The news that Vitor Belfort was granted a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone before his Jan. 19 bout with Michael Bisping was little more than the latest reminder that performance-enhancing drugs could be the biggest threat to mixed martial arts in the eyes of some fans.
At the same time Major League Baseball has found itself embroiled in yet another PED investigation and the National Football League faced questions on one of its biggest stars during Super Bowl week, MMA’s testosterone problem continues to fly under the radar. Seemingly fit and healthy athletes, in the prime of their lives and careers, continue to be afflicted with a disease that doctors have stated repeatedly occurs in a minute portion of the young adult population, and there seems to be no caboose on this train.
There has been a cavalcade of athletes -- from Dan Henderson, the first known fighter to be granted a TUE in 2007, down to Belfort -- who have chosen to go the testosterone route. In between, we have also seen the likes of Nate Marquardt, Forrest Griffin and Chael Sonnen granted exemptions so they could use what any sane regulator will admit is one of the best PED’s available.
Let’s be honest here: a true testosterone deficiency can be a serious health problem. So, how do you separate those who have a legitimate need and those who are gaming the system?
In true fortuitous timing, I spent yesterday afternoon at Team Quest in Temecula, Calif., and had a chance to chat with former Pride champion and U.S. Olympian Dan Henderson. Before Belfort’s TUE was made public, the legendary brawler made his thoughts clear on the subject.
Henderson said the only way to make sure guys aren’t gaming the system is to do random testing for everyone who is granted a TUE. He made it clear that he went through all the right channels when he sought out his exemption, and that he has never fiddled around with the dosing he has been prescribed.
Although he didn’t come out and say it, I took his hardline stance to mean that he didn’t believe this was the case for everyone else using testosterone under an exemption.
The best example we have goes back to Nate Marquardt. The former UFC middleweight challenger was scheduled to fight in the main event of a June 2011 event in Pennsylvania but was removed from the bout at the last second and cut from the promotion because he couldn’t get licensed in the state due to his reported refusal to take a required pre-fight blood test.
Marquardt had just completed a post-fight regimen prescribed by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board who granted him a temporary TUE to fight in February of that year.
Sounds pretty shocking right?
Add in the fact that the Nevada State Athletic Commission had suspended Marquardt after his 2005 UFC debut after testing positive for anabolic agent nandrolone and things get even more interesting.
There are three main causes of low testosterone amongst young men in their 20s and 30s: head trauma, cancer treatment (chemotherapy) and -- ding, ding, ding, you guessed it -- previous abuse of anabolic steroids or testosterone.
Travis Tygart, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency -- the same guy who just flushed out cyclist Lance Armstrong after years of denials -- told me in an interview last year that one of the first things his people do when they receive an application for a TUE is to find out if there is a real need and, if so, make sure it isn’t a self-inflicted case of low testosterone. Tygart’s reasoning is that if you did this to yourself, you cannot and should not be trusted with such a prodigious enhancing agent.
And this brings us back to Vitor Belfort.
Following his Pride 32 bout in Las Vegas, Belfort was suspended by the Nevada Athletic Commission for violating their PED policy after testing positive for 4-hydroxytestosterone.
Personally, I don’t think anyone with a history of PED use should be granted a TUE, but if you are going to do it, I think those fighters have earned themselves a little extra attention.
A final footnote for this discussion: Michael Bisping, an outspoken critic of PED and testosterone usage, has lost four fights over the past three and a half years. Three of the four men who beat him were competing while using testosterone under TUEs: Henderson, Belfort and Sonnen. I guess we can understand his uncensored candor when it comes to this issue.
Greg Savage is the Executive Editor of Sherdog.com. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSavageTruth.