Controversy swirls around 36-year-old Vitor Belfort. | Photo: Alan Oliveira
For the first five minutes of a fight, there might not be a mixed martial artist in the world scarier than Vitor Belfort.
That much has not changed since a 19-year-old Belfort began his Ultimate Fighting Championship career by thrashing Tra Telligman, Scott Ferrozzo and David “Tank” Abbott in a combined 2:52 in 1997. “The Phenom” has never been one to waste time in the Octagon, as evidenced by his 11 first-round stoppages with the promotion.
Belfort has always been an impressive physical specimen, blessed with the lightning quick hands and knockout power that can swing the momentum of a bout in the blink of an eye, but now, at 36 years old, the former light heavyweight champion is somehow better than ever.
It is one thing to handle the likes of Telligman, Ferrozzo and Abbott -- not exactly a murderer’s row of opposition -- in the UFC’s formative years, but it is entirely another to annihilate a pair of high-level middleweights like Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold in back-to-back outings 17 years later. Adding to the spectacle is the fact that the Brazilian has somehow updated his repertoire in what should be the twilight of his career. The 20-something Belfort blitzed helpless foes with rapid-fire punches; the current version comes with similar capabilities, but somehow he is now also starching skilled competitors with head kicks like he is Anthony Pettis.
Of course, we do not have to speculate on what kind of helpers Belfort might be receiving, as it has been disclosed, though not by the fighter himself, that he has been undergoing testosterone replacement therapy. Further clouding the issue is the fact that Belfort previously tested positive for the steroid 4-Hydroxytestosterone in 2006. In the United States, it is unlikely he would be granted a therapeutic use exemption for TRT in light of such a test, but in Brazil, Belfort is able to continue to use the treatment. Bisping and Rockhold have both spoken out against Belfort being granted an exemption by the Brazilian commission.
“... It is very disappointing that someone who was caught cheating with testosterone in the past now gets to use testosterone legally,” Bisping stated on his website in February. “A well-known side effect of steroids is that it reduces testosterone, so I don’t understand how it would make sense to then grant someone an exemption to then increase testosterone.”
Rockhold echoed that sentiment prior to his bout with Belfort in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, while also pointing to his opponent’s appearance: “Just look at his [Belfort’s] physique. Look at how he looks at [36 years old]. You can’t tell me that at his age something like that looks natural.”
Ever since the myth that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased down Roger Maris on the merits of weight room and batting cage work alone went up in flames at a congressional hearing and a bobbleheaded version of Barry Bonds grimly marched past Hank Aaron to become baseball’s all-time home run king under a cloud of denial, we have taken to viewing our athletic heroes through a skeptical lens.
Mental asterisks are assigned to pretty much anyone with a cartoonish build and a penchant for the extraordinary. Behind every All-Star, MVP or champion is a gifted chemist, pharmacist or nutritionist -- or so we think. The ones who get caught did not hire the right people or were simply too stupid to skirt the system.
Fair or not, that seems to be the prevailing opinion these days. Keep performing at a superhuman level, but do not get caught when the urine cup gets passed your way -- that is just insulting to us as fans -- and for those not using, if you value your job, you better start.
It is certainly a pessimistic view, and in MMA, documented TRT users such as Belfort are the easiest targets. You can flippantly suggest that “everyone is on something,” but until the test results indicate as much, this is negative speculation at best. At worst, it is irresponsible and disrespectful to those who have never ingested anything more powerful than a protein shake.
The difference with Belfort, at least in Brazil, is that he is not breaking any rules. Is he taking advantage of an athletic commission in a country where he is adored by the masses? Maybe, but Brazilian Athletic Commission co-chairman Rafael Favetti would beg to differ.
“Here in Brazil, we have a committee that regulates doping,” Favetti recently told Sherdog.com when asked about Belfort’s TRT use prior to his win over Bisping. “Vitor followed the rules. The UFC follows the rules of the Nevada commission -- the Unified Rules -- as do we.”
To their credit, neither Bisping nor Rockhold ultimately blamed Belfort’s TRT use for their shortcomings on fight night. “The Phenom” was simply better, both said, and perhaps better than any other previous version of Vitor, too -- a cliché often uttered by many a fighter but rarely proven true.
It will not be easy to find another foreigner willing to venture onto Brazilian soil to face Belfort. At the moment, TRT is a relatively new phenomenon, and until a consensus can be reached on how to regulate its usage -- or whether to allow it at all -- nights like Saturday at UFC on FX 8 will continue to spark heated debate.
TRT alone did not make Belfort a great fighter. If it were such a miracle worker, then the likes of Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen would be wearing championship gold right now. Dedication and skill have played integral roles in getting Belfort to where he is today. Still, there are those who say that TRT greatly enhances the capabilities of those who use it.
“I am not trying to be a jerk [and] not jealous of other fighter’s success; I am secure in who I am. Allowing pro fighters to inject [testosterone] is ridiculous,” tweeted UFC middleweight Brian Stann.
Stann also entered a Twitter discussion with several members of the MMA media, as they debated whether TRT actually helped Belfort knock out Rockhold or if it just aided the Brazilian in his training camp. The Silver Star recipient said it probably played a bigger role in the finish than some might have believed.
“I have trained with guys pre [and] post testosterone usage [and the] difference is incredible. Speed [and] power,” Stann wrote.
Meanwhile, Belfort is not here to talk about the past, unless you want to inquire about his “Knockout of the Year” candidacy. He rudely brushed aside questions regarding TRT use at the UFC on FX 8 post-fight press conference, perhaps hoping the topic would disintegrate in the glow of his highlight-reel victory.
It will not go away anytime soon, and the UFC needs to adopt a consistent stance on TRT and then make its wishes clear to athletic commissions all over the globe. At the very least, Belfort, who cannot be ignored as a serious title contender at this point, needs to have his next bout in the United States, where a TRT exemption figures to be much more difficult to obtain.
Belfort’s performance at UFC on FX 8 was nothing short of spectacular. As far as we know, he was in complete compliance with the standards of his country’s athletic commission. However, in the minds of many, his triumph is also asterisk-worthy.
“I’m stronger than ever,” Belfort said in the Octagon, shortly after laying waste to Rockhold.
Yes, we know. Just how much stronger -- and by what means -- is of chief concern.