Like a pre-fight weigh-in, the components a fighter must overcome are measured before he enters the ring.
Lately, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) has taken on its own identity in the debate about legality of performance-enhancing drug use in the sport of MMA. While proponents of TRT have reasoned their way to keeping it legal within MMA, this doesn’t mean it isn’t cheating.
By this point, getting into the details about TRT, its effects and necessities, the problems with fighters and those who have used the therapy would be redundant; those things can be found readily online (I recommend Mike Chiapetta’s write-up as a starting point). What needs to be addressed, however, is MMA’s acceptance of cheating as a result.
We’ve found ourselves at a crossroads. One way runs the credibility of athletes, the competition that pits the skill and intellect of an individual against that of another in order to determine whose combination of mind, body and soul is superior.
In the process, we appreciate the aesthetics of this combination like a well-played game of chess and delight in a human’s ability to set in motion a series of choices and chance that ultimately determines victory.
Along the other way runs the credibility of the sport itself, that thing that makes competition worthwhile. It’s the reason we become fans in the first place, why most of us chose to follow mixed martial arts as the ultimate competition to test certain characteristics and help us understand the scope of human strength.
And so the balance of these is what we must reconsider when examining TRT and our acceptance of it.
TRT absolutely changes the natural makeup of the fighters, regardless of the means by which those fighters have arrived to any physical composition. The therapy can keep great fighters at the top of their game, i.e. at the level of performance that made them great; it can also make great fighters even better.
Like all great advancements in science, we all deal with the burden of knowledge. This is why applied ethics is such a crucial and integral part of a variety of curricula outside of philosophy. There is an ethics of business, marketing, engineering and, yes, sport.
Nevertheless, I’ll move beyond the classroom discussions of the ethics of sport to speak directly to the problems of TRT in MMA. While it’s legal for a number of very valid reasons, it is still cheating. TRT allows an athlete to gain an advantage in competition they couldn’t have had otherwise.
Hear me out: While I argue that TRT is definitely cheating, I argue concurrently that it is cheating only as a therapy.
We can contend night and day that there are a number of methods—substances or others—that allow athletes to gain an advantage. Even at the very basics of bodybuilding, whey protein is a natural substance manufactured by unnatural means. Beyond that, a number of other products—pre-workout boosters, growth hormones, endurance aids and others—are being manufactured and sold as safe, effective and oftentimes “natural.”
There’s no reason to argue the nature of these products, either, especially given that part of the entertainment sport provides appears to result from the needless competition of gathering food given the most modern technologies. Therefore, competition has evolved to include many of these supplements just as much as supplements have evolved to boost competition.
But when these things become a therapy, something that is given to certain athletes over others through exemptions, then what was once the only thing “natural” left in sport—the competition itself—is bastardized; advantage is prescribed.
Should the legal use of TRT in MMA be all-or-nothing?
I’ll give it to my B/R colleague Matthew Goldstein, who insists that “If you're a fighter and your testosterone levels decrease to the point where you can't cut it anymore, then it might just be time for a new career, as tough as that is to face.”
But my argument extends beyond his in that the natural ability of a fighter isn’t what’s being measured in MMA or any sport; we’re measuring the nature of competition.
As a result, if your testosterone is depleted, then yes, you cannot compete at the same level as the other competitors. However, if the competition is to be measured by allowing TRT to some fighters, then allow it for all as a supplement to competition, not as some ill-founded method to level an already delicate playing field.
If, in the end, safety is the concern, then follow the same protocol that everyone must follow: deny the fighter competition or allow him or her the right to treatment all fighters have. But this choice cannot be prescribed; it must be allowed as part of the “natural” arena of competition.
It may sound absurd to simply argue that this is an all-or-nothing proposition. There is, however, no other way to make this a level and equal game. Even if there was a method to measure and identify the perfect testosterone level for MMA competition, is that the variable that we choose to measure all others against?
Instead, we have to continue measuring greatness in sport as the end result of training, perseverance, genetics, psychology, spirit and the choice to sacrifice.
To that end, TRT should be offered as a completely legal or illegal choice. As a selective, prescribed therapy, however, it will always be cheating.