WHEN THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH RAN DRY
WHEN THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH RAN DRY
The Impact of the NSAC and UFC Decisions to Ban Testosterone Replacement Therapy in Combat Sports
Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort, Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen, Forrest Griffin. Without a doubt, these five names are among the most important in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. If you had to tell the story about the evolution of MMA, and particularly the Ultimate Fighting Championship, you could not do so without these fighters. Henderson and Belfort are both true pioneers in the sport, winning multiple championships across multiple weight divisions against elite competition in Pride, Strikeforce, and the UFC. Frank Mir is two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion, with a slew of UFC records on his résumé. Chael Sonnen raised the level of hyping fights to a level never before seen in MMA leading up to championship fights with Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, making him one of the most polarizing figures in the sports that UFC fans love or love to hate. Forrest Griffin, now retired and inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, fought Stephan Bonnar in a three round war in the finale of the original Ultimate Fighter tournament that changed the sport forever by captivating fans across the globe. These five guys represent some of the best of what the UFC and the sport of MMA have had to offer.
And yet… there has been a bit of a dark cloud hanging over these five athletes for quite some time. That cloud has been their use of Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT): treatment to boost levels of testosterone for those who “suffer” from low testosterone levels.
This cloud has recently been lifted by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, in a February 27th decision to ban the use of TRT exemptions for combat sports. TRT exemptions allow a fighter to use treat low testosterone (i.e. boost his testosterone levels), under a doctor’s supervision, in his lead up to a fight. Since there have been no boxers that have applied for TRT exemptions, the NSAC’s decision was pointed squarely at MMA.
The reason TRT has been such an issue is pretty obvious. At a super basic level, having more testosterone is a good thing for a fighter: testosterone boosts muscle growth, strength, stamina, adrenaline, etc. The older a man gets, the more prone he becomes to losing testosterone. Thus, for fighters, having adequate levels of testosterone is important. But this issue is not as simple as allowing those with less testosterone to raise it to normal levels.
TRT exemptions allow fighters diagnosed with hypogonadism (low testosterone) to raise their testosterone-to-epitestosterone levels to between 4:1 and 6:1 before a fight; the normal male has a 1:1 testosterone ratio. But what is difficult to track is how high these levels rise to before the final test before a fight. Suppose a fighter has been training with testosterone levels around 11:1 (the level found in infamous cyclist Floyd Landis) – don’t you think this would allow that fighter to train like a demon, building muscle and elevating his energy level before he has to get his ratio back down before the test?
The other looming problem is that it is suspected that hypogonadism can be attributed to prior steroid use. Both Belfort and Sonnen have a history with steroid use, making their use of TRT even more suspicious. Another issue is the suggestion that head trauma could be partially at fault for low testosterone issues. If that is the case, given the current climate of concussions and head injuries in other sports, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to let athletes continue (actually, enable them) to compete in combat sports if they have symptoms of head injuries.
There is no denying the commonality the fighters listed above share: they are all between the ages of 34 and 43. Athletes generally have a life-cycle that peaks somewhere in their early 20s and levels off in their early 30s – with some extraordinary exceptions. Athletes get older, their bodies break down, they lose energy and stamina to train, and eventually they retire. The fact that the fighters using TRT are older does raise suspicion that the treatment has extended their careers or at least their primes. Current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, age 26, fought both Belfort and Sonnen within the last 2 years. Both Belfort and Sonnen are 10 years older than Jones but were allowed to have testosterone levels as high as four times his own, allowing them to train as hard, or harder, than the young champion. Everyone wants to see their cage heroes continue to compete for championships into their later years. But fight fans, UFC management, other fighters – and now the NSAC – have had enough of TRT allowing fighters to unnaturally extend the primes of their careers, especially considering the level of young talent that can compete without performance enhancers.
The UFC’s Response
UFC President Dana White has previously expressed his desire to see TRT ousted from the sport. White had previously stated that, ““[i]f you have to use TRT, you’re probably too old to be fighting.” Further saying, “[t]he guys that do that, that are on TRT, their training camp is a lot easier than the guy who’s all natural. The bangs, the injuries, all the [expletive] that goes on — they’re recovering 10 times faster than the guy who’s not doing it.”
The UFC, through White, issued this comment in a press release following the NSAC’s decision:
“The Ultimate Fighting Championship fully supports the decision made today by the Nevada State Athletic Commission regarding the immediate termination of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for testosterone replacement therapy (TRT)…We believe our athletes should compete based on their natural abilities and on an even playing field. We also intend to honor this ruling in international markets where, due to a lack of governing bodies, the UFC oversees regulatory efforts for our live events. We encourage all athletic commissions to adopt this ruling.”
This support and intent to honor in international markets highlights the transitive property of how the UFC purportedly operates. As soon as the decision came down from the NSAC, White was quick to point out, “[w]e follow Nevada.” The NSAC’s decision gave the UFC the means to implement the TRT ban wherever the promotion travels.
The Effects of the Ban
As in every controversy, there are two sides to every issue, and users of TRT would say TRT is a medical treatment used under medical supervision. However, the NSAC ultimately came to its decision knowing full well that some athletes with low testosterone could be unfairly denied a TRT exemption. Ultimately, the TRT ban puts every fighter on the same testosterone level – natural. But the story doesn’t end there.
The UFC TRT ban has immediate repercussions for these fighters’ careers in the immediate future. Dan Henderson will likely receive the last TRT exemption for his fight with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua on March 23rd, a rematch of their epic five-round war in 2011. Chael Sonnen has an upcoming fight with Wanderlei Silva in May, but the TRT ban may force him into retirement, as he has stated he will need to figure out if he can physically continue to compete without TRT treatment. Mir, on a 4-fight losing streak, with the shadow of retirement looming over him from his lack of results in the cage, has not announced any future decisions as a result of the ban.
Perhaps the biggest effect of the ban has been felt by Belfort, who was set to fight Chris Weidman for the UFC Middleweight Championship at UFC 173 in May. Belfort who is sitting on a three-fight winning (and knockout) streak over the likes of Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, and Henderson, pulled himself out of the upcoming championship fight once the TRT ban was announced, saying, “I’m going to drop my TRT program and compete in MMA without it. Given the time constraints between now and my proposed next bout in May, I have determined not to apply for a license to fight in Nevada at this time.” Former Light Heavyweight Champ Lyoto Machida will fill in for Belfort, keeping the fight tantalizing for UFC fans – and most importantly, for competitions’ sake – clean.
 An amazing side story is what is going on in Women’s MMA with transgender fighter Fallon Fox. Fox, featured in January 2014 GQ, cannot use testosterone supplements even if she wanted to: as a transgender woman, she pretty much gave up testosterone in her transition. Now, her testosterone levels, despite her original male anatomy, are actually much lower than most of the women she fights.
Image by Lee Brimelow http://www.flickr.com/people/68851855@N00 – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en