As 2013 comes to a close, there is an overriding question that comes to mind as people start handing out awards and looking back at the year that was: 20 years from now, how will this era be viewed?
The question comes down to those controversial and inescapable letters that keep popping up when you least expect them - TRT. They are waving a huge neon sign, taunting you when you think about the Fighter of the Year award, asking questions of ethics as well as performance. You can't escape them for Fight of the Year. And while the letters may not be identical, when we look back at who really was the dominant female fighter of this era, our decision has both ethical questions to go with those of in-ring performance.
This strange real world of performance enhancers that cuts through every sport has yielded different results. Marion Jones was one of the greatest female athletes of her time, and ended up disgraced and in prison. Lance Armstrong was an American hero who ended up viewed as one of the world's biggest frauds and liars. Some of the statistically greatest baseball players who ever lived may never get into that sport's Hall of Fame. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an Austrian bodybuilder who ended up a movie box office giant and California Governor, and remains a hero to a generation of worshipers.
In some sports, hindsight lays down brutal hammers on the careers of those who got caught, while lauding those who likely did the same thing but avoided detection. Others look the other way.
It would be foolish to insinuate that performance enhancing drugs haven't been part of MMA from its start. Ken Shamrock, one of the sport's original stars, has both admitted steroid use, and, late in his career, failed a steroid test. The first Japanese star, Masakatsu Funaki, also admitted experimenting with steroids. Testing, throughout the sport's 20-year history, has ranged from nonexistent to inadequate.
It was widely spoken when UFC purchased Pride about what would happen to the top fighters coming from a non-tested environment to a tested one, and some of the biggest stars suddenly hit career skids.
And in recent years, the TRT aspect has become a new form of an ethical dilemma. Now, a number of fighters, many of which likely damaged their endocrine systems through prior use of steroids to where they need additional testosterone for health purposes, are licensed by the sports' governing bodies to use such treatment to enhance their fighting ability. Yes, we know that in UFC, fighters who ask for exemptions to use TRT are tested regularly. And if they looked the same and performed the same as in what should have been their physical primes, questions about TRT would not be so prevalent.
We wouldn't have these questions, like does a TRT regimen in combination with using growth hormone (illegal but not tested for in MMA except in the rarest of instances) combine to have a stronger synergistic effect. A generation of bodybuilders believed that to be the case, which is why they would stack steroids, growth hormone and other substances as opposed to just use one substance.
Enter Vitor Belfort. We all know the issue here. Belfort has gone through widespread physical changes throughout his nearly two-decade career. He went from teenage phenom, to journeyman living off a reputation from his youth, to, at 36, the guy who has a strong argument for Fighter of the Year in a young man's game.
His body changed from blown up bodybuilder competing as a heavyweight and knocking people out, to normal athlete competing as a middleweight, to muscle magazine cover boy who is awaiting a match with the winner of the year's biggest fight on Saturday night.
He's 3-0 this year, and that record only begins to tell the story.
He knocked out Michael Bisping in the second round, a veteran top contender, who had only been finished once in his previous 27 fights. Then he knocked out Luke Rockhold, the Strikeforce champion and another top contender, in just 2:32 with a head kick of beauty. Rockhold had also only been finished once in his career.
The Coup de Gras was against one of the most durable fighters in history, Dan Henderson. Henderson, in 39 fights, in a long career against the toughest fighters of three different eras, has never been stopped by strikes. Belfort knocked him down immediately with punches and as soon as he got up, finished him with a head kick in just 1:17.
With Belfort, we have no secret assumptions of a remarkable comeback by someone at an age when fighters speed and skills in most cases have faded. Belfort tested positive for steroids when he was younger. Years later, Belfort was deemed to have an endocrine system that no longer produced adequate testosterone, a frequent byproduct of previous steroid users. Belfort was then sanctioned by the UFC and overseas commissions to use testosterone replacement therapy. And he had as impressive a year as any fighter in the sport.
Here's the issue. Whatever he may or may not have done before this diagnosis and his medical treatment, what we know he is doing is within the bylaws of what those who have made the rules have decreed is legal. Should it be is a different question. Should he be penalized in awards for competing within the rules of the sport because we happen to not like the rules? And if not, does that make people voting on the awards complicit in looking the other way when an 800-pound elephant is staring at them right in the face?
With Alex Rodriguez to Barry Bonds the issue was different. They violated the rules of their sport. Like Jones and Armstrong, they avoided detection in their primes, only to have evidence come out later. The only reason anybody dug to get that evidence was because they were record-setters. Essentially, their entire careers were decreed a sham because they weren't just good, but too good.
Obviously, if TRT alone could make one fighter of the year, we'd have dozens of Belforts. Forrest Griffin would still be headlining and Ben Rothwell would be knocking out Cain Velasquez with a first round head kick to be champion of the world. But it doesn't work like that. I f Belfort was knocking top contenders out in the first round between the ages of 27 and 29, most fighters' primes (for the record, he was 2-5 during that three year period with both wins coming against prelim level fighters), we'd also be asking a lot less questions.
We've since learned that Antonio Silva was also on TRT, in his war on Dec. 7 in Brisbane, Australia, with Mark Hunt. Largely because of how great the top tier fights of 2013 have been, that bout, which would have easily won fight of the year most years, may not have won under any circumstances. But it would have to be strongly considered.
In the case of Silva, he did, in fact, violate the rules, because his overdid his replacement therapy and went into the cage with abnormally high levels of testosterone. But in listening to his explanation, we don't know if he went in there with the express intent of cheating, or simply was following doctor's orders in taking medication he was approved for and was victimized by faulty advice.
When discussing the best female fighter of the era, today's discussion would come down to Ronda Rousey and Cris "Cyborg" Justino. If they never fight, or if they do and Justino were to win, that issue hits one in the head with all the subtlety of someone swinging a hammer at your cranium.
As much of an advantage steroid use is for male fighters, because women produce so much less testosterone, the difference and competitive advantage when it comes to women is far more pronounced.
With Justino, her steroid test failure only proved what nearly everyone suspected from the physical eye test. But what if she continues to win, and never fails another test?
It's been 37 years since steroid testing was instituted in the Olympics, and this was the 25th anniversary of Ben Johnson, the most publicized test failure of his generation, a man who went from national hero to national disgrace all within the same week.
In all that time, the same hypocrisy on the subject remains, with athletes lauded for their performance, but if they become so great at it, and perhaps a bit too arrogant about it, they become victims of their success years later and end up with their lives work branded as a complete and total fraud. They were all following, not the rules of their sport, but doing what was being done rampantly to get ahead in their sports. If they were singular cheaters it would be one thing, but it's naive to think they simply weren't the most successful at what was institutionalized as part of every one of their sports.
With Belfort, he's actually, to the best of our knowledge, not even violating the rules. But his career path waves far too many red flags to not question those rules.
But how will this look 20 years from now, provided Chris Weidman doesn't beat Anderson Silva on Saturday and almost surely wins Fighter of the Year? What happens if Belfort, in his next fight, wins the middleweight championship?
Will TRT become an accepted part of every top fighters training to where it will come across like Belfort was being persecuted by witch hunters and outdated fantasy ideals of the top level of competition? Or if he wins these awards and championships, in hindsight, will those who voted for the awards and sanctioned his resurgence be decried as having rewarded a known drug user when there was full knowledge at the time of what he was doing? The answer, unfortunately, is one of those.