Fowlkes: OK, Danny. Anyone who reads this site or stands within earshot of me while Vitor Belfort is fighting already knows what I think of his remarkable resurgence. I'd like to start this week by opening it up to you. What went through your mind as you watched Belfort knock Hendo into old age?
Downes: Brace yourself, the TRT tweets are coming.
Isn't that the most unfortunate part? Henderson gets knocked out for the first time in his career, Belfort sets himself up for a title shot (maybe), and there's no real air of legitimacy. Fans are probably tired of hearing about it as much as you're tired of writing about it, but it's relevant. In my opinion, the discussion today is much like the steroids discussion in baseball. Do steroids teach you how to read a curveball and hit home runs? No. Does TRT give you the timing to read an opponent and counter? Nope. But those are intellectually dishonest arguments. Did PEDs teach Marion Jones how to run? No, but they sure as hell helped her win some gold medals. Maybe we should all take the Malcolm Gladwell approach to sports, but I doubt fans want to go that far.
Fowlkes: Well, crap. I was sort of hoping you'd tell me that you wanted to discuss Belfort's hair or Henderson's country ballad walkout music or the wisdom of Hendo's decision to charge straight in with his head down. Anything but TRT, because, like you, I'm sick of it. At the same time, I'd feel like a phony if I ignored it. This is the story. Belfort could very well be the best middleweight in the world right now, and the powers that be in this sport have given him permission to use steroids (yes, synthetic testosterone administered exogenously is a steroid, according to the WADA list of prohibited substances, so let's call it what it is).
That's insane to me. It would be insane in baseball, where the worst thing that happens from rampant steroid use is we have to readjust our understanding of the record books. In a combat sport like MMA – which, newsflash, can be hazardous to your brain under normal, drug-free circumstances – it seems so much worse. It seems unethical, and more than a little gross.
But I'm interested in your point about legitimacy. Say Belfort does fight for the title in Las Vegas, and say the Nevada commission decides it's totally cool if the "Young Dinosaur" uses synthetic testosterone. Does that answer the legitimacy question for you? Would it make you look at Belfort the same way you look at Hendo or Chael Sonnen or Frank Mir or Forrest Griffin or ohmygod I can't believe how many low-T sufferers there are in this sport …?
Downes: Now that you mention it, I think we should spend a column talking about all the different layers in Toby Keith songs, but alas, the scourge of TRT strikes again. No matter what the NSAC decides, it doesn't change things in my mind. If the NSAC allows him to use it, it doesn't make me think it's any more legitimate. If it prohibits him from using TRT and he follows orders, he still earned a title shot (and the accompanying payday) by using a performance-enhancing drug. History is written by the victor (or the winner, as Velasquez/JDS III taught us), though, so at the end of the day I'm not really sure what it means. The people demand spinning stuff and sweet mohawks, and it looks like they'll get their fill of both.
To those who play the "Vitor is the victim" card, saying that he gets an unfair amount of criticism compared to other TRT users – get real. Why do you think Alex Rodriquez gets more publicity about steroid use than Bartolo Colon? Relevance.
Fowlkes: The either-or situation you just outlined for Belfort's prospects in Nevada makes me wonder, which would be worse? If he can't get an exemption in Nevada, it might be the final blow to his credibility, at least as far as public opinion goes. It'll be on the books: Belfort doesn't need testosterone. That would essentially invalidate all his wins in Brazil, wouldn't it? And imagine if he fights in the U.S. without a testosterone exemption. If he loses, we'll take it as a sign that it was the TRT that really won all those fights for him. If he wins the title without it, dude, why was he on it in the first place? Clearly he doesn't need it. We'll say he was gaming the system this whole time, and the UFC helped him do it.
Now imagine that the NSAC does give him an exemption, even after executive director Keith Kizer said it wouldn't, and even after Belfort basically admitted in a recent interview that he used testosterone without permission for his last fight in Vegas. Then the NSAC loses all credibility. The story then will be, "NSAC grants Belfort a testosterone exemption because Dana White told it to." Then what are we supposed to think the next time White goes off about the UFC being regulated by "the government"?
Of course, there's another option. The UFC could keep Belfort out of Nevada, and out of any place that would look too closely at his hormone levels. He could stay in Brazil (you know, because of Globo and TV ratings). He could go back to Toronto, or somewhere in Europe, or just head to one of the more hapless states in the U.S. The UFC could avoid this final referendum on his testosterone use. Then what would you think?
Downes: That's a lot hypotheticals. Maybe we could write a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel starring Bitor Velfort (damn licensing issues) and the evil government crony Ken Klizer. No matter what scenario plays out, there are problems, but the most troublesome would be if the NSAC turns a blind eye and gives in to Vitor. That would open the floodgates for every conspiracy theory (the UFC concussed T.J. Grant on purpose!) and ultimately hurt the sport as a whole.
I think you're on to something with the kick-the-can approach. Right now, the best course of action would be to avoid settling the matter. Fight in Brazil, talk about the Super Bowl-level ratings you'll garner, and call it a day. Sure, whiny journalist types will waste more time talking about TRT and "fairness," but you can solve that with some good ol'-fashioned ad hominem attacks. That might not give us the closure we desire, but what would? What's the end game? Should we just wait until Belfort retires and the newest en vogue drug comes on the market?
Fowlkes: Although I can't prove it, I suspect that might be the UFC's preferred approach to the TRT problem. I mean the part about waiting for current users to retire. Not the part about the new drug, which I assume will be called "nuke," and the fighters who seek exemptions for it will do so with solemn assurances that they're only trying to bring their nuke levels up to normal.
As for Belfort, I'm not sure there's any clear path to a nice, tidy ending, which kind of makes me feel bad for the guy. This should be the high-point of his career. He's knocking people out left and right, blazing a comeback trail in his mid-30s that finally justifies the hype of his early 20s. It would be an amazing story if it didn't also lend itself so perfectly to the familiar arc of the enhanced pro athlete. Every time he's praised for his "awesome" rebirth as a brand new fighter, it's like, yeah, almost seems too good to be true, doesn't it?
I mean, I guess we can't pity him too much, since he made his own choices. But he is such a talented fighter. The man is truly gifted. I just find myself wondering if he could have done this without TRT. I can't help but wonder if he ever asks himself the same thing, because if he could have, then wouldn't that have been preferable? And if he couldn't have, what does that tell us?
Downes: I know you look up to me as a role model, Ben, but that's a lot of questions, and I'm afraid I don't have answers. What I can say with certainty is that Belfort is not a tragic figure. His resurgence is being discounted because of the TRT use, but that was his decision. I don't know why this is such a hard thing for people to realize, but drugs work. Thinking the gritty, old-school fighter that can beat the latest technology and science is a romanticized notion from “Rocky IV.” Maybe drugs can't make lower-tier fighters into superstars, but they have helped a man who was called "The Phenom" outshine the athletic achievements of his 20s.
It feels terrible to admit, but I think many fans want Vitor to lose just so they don't have to deal with this uncomfortable fact. Then again, when it's a sport predicated upon beating a man unconscious or breaking his limbs, what do words like "honor" and "fairness" really mean? The TRT talk isn't about acting high and mighty or condescending – it's about the future of the sport. We just have to figure out what we want that to be.