Vitor Belfort and TRT: Technique or TRT? That's the Wrong Question

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistMay 19, 2013

Courtesy of MMAJunkie
Courtesy of MMAJunkie

With UFC on FX 8 now in the books, it is once again time to review the particulars of yet another Vitor Belfort knockout win.

Belfort’s use of Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) has become so controversial in recent months that it is now impossible to discuss his increasingly age-defying Octagon feats without questioning their legitimacy.

The 36-year-old has more detractors than can fit inside the Rogers Centre, but a vocal minority of TRT apologists continue to deny that the UFC veteran’s success has anything to do with his steady diet of synthetic testosterone.

After Belfort knocked Michael Bisping silly with a left high kick at UFC on FX 7, a few apologists mumbled something about TRT not being able to teach a fighter how to execute a head kick.

We heard similar claims last night (go here, here and here for just a few examples) in the aftermath of “The Phenom’s” highlight-reel knockout of Luke Rockhold.

While it is true enough that PEDs can't teach you technique, it’s a little silly to take such a narrow view of the issue.

The problem seems to be that we cannot see the effects of TRT in real time. We have no way of knowing how Belfort would have performed on Saturday night had he forgotten to take his “medicine.” We are instead forced to make subjective judgments about the legitimacy of his performance.

Interestingly, we only ever seem to hear the “TRT doesn’t teach technique” argument in response to flashy knockouts. When Dan Henderson starches someone with a bog-standard overhand right, you won’t find anyone shouting, “That’s all technique, baby!”

Where exactly are these people drawing the line? At what point do they make the distinction between the exceptional and the mundane? Should the merits of a TRT-fueled performance be judged based on the level of technique on display?

In truth, we shouldn’t be attempting to make that distinction. The fact that TRT is a performance enhancer is all that should matter to us. People who attempt to parse the variables in order to lend some additional credibility to Belfort’s performance are missing the point.

One could make the case that the Brazilian’s use of TRT did have a direct effect on the fight-ending sequence of blows. But that isn’t even the most salient issue up for discussion.

The disproportionate focus on the knockout blow—as though everything that occurred prior is somehow orthogonal to the discussion—obscures the deeper point.

The assumption seems to be that events would have unfolded exactly as they did even if we removed TRT as a variable: At 2:25 of the first round, Belfort would have been in position to deliver the fight-ending spinning heel kick, with or without the help of some additional testosterone.

This perspective fundamentally misunderstands the principle of cause and effect.

Without the aid of TRT, perhaps “The Phenom” would have been a step slower on Saturday night. As a result, maybe he doesn’t get in position to land the decisive kick. Who knows? What we do know is that the fight would have unfolded differently, even if we don’t know to what extent.

It’s all speculation, really. So let’s put that to one side and focus on something a little more concrete.

One of the most well-documented effects of TRT is the impact it can have on a fighter’s ability to train. It can lead to greater muscle mass and strength (these effects last for some time after the athlete has cycled off the treatment), but crucially it also allows athletes to train for longer and recover faster.

By any standard, this constitutes a competitive advantage. The quality of a fighter’s training directly impacts his performance inside the cage. Indeed, a premium is placed on preparedness in this business. It doesn’t merely boost a fighter’s physical well-being but also his mental well-being.

If one fighter is training like Superman and the other is training like the average human being, wouldn’t you expect to see this disparity reflected inside the cage on fight night? I certainly would.

To focus narrowly on the final seconds of Saturday night’s main event is to miss the bigger picture. This issue cannot be distilled down to a single technique.

The good news is that the vast majority of the MMA community seems to be on the right side of this issue. Now all we have to do is convince the contrarians amongst us.