Over the last few years, there has been no more valuable source of news for me than Twitter. What the 140-character platform lacks in detail it more than makes up for in immediacy. Pretty much as soon as something happens, whether that’s a major national news event or one of your friends making an especially delicious-looking sandwich, a chronicle of that happening can be found on Twitter.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed blew up in the middle of the day with word that the Nevada State Athletic Commission was meeting to determine the future of therapeutic-use exemptions (TUE) for testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT). Some tweets adopted a hopeful tone, their authors crossing their fingers that the NSAC would implement much-needed reform into the world of MMA. Others were more cynical, questioning whether the commission that for years has allowed fighters to use performance-enhancing drugs as long as they have a doctor’s note would ever close the most controversial loophole in professional sports. At the end of the day, the NSAC ruled that it will no longer allow therapeutic use-exemptions for testosterone-replacement therapy. The move will likely be adopted in short order by the regulatory bodies overseeing MMA in the other 48 American states that allow MMA, and the UFC said it would follow the recommendations of the NSAC when regulating its own events outside the United States. The announcement caused an immediate and nearly unanimous supportive reaction from both aforementioned groups of tweeters.

As if the actualization of a long-awaited change in MMA wasn’t enough, a few hours later (and well past the usual bedtimes of most in the central and eastern timezones, mind you) UFC President Dana White went on Fox Sports 1 to announce that middleweight No. 1 contender Vitor Belfort would no longer be facing champion Chris Weidman at UFC 173, scheduled to take place May 24 in Las Vegas. Where the TUE ban was met largely with cheers, Belfort’s ouster no doubt caused a knowing, vindicated smile to cross the faces of many a MMA follower. After all, Belfort’s sudden reemergence in his mid-30s as a dominant middleweight combined with his unapologetic use of TRT and frustrating refusal to talk about it made him the face most closely associated with the TUE loophole. Adding to this is the fact that Belfort had not yet been granted a TUE even prior to the NSAC’s ruling on Thursday and he apparently underwent a random drug test in Nevada early in February, the results of which have not been released.

All of this might have been swept under the rug in a week or so if that had been it. Sure, the TUE ban is a pretty significant step in “cleaning up” MMA, and Belfort’s timely change in plans provides for rampant speculation as to why a top contender at 185 pounds suddenly is considered a healthy scratch from his upcoming title fight mere hours after the NSAC made its ruling, but the news cycle being what it is, there would have been other stories in the coming weeks that surely would have usurped Thursday’s announcement in the minds of fans.

Unfortunately for Belfort, he has apparently decided to extend the story further by flatly denying that his withdrawal from UFC 173 was voluntary. According to Belfort, he will fight the winner of the revised UFC 173 main event between Weidman and new contender Lyoto Machida (an assertion the UFC has not confirmed).

While the NSAC’s announcement and Belfort’s subsequent actions were met with fanfare and schadenfreude, respectively, there remain a number of questions about the future, both of Belfort’s career specifically and the sport of MMA generally speaking. Let’s take a few minutes to dive into some of those questions and provide some possible answers.

Is the NSAC’s announcement actually as big a deal as it’s being portrayed?

I would say not. Remember that the NSAC and other regulatory commissions already have rules against performance-enhancing drugs, and these commissions have busted and suspended dozens of MMA fighters since regulation became commonplace. There has long been a ban on fighters showing up with testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratios that fall outside the established rules, but until Thursday, fighters could go before the commission prior to being licensed for a fight and basically get its blessing to use TRT because a doctor said they should. Essentially, the NSAC finally pulled the blinders off and set forth a performance-enhancing drug policy that many outside the commission’s regulatory capacity had been advocating for years.

So will this new ruling affect a lot of fighters?

Again, probably not. Remember that only a small percentage of fighters have successfully applied for a TUE, but the issue has gotten a lot of attention in part because those fighters have been among some of the biggest names in the sport (Belfort, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, Chael Sonnen, etc.) and their TRT use has often been tied to demonstrated competitive excellence in high-profile fights. Really, the only fighters who will be affected will be those who have previously used TUEs en route to being allowed by the NSAC to use performance-enhancing drugs. While this could significantly impact the careers of that handful of fighters, the vast majority under contract with the UFC won’t experience any practical change.

How about Vitor Belfort? What happens to him?

At this point, his career can go in one of a handful of directions.

He could just walk away from MMA entirely. Sure, it would only darken the cloud of TRT-related suspicion that has hovered over Belfort’s head for the last couple of years, but at least he’d go out on a three-fight winning streak over a trio of the sport’s better middleweights while also having the dubious ability to claim for the rest of his life that he could have been champion if only the UFC would have let him fight Weidman at UFC 173.

Another, less likely option is that Belfort and his legal team file suit against the NSAC (and maybe the UFC) and argue that Belfort should not be barred from competing just because a testosterone treatment deemed medically necessary by his doctors has fallen out of favor with MMA’s regulatory bodies. The chances of this happening are slim, and such action would effectively end Belfort’s professional career anyway since the UFC has such wide latitude in its hirings and firings, but Belfort’s previous defiance in the face of questions about his TRT use (which might be read as a dogged determination to continue such use, consequences be damned) perhaps make him more likely than other former TUE-receivers to take such drastic action, so you never know.

Most likely is that Belfort will continue to fight, and either halt his TRT use entirely or alter his schedule so as not to trip any regulatory triggers. Whether this change will have an impact on Belfort’s abilities in the Octagon (and whether he would actually pass his drug tests) remains to be seen, but a sudden drop-off in his combative quality will prove vindicating for those who have long been arguing for a TUE ban. If, however, Belfort is still able to do things like this to his opponents in the absence of a TUE, perhaps the effects of TRT have been overblown.

Does the NSAC’s ruling mean we won’t hear about TRT anymore?

Sadly, it does not. Right off the bat, reports surfaced that Dan Henderson will likely still be granted a TUE for his March 23 contest against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in Brazil, so it looks like at least one more UFC event will feature a fighter partly fueled by TRT. Beyond that, though, it has long been anecdotally suspected that at least a portion of the UFC’s fighters use some form of performance enhancement and are able to get away with it due to the beatable nature of drug testing, so it’s only a matter of time before we hear of another elevated T/E ratio resulting in a failed drug test.

Adding to this is the fact that the UFC has repeatedly asserted that the responsibility to ensure fighter cleanliness falls to the athletic commissions, and the fact that there is not one but 49 different regulatory bodies in the United States alone makes unifying the rules more cumbersome. Combine this with the sheer expense that sufficient testing would entail, and it’s doubtful that we’ll see these taxpayer-funded regulatory commissions able to initiate the sort of testing protocols that could be made available through private organizations (like, say, the UFC). And even despite the apparent ease with which fighters can use performance-enhancing drugs and still test clean, we still repeatedly see headlines telling of a failed drug test either preempting a fight or nullifying its result. I would expect little to change in this area, because the same performance-enhancing substances that are banned today were also banned before the NSAC ruling on Thursday.

On the surface, the NSAC ruling seems like a major event in the world of MMA. Just about every MMA publication in existence has made the TUE ban and Vitor Belfort’s subsequent UFC 173 withdrawal its editorial focus for the last two days. No doubt this is due to the high-profile nature of the fighters who previously received TUEs, but we should also not underestimate the fact that MMA journalists—the people who produce the MMA content we consume—have almost universally been deriding the continued legality of TRT-via-TUE for as long as the two acronyms have been part of the MMA lexicon. The vindication those journalists must feel—and the pleasure they probably won’t admit they get from Belfort’s predicament—certainly plays a small role in the attention the NSAC’s ruling has generated. In reality, though, the decision has very little practical impact on professional MMA, beyond changing the training regimens for a handful of well-known fighters.

The fighter most immediately affected by the ruling is Belfort, and time will tell whether the UFC’s fans will ever see the same Belfort we’ve seen over his last handful of fights. His actions to deny a voluntary withdrawal from UFC 173 make him seem determined to save face, so it’s probable that he’ll return to action after a moderate, hormone-recalibrating vacation, at which point we’ll see how much of his recent success had to do with the performance-enhancing drugs he was allowed to take. Belfort himself will not likely ever discuss his TRT use publicly, but his performance in the Octagon after he begins competing without the security of a TUE will certainly speak volumes.

The real story here is not the NSAC’s ruling itself, but how long it took to come about. Nothing has changed about TRT since its use became more widely known in MMA, other than the attention it got from mainstream news publications in recent months. The NSAC’s sudden reaction in the face of this criticism points not, therefore, to a commission concerned with upholding the highest standards of fighter safety, but rather with maintaining whatever shreds of credibility it has left. The TUE loophole should have been closed years ago, but now that ESPN has taken notice, the issue is apparently important enough to warrant immediate, decisive action.

So congratulations, NSAC, for having the courage to stand up this week and stop letting professional MMA fighters use performance-enhancing drugs with a doctor’s permission after years and years of being asked to do that exact thing. The bar you set for regulatory excellence is unmatched, and your decision will continue to earn you the level of respect from the MMA world that you so clearly deserve.

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.