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It's Time for the UFC to Put Its Foot Down on Testosterone Use

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Gather ‘round, fight fans. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson would like to explain to you exactly why testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) should be banned from the UFC and MMA competition in general.

Of course, he doesn’t know that’s what he’s about to do. He seems to think he’s simply extolling the virtues of TRT in an interview with Fighters Only. But look closely and see if you can’t pinpoint the obvious problems with Jackson’s chosen course of treatment for a knee injury before his recent fight with Ryan Bader at UFC 144:

"It was hard for me to train, it takes time to heal, I couldn’t do certain things, but this was my first time ever using testosterone. I took what the doctor prescribed to me and I went to the pharmacy… I gave myself small doses and that [expletive] immediately changed me, that’s why I am saying now I am not going to retire. ...I got stronger, lifting weights. I was never good at lifting weights but I was doing everything, pull ups and stuff, everything with my top half. I gained a lot of weight but I gained a lot of water as well, I never knew about testosterone putting weight on you like that. I had to cut weight [for the fight] and I cut 22 pounds out of the 30 I needed to cut, I just couldn’t make the rest."

To recap: fighter injures his knee, fighter goes to the doctor, doctor suggests he see an "age-management doctor" rather than a knee specialist, "age-management doctor" gives him a prescription for testosterone, fighter quickly becomes stronger and physically better than he was before.

Does that sound like doping to anyone else, or is it just me?

I don’t blame Jackson here. In his version of events, he went to the doctor for knee problems and came out with injectable doses of testosterone, which he was assured by his doctor (who he said "works for the UFC") that it was all perfectly fair and legal for poor gentlemen like himself with abnormally low testosterone. It’s worth noting here that Jackson is a 33-year-old professional athlete, and yet he’s supposedly suffering from such chronically low levels of testosterone that he needs to inject himself with the stuff just to get to the normal levels enjoyed by men everywhere. If you’d told me that the difference between me, a 32-year-old writer, and Jackson, a 33-year-old fighter, was that I had an unfair edge in natural testosterone production, I’d think you must be smoking something rather than injecting it. But, for the moment, let’s take them at their word.

So Jackson, who isn’t a doctor, hears he needs testosterone. He takes the testosterone, and he feels great. He feels like he could fight for years on this stuff, and hey, everyone from his personal doctor to the UFC says it’s okay (although one wonders what his opponent might have thought, had he been told in advance), so why not?

Interesting note about the UFC’s role in all this: Jackson claimed that he told his doctor not to tell the UFC about his knee injury, but his doctor (who, again, supposedly works for the UFC) violated his confidence and told them anyway. He also said that he talked to UFC officials about testosterone before he decided to use it, "and they were like ‘yeah, a lot of fighters are probably doing it but not telling anyone.'"

(Or at least, that’s what Jackson was quoted as saying in early version of the interview I read online Wednesday evening. As of the time of this writing, that sentence has vanished from the interview.)

UFC president Dana White took his usual stance on the issue when pressed about it in Sydney, Australia this week, saying, "If it's legal, if you can do it and the athletic commission allows you to do it and you come in at the right levels, what kind of stance am I going to take on it?"

But then, athletic commissions don’t allow every fighter to do it. Fighters have to apply for a therapeutic-use exemption, go through testing and independent analysis, which, to hear Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer tell it, is as likely to result in a no as it is a yes.

Did Jackson do all that? We don’t know, but it sure doesn’t sound like it from his description. It sounds more like he, his doctors, and the UFC all got together to take full advantage of the lack of a local athletic commission in Japan, and then Jackson -- in his innocence and perhaps willful naivete -- went and messed things up by telling the truth about it in an interview. Then White threw his hands up and insisted there was nothing his organization could do about fighters using testosterone, since athletic commissions back home allow it...for some of them.

This is a ridiculous argument. It’s a dodge. It’s an excuse to allow fighters to engage in legal doping, and it’s got to stop.

If you don’t think testosterone is a big deal because, as Jackson put it, "it’s what your body produces," you’re just plain wrong. According to Dr. Don Catlin -- the creator of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab and a pioneer of anti-doping science -- testosterone is "the strongest anabolic agent we know." It is, in Catlin’s view, the "preferred" anabolic agent among pro athletes, the one you would take if you could take absolutely anything at all.

I talked to Catlin for an article on drug testing a few weeks ago, and he literally laughed out loud about the notion of handing out therapeutic-use exemptions (TUEs) for testosterone to pro fighters. He knows a little something about it, too, since he sits on the Olympic committee responsible for approving them -- something they almost never do for Olympic athletes.

"Young, healthy men don’t get TUEs for having low testosterone," Catlin said. "It’s just not done."

Unless you’re an MMA fighter, apparently. Although, logically, shouldn’t professional fighters be the last people you’d want to get legal testosterone injections? Shouldn’t the standards for them be tougher, rather than easier? After all, we’re not talking about hitting a baseball farther or running faster -- we’re talking about thumping another human being’s skull harder. If we give them testosterone to make them stronger and more capable in the cage, we’re just asking for trouble. MMA is still a sport on the bubble, and a sport that’s trying to make its case for regulation in states like New York. What do you think would happen if a fighter hopped up on testosterone injections seriously injured or killed an opponent? It's not safe, and it's not fair to the guy who has to fight an opponent who's been injecting testosterone for the last few weeks.

And please, let’s stop this ‘as long as you come in at the right levels’ nonsense. That’s like giving fighters steroids and telling them to make sure it doesn’t show up in their urine sample. We all know that it’s not just what you have in your system on fight night that matters. As Jackson more or less told us, it’s what powers you through training and helps you get stronger in the weeks before the fight that makes all the difference. He can say he was never over a certain level, but how does he know? Did he get tested every day? Did he get tested on any day, aside from his visit to the "age-management doctor"?

As Nate Marquardt can tell you, testosterone levels fluctuate wildly and quickly when you’re getting injections of the stuff. His levels were deemed too high to fight in Pennsylvania when he was tested before his planned bout with Rick Story last spring. According to his own team, if the test had been 24 hours later, his levels would have been fine.

Testosterone is powerful stuff, as Jackson so helpfully explained. I can imagine why fighters would want to use it, just like I can imagine why middle-aged men everywhere might hear his description and decide that it sounds pretty great. Hell, I’m in my early 30s and my body doesn’t recover quite as well from workouts and injuries as it used to. I’d love to get stronger and faster and feel like a 21-year-old again, only this time not quite as dumb.

The difference is, I don’t get paid to beat other people up. The stuff I put in my body doesn’t affect anyone but me. The same isn’t true for pro fighters, which is why we have drug-testing programs to begin with. It’s why we don’t let them drink Red Bull or pop perfectly legal painkillers in the locker room before a fight. Allowing some of them to use testosterone is a dangerous loophole, and one that’s bound to be exploited. It is within the UFC’s power to do something about it, and the fact that it’s abdicating this responsibility and pointing the finger at athletic commissions -- even in places where the commissions don’t exist -- is outrageous. It has to stop, and the UFC is the one with the power to stop it. White and the Fertitta’s have brought the sport this far. Now it’s time for them to take one more step toward fairness and fighter safety, and soon, while the worst-case scenarios are still hypothetical ones.

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