Vitor Belfort may be down to his last strike, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission is still giving him good pitches to hit.
There were very few curveballs thrown Belfort’s way Wednesday, as Fox Sports' Marc Raimondi reported that the NSAC granted Belfort a conditional license to fight Chris Weidman for the UFC middleweight title in Las Vegas on Dec. 6. As a result, Belfort will serve a de facto nine-month suspension for failing a surprise drug test back in February and will face increased commission testing for the rest of his career.
Otherwise, he’s good to go and will suffer fairly minimal consequences.
For anyone who’d been reading between the lines leading up to this meeting, none of this was particularly shocking. The UFC had remained oddly confident that Belfort would clear the NSAC’s hurdles and be allowed back on active duty by the time Weidman is ready to meet him in the cage.
The fight company officially confirmed their bout for UFC 181 at Mandalay Bay just seconds after Belfort received commission approval, furthering the perception that all the principals pretty much knew what was going to happen before the meeting even began.
Though Belfort briefly mentioned it during a prepared opening statement, none of the commissioners asked him about 2006, when he failed an NSAC drug test after Pride 32. Nor did they ask him about how he’s transitioning off testosterone replacement therapy—the controversial medical treatment fighters spent years claiming was vital to their careers but now act like was completely elective after the NSAC outlawed it.
"Of course, I have to have a new way of training,” an emotional Belfort offered, via MMAFighting.com’s Luke Thomas. “In the beginning, I was very affected, but I'm deciding that my mind will take over my body. I'm just training smart. I’ve got to be smart with the age that I have, with the experience."
Mostly the panel seemed to take his word for it. He’s fine. Off the stuff now. Mind over matter. Nothing to worry about.
By rubber-stamping his future without pressing him more, the commission let slip perhaps our last best chance to clear up the unknowns of Belfort’s recent past. Now his current three-fight win streak (all of them by stunning head-kick knockout) may always be clouded by questions about his use of TRT, which was banned just four months after his explosive victory over Dan Henderson in Brazil.
If anything can be said in the commission’s favor, it’s that Belfort’s next fight will necessarily now be in Nevada, where the regulatory body appears committed to its enhanced drug testing program. New commissioner Anthony A. Marnell essentially told Belfort he and the commission’s drug screeners would be his new best friends as long as he carries on with his career.
"I'll give you my definition of reasonable testing going forward from this commissioner's perspective, that we're going to drug test you to the day you retire,” Marnell said, via Thomas. “That's my definition of reasonable. We, in my opinion, should be in and around your career until the day you call it quits.”
Marnell pushed back the hardest on Wednesday, and his voice was a refreshing one on the NSAC. Let’s hope those strong words mean we can be reasonably certain Belfort is fighting clean when he faces Weidman in December.
Of course, we’ve heard these kinds of assurances before. UFC President Dana White told fans during a Q&A that the company was "testing the s--t" out of Belfort during his magical 2013 run, but the first time he was subjected to a surprise independent drug test, the fighter failed it. Perhaps the NSAC will be able to keep a little bit closer tabs.
Wednesday’s meeting also reminded us of an inconvenient, but longstanding, suspicion. As committed as the NSAC is to ridding combat sports of performance-enhancing drugs, it also must keep its eyes on the state’s bottom line.
If UFC 181 goes down as scheduled—featuring Weidman vs. Belfort and Anthony Pettis’ lightweight title bout with Gilbert Melendez—it is expected to bring a heap of money to the Las Vegas economy. It would perhaps be naive to think such monetary considerations don’t weigh on the minds of local politicians as they mete out their various brands of justice.
By contrast, the commission’s treatment of the recently retired Chael Sonnen was much harsher. The NSAC briefly considered a lifetime ban for Sonnen after his multiple recent PED-related infractions, but it ultimately settled on a two-year suspension and a demand that he advise the commission on how current athletes may be trying to game the system.
Such, we surmise, are the differences between a fighter who can still earn and a fighter who can’t.
Now Belfort must simply toe the line. So long as he passes the commission’s future tests, he’ll be able to coast into UFC 181 with a chance to fulfill his long-discussed, if badly tarnished, destiny.
In other words, he just has to do his job.