Things haven’t gone particularly well lately for MMA’s pro-testosterone lobby.
As Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson prepare to meet on Saturday in a fight that is essentially ground zero for the sport’s alleged rampant hormone deficiency, there are signs that the UFC is slowly becoming less and less hospitable to testosterone replacement therapy users.
The latest subtle shift in the landscape came during Tuesday afternoon’s UFC media call, when company president Dana White confirmed what many observers have suspected for weeks: The fight promotion is trying to limit the number of TRT exemptions on its roster.
“Yeah, definitely,” White said, when asked if the UFC was taking steps to discourage more fighters from getting on testosterone. “Especially young guys. I mean, young guys don’t need to do it.
“There are certain cases where guys need it...[but] what you can’t do is get all jacked up on it and have your levels going through the roof when you’re in training, and then taper down closer to the fight. That’s what you can’t do. That’s not right and that’s not fair and that’s one of the things that we’re really cracking down on.”
When White singled out those “young guys,” he may well have been referring to Robert Drysdale and Ben Rothwell, a pair of UFC fighters who were recently caught abusing TRT.
The company dealt Rothwell a nine-month suspension in September after he popped positive for elevated levels of testosterone following his third-round TKO of Brandon Vera at UFC 164.
Drysdale didn’t even make it to the cage; the Nevada State Athletic Commission refused to license him for his upcoming promotional debut at UFC 167 after he registered a testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio more than three times the legal limit.
Both guys are 32 years old, and together they were widely considered the least credible, most audacious TRT consumers since, well, Vitor Belfort.
The 36-year-old former light heavyweight champion and current middleweight contender continues to be among the most criticized and scrutinized of MMA’s testosterone users. When White quipped in February that the UFC would start “testing the shit” out of TRT patients, it was largely assumed he was talking directly to “The Phenom.”
Belfort initially tried to dodge questions about testosterone therapy following last year’s loss to Jon Jones. It wasn’t until after his knockout of Michael Bisping in January that it was confirmed for sure that he was on it.
To make matters worse, he jokingly asked fans to beat up a reporter for questioning him on the topic after his win over Luke Rockhold in May, and he more recently said in an interview that he’s been on TRT for three years.
If you’re scoring at home, that could be a problem. It implies he was on the stuff when he fought Anderson Silva for the middleweight title in Las Vegas in Feb. 2011, and it remains unclear whether the NSAC would or did grant Belfort a use exemption, due to his positive drug test there in 2006.
Belfort hasn’t fought in the U.S. in a bit more than two years. Counting the Henderson bout, his last three Octagon appearances have all been in his home country of Brazil, where oversight committees are less established and, at least according to conventional wisdom, more permissive.
White has said that Belfort’s recent status as a Brazil-only attraction has everything to do with the fight company appeasing its television broadcast partners in that nation and nothing to do with his medicals, but that doesn’t stop TRT watchdogs from raising their eyebrows each time a new fight for “The Young Dinosaur” is announced South of the equator.
On the other hand, Henderson’s TRT experience has been the exact opposite. When White referred this week to “certain cases where guys need it,” he likely meant Hendo, who—rightly or wrongly—has been spared the worst of the public backlash against guys like Belfort.
Henderson was an early adapter of TRT, admitting he’s been on it since 2007 and refusing to shy away from the topic during interviews. That openness—coupled with his status as a beloved MMA legend and the fact that at 43 years old he really is ancient for a professional fighter—have mostly earned him a pass.
He’s been granted therapeutic use exemptions by athletic commissions in California and Nevada, and when officials in Winnipeg refused to allow his TRT use prior to his fight against Rashad Evans at UFC 161, Hendo said he went without. He’s welcomed new UFC-sponsored testing and continues to insist he has nothing to hide.
Yet at this point it’s impossible not to question the legitimacy of both Belfort’s and Henderson’s TRT needs, or—for that matter—the need of any professional athlete to increase the level of testosterone in his body.
This, after a report by the New York Times recently asserted that “many physicians” consider low testosterone to be “in large part an invented condition.”
If that’s true, there’s no telling what those many physicians would make of the MMA industry, where during the last few years our relatively young, insanely well-conditioned population has reported a significant outbreak of an ailment they deem largely make-believe.
In any case, MMA’s stance on TRT is still clearly a work in progress. Overall, there remains a lot of confusion, a good deal of suspicion and perhaps even a nagging fear that we’re all too emotionally close to the situation to judge it accurately.
If—as this week’s quotes suggest—White and the UFC are taking a closer and closer look at the subject, then it constitutes baby steps in the right direction regarding how the sport treats “low testosterone.”
Especially if Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Joel Finkelstein was right when he flatly informed the New York Times: “There is no such disease.”