Opinion: Playing With Fire

By Zach Arnold Jul 25, 2014
Vitor Belfort was granted a license by the Nevada Athletic Commission. | Photo: Mike Sloan/Sherdog.com

The Nevada Athletic Commission hearing on July 23 was nothing personal, just business. A lot of fans may have been upset by the decisions made regarding the two-year ban for Chael Sonnen and the granting of a new license for Vitor Belfort. However, the commission clearly thought it was being reasonable on an issue that has proven to be quite emotional for hardcore Ultimate Fighting Championship fans.

There is no easy way to talk about the issue of testosterone in mixed martial arts. Every time the subject is broached, the reaction immediately becomes toxic. This is not a simple case of pro-steroid versus anti-steroid forces. It is a fight over who should get punished and why they should get punished. Timing is everything. Ask Belfort.

This was a difficult pill for a lot of hardcore fans to swallow: Belfort was granted a new license by Nevada on the premise that his fight against middleweight champion Chris Weidman would have to take place in December and in Las Vegas. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially given how powerful a face Belfort has been on the testosterone issue. Fairly or unfairly, he has been labeled as the poster child for performance enhancing drugs in the UFC right now. Unlike fighters like Sonnen or Dan Henderson, Belfort draws the wrath of many fans over the unproven connection between his testosterone usage and recent fight performances. I think there is a strong connection to make between the usage of testosterone in relation to health and safety aspects in the cage. I also think there is a strong connection to make between the usage of testosterone and whether or not it dramatically improves your ability to win a fight.

It is always going to be a problem when you hand out subjective rather than static punishments to fighters who are busted for PEDs. It was stated by members of Nevada’s athletic commission several times that they view themselves as the epicenter of the global fight community; perhaps that viewpoint is why they often draw such criticism for drug suspensions vis a vis the way the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Court of Arbitration for Sport handles their business on drug-related offenses for athletes. It is not just the steroids issue on which Nevada has been chastised in the past. For example, it has been pressured by media writers and political interest groups over its standards regarding the way it suspends fighters for amounts of marijuana metabolites in their system and whether or not that constitutes drug usage on par with performance enhancement.

Photo: M. Sloan/Sherdog.com

Sonnen was hit with a two-year ban.
We often ask our public officials to be honest about their motives, and then when they are honest, we somehow are appalled by what we see on display. There are many criticisms that can be levied against the athletic commission for the decision it made to throw the book at Sonnen while giving Belfort a new license: hypocritical, perhaps. It made a decision to punish a currently active license holder for breaking its laws by getting caught using five non-approved drugs; it also made a decision to grant a new license to a fighter who blew up a lot of big plans earlier in the year for the UFC because he was caught with elevated levels of testosterone.

Leaving aside the obviously low-hanging fruit, it’s hard to see how one can muster sympathy for the position in which Sonnen placed himself. Put all the platitudes aside, and what Sonnen was caught doing deserved a two-year ban. There was a reason he did not put up a fight; there was a reason he had trouble answering questions from commissioner Pat Lundvall as to why he had three different doctors prescribing him drugs; and there was a reason he had difficulty answering why he didn’t apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption for some of the drugs he was using while getting off of testosterone. There were no good answers.

Sonnen’s active fighting career may be over, but he made a lot of money during his last five years. He’s currently off of Fox Sports 1 television, though it’s hard not to see him returning in the future. He has the gift of gab, and in the fight business, that moves the needle. Shed no tears for the man.

Fans and fighters levied a lot of criticism against Nevada’s 180-degree decision to grant Belfort a license. Belfort exposed the ultimate flaw in the state athletic commission setup in the United States. If you’re licensed, you can get hammered. If you’re not licensed or applying for a license, it’s much more difficult to play whack-a-mole with fighters who fail drug tests. I realize how preposterous and gutless it sounds for power brokers to hide behind this technicality, but so far, few people have come up with a foolproof solution to fix this massive loophole. I have great sympathy for fighters like Tim Kennedy who stand on the courage of their convictions and speak out against a system that they see as being completely tilted against clean fighters. The problem is the current athletic commission setup is heavily reliant on promoters acting in their own best interests and doing the right thing. If the athletic commissions anger promoters, they will simply take their business elsewhere. Unless there is federal regulation imposed on MMA, you are going to continue to see these kinds of political battles that will give the sport a black eye.

If you’re upset about what happened with Belfort getting a new license to fight in Nevada, perhaps you should be placing your focus elsewhere. In my opinion, the UFC is playing with fire when it comes to building big fights around Belfort. It blew up in its face for the UFC 173 show, and it impacted Zuffa’s UFC 175 event in Las Vegas, as well. Why those at the UFC seem so confident in moving forward with Belfort in a top position is a question only they can answer. It’s a risk -- and a big one at that. Belfort will likely be a 3-to-1 underdog in his fight against Weidman. If he loses, then everyone will start ranting and raving about what a different fighter he is without using testosterone. If he wins, then the testosterone issue will surface once again.

Nevada’s athletic commission made what it thought was a reasonable business decision. The UFC did, too. I’m not sure either party has determined how this situation will play out in the future. That’s the risk you take when you make subjective decisions around a subject as sensitive and explosive as testosterone usage in combat sports. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.


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