This week, the primary focus of the MMA community has rightly been on the controversial UFC 167 decision, UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre’s still-unclear plans for the future, and UFC President Dana White’s reaction to both. Rarely has the sport experienced such a whirlwind of perplexing events in such a short span of time, but the last handful of days have provided just that. No doubt these will continue to be topics of discussion until St-Pierre’s situation is resolved and White settles his grievances with those who he perceives to be in the wrong.

Since the UFC’s brass have recently been inundated with news and events of a more stressful nature, they surely welcomed reports that all 32 fighters who participated on the recent UFC Fight Night: Belfort vs. Henderson card passed their pre- and post-fight drug tests. In the wake of the GSP/White/Nevada State Athletic Commission kerfuffle, the last thing the promotion needed to deal with was another substance-related scandal. At least now the UFC can rest easy in the fact that its athletes’ training regimens are all aboveboard, and they’ve got the drug tests to prove it.

It’s a good story. Unfortunately for the UFC, it’s not true.

Because of a loophole in the rules set out by the various athletic commissions, both in the United States and abroad, fighters are permitted to undergo a process known as testosterone replacement therapy if a doctor determines the medical necessity to do so. The process first came to the wider attention of the MMA world after Chael Sonnen’s testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio tested outside levels permitted by the California State Athletic Commission following his first fight with Anderson Silva. Sonnen was suspended by the commission, but his assertion that he was taking advantage of the TRT process under orders from his doctor opened the door for what is now referred to as a therapeutic use exemption. Under the provisions of a TUE, a fighter with proper medical clearance may continue to replace his testosterone therapeutically, even despite the existing T/E ratio regulations.

As you might guess, there have been a number of high-profile fighters who have since discovered that they, too, suffer from low levels of testosterone and, with the help of their friendly and scrupulous physicians, have been given therapeutic use exemptions to undergo TRT during their training. Setting aside questions of how this epidemic of low-T seems to be impacting professional athletes at a much higher rate than it does Joe Public (though there has also been a bit of a backlash against the marketing of testosterone-boosting products in general), one must question the way the UFC handles the issue of TRT, considering the formidable level of power it holds over its athletes.

Which brings us back to UFC Fight Night: Belfort vs. Henderson. Again, the post-fight reports tell us that all fighters on the card tested clean. Although that might technically be true, not all of the fighters on the card were held to the same standard. Thanks to the magic of therapeutic use exemptions, Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson—two elite-level mixed martial arts fighters under the age of 45—were both allowed to undergo testosterone replacement therapy during their pre-fight preparations. So instead, the UFC should say that all fighters who were not previously approved to use performance-enhancing drugs tested clean.

Here’s where things get murky. The UFC is ostensibly under the control of the various state and international athletic commissions that regulate combat sports in the various places where the UFC holds its shows. That means the UFC must adhere to the commissions’ various minimum standards concerning rules, officiating, pre- and post-fight fighter tests, and so forth. It does not, however, mean that the UFC cannot put in place rules that are more stringent than what is laid out by the athletic commissions.

Put another way, if the UFC was truly interested in eliminating performance-enhancing drug use from its ranks, it would disallow therapeutic use exemptions for TRT and state under no uncertain terms that an athlete’s T/E ratio must be within a specific measurement, regardless of what a fighter’s doctor has to say about it. In fact, in at least one case, the UFC has gone above and beyond a state athletic commission’s recommended action surrounding a fighter’s TRT use.

In August, UFC heavyweight Ben Rothwell defeated Brandon Vera at UFC 164 in Milwaukee. After the fight, Rothwell tested beyond the allowed T/E ratio and was issued an administrative warning by the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, which regulates MMA in the state. While the WDSPS did not elect to suspend Rothwell, perhaps due to the therapeutic use exemption he was granted prior to his fight with Vera, the UFC went a step further and put Rothwell on the shelf for nine months. Again, the suspension was not handed down by the state’s regulating body, but rather by the UFC.

One has to wonder why Rothwell’s use of TRT was deemed unacceptable while Belfort and Henderson were given a pass, even though all three received therapeutic use exemptions, but that’s not really the point. The Rothwell fallout shows that, even in spite of an athletic commission’s ruling on a performance-enhancing drug issue, the UFC can and will override that ruling with a more significant punishment if it sees fit. As a private company without an employee union, the UFC can pretty much set whatever rules it wants with regard to its fighters, as long as they meet the minimum standard outlined by the government’s various regulating bodies.

The fact that the promotion has instead deferred to those regulatory bodies and their TUE loopholes is therefore very telling. As with all professional sports organizations, the UFC must balance its public integrity with its ability to draw in fans, and only one of those two things will make the UFC more money. When Barry Bonds bulked up, started blasting home runs and, along with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, helped save baseball from its post-strike slump, Major League Baseball and to a greater extent the San Francisco Giants blatantly ignored some fairly obvious signs of PED use, because Bonds and his prowess at the plate put butts in the seats. Then Bonds retired, thus extinguishing his utility to baseball and the Giants. The Giants organization immediately dissociated itself with the man who had made the team countless millions of dollars and the MLB’s official stance on Bonds became one of disdain.

The UFC’s continued observance of the TUE loophole has a similar flavor to the Giants’ willful ignorance of Bonds’s alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. Belfort and Henderson are still big stars—and therefore big draws—for the UFC. This is particularly true of Belfort, who has fought his last three fights in his home country of Brazil, where he is one of the sport’s most popular athletes and has helped greatly to expand the promotion’s presence abroad. Belfort has performed very well in these contests, and one can’t help but think that his use of TRT has something to do with it. If the UFC were to impose a more strict set of TRT-related standards, then the promotion could risk seeing diminishing results from Belfort and other fighters, or would perhaps even be forced to suspend some of its most popular fighters if their T/E levels come back beyond the UFC’s acceptable range. Neither outcome would be good for the UFC’s bottom line, so it’s no wonder the promotion continues to defer to the state athletic commissions and their less-stringent regulations.

The UFC isn’t the only organization with this problem. To a certain degree, all professional (and, if we’re being real with one another, many amateur) sports organizations operate with tremendous rhetorical dishonesty. That is, they say one thing—for example, that they’re interested in limiting the use of performance-enhancing drugs among their athletes—but do something very different—for example, having absurdly loose testing protocols or agreeing that athletes actually can use PEDs as long as they have a doctor’s note. Again, this dishonesty comes from the fact that these organizations must put out the messages the public wants to hear while also maintaining a level of excitement in their sports such that team owners and league/promotion officials can continue to make a lot of money.

Part of the problem is that the sports-watching public only seems to get upset after an athlete is busted for PED use, and is more than willing to ignore it as long as its not made explicit. If the ratings for the NFL or the UFC were to suddenly drop in response to a concerted fan effort to force those organizations to take PED use or long-term brain trauma more seriously, you can bet things would change in a hurry. Instead, though, fans keep watching, perhaps pausing to tweet their hyperbolic outrage after an athlete is busted. For this reason and many others, I think PEDs should just be allowed in all sports, but that’s another story.

Here’s the point: The UFC has all the power it wants to better regulate the use of testosterone replacement therapy among its athletes. Instead, it continues to allow fighters to use performance-enhancing drugs as long as a doctor says it’s okay, because that’s what the athletic commissions (like the one Dana White spent no small amount of time lambasting after the UFC 167 decision) say. It’s a convenient but rhetorically dishonest way for the UFC to protect itself from any criticism about TRT use among its fighters, so it can maintain the moral high ground (at least among people who are not able to think critically) while still enabling Belfort and Henderson to make the company a lot of money.

There’s an episode in the seventh season of The Office (the American version, of course) where office administrator Pam Halpert acquires a new computer for the workplace receptionist, Erin Hannon. Because Erin was the only Dunder Mifflin employee to receive upgraded equipment, questions from the other office staff begin to surface surrounding the hows and whys of the new computer’s appearance. One specific employee—salesperson and yacht-racing enthusiast Andy Bernard—takes particular umbrage at the situation and repeatedly inquires to Pam how he too can get a new computer. After going back and forth about the benefits and consequences of such a move, Pam arrives at what seems like a simple, if somewhat underhanded solution: If Andy’s computer is broken, the company would have no choice but to purchase a new one. You can probably guess what happens next.

That’s right, Andy gets a therapeutic use exemption for his computer.

Photo: Steroids (WiseGeek.org)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.