It's a day every fighter knows is coming. One morning he'll wake up and notice he's a step off: suddenly takedowns he could formerly complete with ease are being stuffed, his punches come a fraction of a second later than intended, strikes he once was able to dodge are now finding a home square on his temple with alarming regularity, and the long, grueling training sessions that mark the life of a fighter seem harder to recover from than ever before. In the end no fighter, even the most superlatively talented, proves to be a match for Father Time.
Admitting this simple fact - that the human body naturally slows down as we age - has proven to be something of a problem for fighters over the years. Perhaps this shouldn't come as a surprise. It takes a special breed to believe that locking oneself in a cage with an opponent who wants to inflict bodily harm on you is not only a good idea, but a reasonable career choice. Fighters generally aren't the passive types who go gentle into that good night, even when their bodies are screaming at them to retire.
For one thing, the competitive drive that makes one want to take up fighting in the first place leads to a mindset wherein the fighter is perpetually chasing the dragon of victory. What's more, most fighters have spent their entire adult lives fighting; it defines them. How does one adjust to normal life after experiencing the incomparable rush of competing in front of a cheering audience? Perhaps most importantly, an adulthood spent in training camps has left most fighters with few career options after they can no longer earn their daily bread handing out beatdowns. Some might get into coaching after retirement, but very few will be able to make the kind of money they can fighting.
So when that fateful day finally arrives and Father Time is standing across the cage with bad intentions on his mind, is it any wonder some fighters are desperate enough to turn to artificial enhancement in form of testosterone replacement therapy in hopes of fending him off? And make no mistake about it, for all the descriptions of it as a benign "medicine" by Chael Sonnen and other fighters who use it, TRT is artificial enhancement. A normal 35 year old man shouldn't have the testosterone level of a 22 year old. Taking injections of synthetic testosterone may be a legal and entirely valid medical procedure in this country, but it also raises serious ethical questions when a highly skilled martial artist who makes a living punching people in the face takes shots of a hormone that enhances his job performance.
Like, for instance, does a fighter have a right to keep fighting when he feels he can no longer perform at a high level without injecting synthetic hormones? Putting aside the spurious medicinal necessity of these exemptions, does it create an uneven playing field when veteran fighters are allowed to artificially raise their testosterone level to equal that of a 23 year old rookie? What message does it send when the UFC allows therapeutic use exemptions while the NFL, NBA, and MLB all forbid them? Ultimately who bears the onus of responsibility here: state athletic commissions, the UFC, fighters, fans, or all of the above?
Which brings me to an interview TRT recipient Forrest Griffin gave on Monday's MMA Hour. In it he revealed to MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani that he interpreted Dana White's statement last August that he should retire as his "own personal 'Do you want to be a f------ fighter?' speech." Griffin admitted that while he no longer views himself as a top light heavyweight contender, he still very much wants to be a f------ fighter.
"What else am I supposed to do? I have no other skills. I enjoy doing this," Griffin said. "There's nothing I'd really rather do, you know?"
I'd like to say I do know, but I suspect I can't really understand what it feels like to be 33 years old and faced with the reality that my best professional years are behind me until I've experienced it. This is the reality Forrest Griffin is now faced with. The same man who along with Stephan Bonnar made many of us fall in love with the sport in a battle for the ages seven years ago is now past his prime and fighting on borrowed time.
Unfortunately, the price of this borrowed time is the integrity of the sport. As long as fighters seek TUE's, state athletic commissions and the UFC allow them, and as long as fans turn a blind eye when their favorite fighters turn to artificial enhancement, the sport of mixed martial arts will deserve its spot on the fringes of the mainstream. Which is a shame, because all of the clean fighters who make this such an addicting sport to follow deserve better.