Somewhere, PT Barnum must be smiling.
The saga of Vitor Belfort reached the circus-sideshow stratosphere last week, with the embattled fighter finally releasing the results of his February drug test, after months of claiming the outcome was “irrelevant.”
Surprise! He failed.
Things stand to get even weirder, when Belfort appears in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission attempting to secure a license to fight Chael Sonnen at UFC 175. Nobody knows exactly how that bit of regulatory origami will unfold, but it feels like a fork in the road for MMA’s sometimes-complicated handling of fighters caught using performance enhancers.
If Belfort is able to roll out of that hearing, license in hand, with time served or no punishment at all—well—it’ll seem like anything’s possible.
And maybe like an important battle has been lost.
After months of hiding it, Belfort confirmed the positive test as part of a page-long statement he dropped last Friday afternoon, a day before Saturday’s UFC event in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In other words, pretty much the textbook time to release bad news, if you hope to have it buried by fight recaps, live blogs and highlight videos.
Along with the mea culpa, the fighter made public a series of partially redacted lab results that document his wildly fluctuating testosterone levels. Belfort was well over Nevada’s legal limit on Feb. 7, when he took that random test. Since then, other tests—mostly conducted at the fighter’s direction—show his testosterone levels gradually plummeting to well below normal.
In his statement, Belfort claimed the sky-high initial levels were caused by a testosterone replacement therapy treatment administered by his doctor the day before the NSAC test. Since then he said, his physicians had "immediately modified my therapy to return me to within the therapeutic range."
The big question of his June 17 licensing hearing may be whether commissioners buy that excuse, or if it even matters.
While Belfort supporters will likely contend he was merely the victim of bad luck, the positive test appears to confirm what critics thought about TRT all along: That fighters on it were spiking their levels when they thought no one was looking and tapering off as their fights and regularly scheduled drug tests drew closer.
Given Belfort’s positive test for steroids in Nevada in 2006—and comments made by an NSAC consulting physician even before the elevated Feb. 7 screening—it’s tempting to say his chances don’t look good. Conventional wisdom dictates he should be suspended and therefore disallowed from competing at UFC 175.
Positive tests are positive tests, after all, regardless of how the guilty party tries to explain them away months after the fact.
But, truth is, there are too many moving parts at play here for anyone to say with any certainty what will happen.
The NSAC voted suddenly to ban TRT three weeks and a day after Belfort took his test, in what amounted to its first real MMA-centric rule change since the resignation of executive director Keith Kizer in January. In late April, the commission named former FBI agent and Marine Corps captain Robert Bennett to replace Kizer, leaving the impression the commission is in flux.
Meanwhile, the UFC appears steadfast in its support of Belfort, releasing its own statement on Friday that went well beyond the usual company line that it’ll abide by whatever the commission decides.
“The UFC organization supports Vitor Belfort’s application for a license to compete in Nevada, and we respect the Nevada Athletic Commission and its licensing process,” the statement read. “Pending Commission approval, we look forward to a great fight between Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen at UFC 175 on July 5.”
The fight company surprised everyone last month when it plucked Belfort out of thin air and thrust him forward to replace Wanderlei Silva against Sonnen. Silva himself tumbled off UFC 175 after reportedly skipping a surprise NSAC drug test, so using Belfort as a sub came preloaded with pangs of irony.
The UFC allegedly learned of Belfort’s positive test results back in late February, and it feels peculiar for the organization to seem untroubled by his failure. Especially now that the relative size and scope of the violation is borne out publicly, in black and white.
In tabbing Belfort for such a sudden and high-profile return, it must either feel pretty confident he’ll be licensed or it’s just completely winging it.
Not sure which thought is more unsettling.
UFC President Dana White’s most recent quotes on the subject may provide a preview of the kind of case Belfort will try to make next week.
White's relationship with Belfort seems to have run the complete gamut during the last few months. The UFC president came out strongly in favor of the NSAC’s ban on TRT in March and more recently seemed amused by Belfort’s assertions that he was ready to return.
Now that Belfort is tentatively booked to compete at UFC 175, however, he and White appear back on the same page. Two weeks ago, White reiterated Belfort’s claim that his February test was “absolutely irrelevant” and last week downplayed the results, perhaps meaning to imply they could be deemed inconclusive.
"Doctors that matter disagree with the results of that test…,” he said during a recent media scrum. “Here's the problem, nobody knows what the f--- they are talking about when it comes to TRT and the testing. It's the main reason it had to go away. If you talk to three different doctors, if you talk to different commissions, everybody has a different opinion on it.”
The only opinion that matters will be the one rendered at the NSAC hearing on June 17.
Seats for that event may be as sought after as for UFC 175 itself.
If Belfort is licensed, as the UFC appears to believe he will be, it may raise a litany of new questions on a subject we thought we’d already put behind us. It may also put to the test that old cliché coined by the carnival huckster Barnum as early as 1916.
That there’s no such thing as bad publicity.