Right off we might as well talk about it.
Why not? We’re thinking about it, whether we want to admit it or not. How could we not be, when it’s right there staring us in the face?
Vitor Belfort pulls off an amazing spinning heel kick against Luke Rockhold at UFC on FX 8, then declares that he’s “stronger than ever,” and it’s like he’s begging us to talk about it. On the broadcast we hear references to his impressive career turnaround, and it feels like they’re hinting at the things they can’t or don’t dare say.
Or maybe they aren’t. At least not intentionally. Maybe it’s a Freudian slip, or no slip at all. Maybe it’s just that when you get an elephant this big in a room this small – and when that elephant keeps stomping on the heads of all who come near it – anything you say feels like it’s either directed right at the damn thing or else conspicuously avoiding mention of it.
That’s where we are with Belfort and his testosterone usage. Tucked away in Brazil, where the commission is brand new and therapeutic-use exemptions for former steroid cheats are apparently no problem, he faces a problem he doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge. The more fights he wins and the more highlight-reel finishes he stacks up, the more he stokes a fire that he’d rather we just ignore.
The thing is, we probably would ignore it if we could. We’d rather watch and enjoy and be awed by these finishes that look like something out of a video game. But knowing what we know, it’s impossible to come away from Belfort’s recent performances without wondering how much of what we just saw came from him and how much came from a syringe.
And honestly, that’s what really sucks about testosterone use in MMA – for the fans, anyway. The fighters, sure, they have to worry about the concussions and the competitive imbalance and all the rest of it. Those of us on the couch get stuck with the nagging doubt and bitter aftertaste. Guys like Belfort are making this sport hard for a thinking fan to relax and enjoy.
We see him pull off some fantastic move and we can’t appreciate it for what it is. We just can’t. Unless we want to become the willing marks in this little PED carnival, we have to ask whether he could have done that without a steady injection of steroids (and for the last time, while the testosterone that occurs naturally in your body is a hormone, the synthesized testosterone that MMA fighters are injecting is a steroid; let’s stop dancing around it and call it what it is).
But testosterone doesn’t kick people in the head, right? You need skill to do that. And that’s true. You also need skill to hit a baseball over a fence, but I think we’ve learned that it doesn’t hurt to get an infusion of chemically-enhanced power and explosiveness to give that existing skill a little extra push. It also doesn’t hurt to get that push all through training camp.
That’s the thing about performance-enhancing drugs. They take what you already have and improve it with the help of some stuff you don’t. That’s why athletes use them. You think Belfort would be putting up with all the scrutiny from the media and the criticism from fans if this stuff didn’t work?
It’s worth noting how Belfort is handling that scrutiny, by the way. With the UFC’s help, he’s managed to avoid the prying eyes of the various U.S. state athletic commissions, many of which aren’t exactly all that strict to begin with. But when John Morgan of MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com) asked him about his testosterone use after his win over Rockhold, Belfort’s response was to try to silence him as quickly as possible.
“Can somebody beat him up for me, please?” Belfort said of Morgan at the post-fight news conference. “Can somebody beat him up?”
Right, because nothing says “I’m using a totally legitimate medical treatment” quite like threatening those who ask questions about it. It’s not just immediately after the fight that Belfort avoids these questions, either. Let’s not forget, back before the UFC confirmed that he was using testosterone, Belfort refused to admit it, even when asked point blank about it by ESPN. It was only after the UFC outed him that he voiced his support for full public disclosure for all testosterone users. If the UFC hadn’t put his business in the streets, he’d probably still be doing it in secret.
The sad part is, Belfort doesn’t seem to realize how much the controversy is hurting him. He seems genuinely oblivious to the fact that, in the minds of many fans, there’s an asterisk next to all these wins. Maybe he didn’t need the testosterone to beat Rockhold. Maybe he could have pulled off that kick without it. But the thing is, we’ll never know. Neither will he. He can tell us that it’s all him, that the testosterone has nothing to do with his career resurgence. But if that’s true then why doesn’t he get off the juice? If it’s not responsible for his success, then it shouldn’t matter if he stops using it. And if he won’t stop using it, then he can’t be surprised when we won’t quit talking about it.
Maybe that’s the silver lining here, is the enduring force of the conversation. The more fights Belfort wins while on testosterone – and the more violent, spectacular finishes he reels off in the process – the more he fuels the debate. Looking at Twitter on Saturday night, the first response to his knockout of Rockhold was a kind of stunned amazement. The second response was skepticism and suspicion. By Sunday morning, it was the suspicion that lingered.
It’ll keep lingering, too. Just ask all those power hitters from baseball’s steroid era. Performance-enhancers like testosterone might be fast-acting, but the stain they leave behind is a stubborn one. The way Belfort’s headed, he’ll still be staring at it long after his fighting days are done.
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