about hyper-specialized nutritional programs and strength and conditioning regimens that raise the upper limits of in-cage performance to incredible levels.
We passed the bounds of nature a long time ago. If modern medicine can extend careers by healing knee and shoulder injuries that would have ended careers even two decades ago, what exactly is inherently wrong with reversing the deleterious effects of aging on the endocrine system? TRT isn't a magical potion that repairs concussive damage to the brain, it doesn't fix worn-down connective tissue in the joints, and it doesn't give a fighter the reflexes of a 20-year old. If used as intended - if being the key term here - it simply brings a subject's blood serum levels of testosterone back to the normal range. In Vitor's case, his prior steroid abuse isn't going to win him any friends, and if you want to punish him for an offense he committed more than seven years ago, I'll concede the point.
But let's examine the reasoning of the (non-specialist) doctor the NSAC employed in its hearing yesterday. When questioned about the combat sport-specific causal factors of hypogonadism, the only one he mentioned was head trauma, while other research suggests that rapid weight loss (i.e. cutting weight) can be a contributing factor. To paraphrase, he suggested that fighters with enough head trauma to cause hypogonadism shouldn't be competing. If he'd said the same thing about a fighter with a knee injury or Joe Ellenberger's blood condition, he'd have been laughed out of the room. The line between treatments for injuries and treatments for chronic conditions, whether they're self-inflicted or not, is a great deal thinner than anti-TRT advocates would suggest.
We're straying away from Vitor here, so let's return to the point. The fact that Belfort is the subject of unceasing pearl-clutching about competitive fairness, while his TRT-laced contemporaries Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson get a (mostly) free pass, is absolutely unconscionable. Henderson has been on TRT since 2006, paving the way for all subsequent therapeutic use exemptions, while Sonnen pissed hotter than hot (16.9:1 T:E) after the first of his two failed attempts to take Anderson Silva's title and has subsequently had no problems getting licensed. Henderson is beloved for his folksy wisdom, dentures, and unassuming manner, while Sonnen currently occupies a UFC-funded chair on their flagship news program and has acted as a UFC proxy on a number of notable occasions.
I have yet to see the kind of concern for Sonnen's or Henderson's opponents that crops up every time Belfort is scheduled for a bout. The GIF of Henderson knocking Bisping's head into the crowd is a mainstay of nearly every comment section in the MMA internet, with nary a mention of whether TRT contributed to Henderson's ability to do so. Nobody now questions whether Sonnen's roided-to-the-gills performance in his first crack at the middleweight title took years away from Anderson Silva's career. Shogun Rua lost to both Henderson and Sonnen, and I have yet to hear the outcries against TRT for putting him in harm's way.
My point here is that Henderson and Sonnen are just as worthy of questioning and, if necessary, condemnation as Vitor Belfort. If you're against TRT because it's unnatural, because it provides a competitive edge, or because it allows fighters to game the system, you should be cheering as hard against Henderson and Sonnen in their upcoming fights as you would have been against Vitor. Henderson is 43 years old and far past the point where he should be competitive against high-level fighters, and it's worth asking whether he would be without TRT. The same should be asked of Sonnen, for that matter.
Frankly, I was taken aback by the gleeful reactions of the fans and especially of the media to Vitor being pulled from the title fight with Chris Weidman. Not by the pulling itself, mind you - I think it was a perfectly reasonable course of action, given the circumstances - but by the self-congratulatory backslapping and schadenfreude that accompanied it.
Vitor Belfort doesn't need your pity, and whether you choose to sympathize with him is a matter of personal choice. Dislike him for his attitude, his positive steroid test and the fact that he ignored the NSAC's suspension back in 2006, even his proselytizing or his godawful coiffure. I honestly don't care much for him myself, aside from the (typically brief) periods he spends inside the cage. Don't hate him, however, simply for being the most prominent example of and scapegoat for an era of legalized anabolic steroids in which he was far from the only participant. There's plenty of blame to go around, from the UFC (which didn't do much, if anything at all, to discourage the practice), to the state athletic commissions that granted TUEs, to the medical professionals who wrote the scripts, to the fighters who took advantage of it.
Vitor is a symbol of the Wild West era of MMA, not the problem itself, and he shouldn't be treated as such.