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For Vitor Belfort, a late-career surge clouded by TRT use

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Vitor Belfort's professional career has been one of twists and turns. He was alternately one of the scariest men in mixed martial arts and at least for a time, one of the most head-scratchingly inconsistent. He was the heir to the throne, then nearly a washout. He espoused his Christian beliefs, but made enemies and perpetrated some of the most stunning violence fighting has produced. His career has had multiple acts. There was the "Phenom," the downfall, the comeback, the rise and fall, and now, the TRT period.

At 36 years old, Belfort is finding some of his greatest success. He is 9-2 in his last 11 fights, which is the best single stretch of his career since opening it with 10 wins in his first 12 bouts. In the last six years, he's only lost to current UFC champions Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. He's coming off crushing knockouts of Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping, and there is a real belief that he is surging towards a possible middleweight title shot.

Yet all of this comes wrapped in a layer of controversy. After Belfort beat Bisping in January, the UFC confirmed what he would not; that he was undergoing testosterone replacement therapy, treatment he continued for the fight with Rockhold.

The fact that Belfort declined to publicly disclose it himself, even when offered the opportunity, is one of the reasons there is an air of skepticism about his particular case.

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In January, just before fighting Bisping, ESPN's Brett Okamoto straight up asked Belfort if he had ever applied for TRT or was considering it. Belfort gave a rambling answer, eventually saying, "This is too controversial, why am I going to say something that doesn't accomplish anything?"

Last week, I spoke to Belfort, and he had changed his tune. I asked him if he wished the genie had never come out of the bottle and his secret had stayed a secret. He said no, and that he felt everyone on TRT should be publicly outed. But after beating Rockhold in Jaragua do Sul, Brazil, he declined to answer any questions about TRT during a post-fight press conference.

Belfort is entitled to his silence if that's the path he chooses, but staying mum on the subject will not make it go away.

Back in the late 1990s, before I covered mixed martial arts, I was a general sports reporter, and I occasionally stepped into major league baseball clubhouses. This was right around the time when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa decided to bring video game baseball to real life, hitting home runs by the dozens. This was around the time when it was revealed by an Associated Press reporter that McGwire was using androstenedione, which then was being sold as a legal, over-the-counter supplement.

When that story broke, there was a real debate over whether McGwire was breaking any rules. After all, andro was legal. But the scientific community was pretty quick to point out that it was a steroid hormone. (It was later reclassified as a steroid.)

McGwire was not the only major leaguer to take andro. Far from it. Andro was an open secret in MLB, essentially a loophole that could be exploited. But McGwire was one of the sport's biggest stars, and so it was he who was most faced the heaviest scrutiny.

The whole scenario echos all these years later with what's going on in MMA with TRT. Testosterone is a performance-enhancer that is quickly seeping into the sport. There is little doubt that some fighters are taking advantage of a loophole. There is no question there is not enough random testing to keep them honest. There is really no way to tell who is truly deserving of an exemption, of who didn't shut down his own testosterone production due to previous abuse.

Due to a failed drug test in 2006, Belfort falls under suspicion of that, and whether at least some of this recent surge is chemically assisted.

That said, TRT is no miracle drug. Of known users, almost all of them have lost at least once while on it. Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen and Frank Mir have all lost while on it. So did "Rampage" Jackson and Dennis Hallman and Shane Roller. TRT does not make you invincible, even if it makes you better.

There is a drug problem in sports, and in MMA. No doubt about it. Belfort has repeatedly said that he is not breaking any rules, and that is very true, but that may just be because the rules are outdated, much like they were in McGwire's case. Belfort may not be deserving of any more criticism than a random steroid user who does it under the cloak of anonymity, but his stature is so great and his story is so wildly compelling that it's going to come his way anyway.

One day in the near future, Belfort may fight for a belt again. He is likely going to need to be cleared by a state commission at some point, and some are on the record saying they might have a problem offering him a therapeutic use exemption due to his past PED bust. We are heading for some kind of collision course. We're already there from a public relationship perspective.

Even if you don't want to look too far ahead, you can't help but look at the here and now. The Belfort of today is a killer, something similar to the young, powerful crusher we first saw so long ago. And that's sort of the point. With all of his contemporaries gone or on their way out, Belfort has managed to not only stay relevant, but also go through a rebirth and hover near the top. After nearly 17 years of fighting, that's either cause for celebration or cynicism. Maybe he's just older and wiser than he used to be, maybe the dark period of his career when he suffered through the tragic loss of his sister was more difficult to navigate than he could ever put into words. But maybe TRT plays a role, too.

Fifteen years ago, when all of this PED stuff was a fairly new conversation in sports, McGwire became a national hero for breaking the home run record. If Belfort does something comparable and wins a championship, I suspect his achievement will never be unconditionally appreciated, not with the clouds hanging overhead.

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