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Vitor Belfort talks drug testing and the pros and cons of UFC-Reebok sponsorship

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Last July, the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) granted longtime contender Vitor Belfort a license to challenge for Chris Weidman's UFC middleweight title. The decision was not without controversy, given that just months before Belfort failed a drug test for the second time in his fighting career. It was, however, granted with the caveat from commissioner Anthony Marnell that the NAC be "in and around" Belfort's career until the day the 37-year-old retires. And thus far, that part has proven to be true.

While in Las Angeles for UFC 184 fight week, Belfort told Brazilian media that he has already been randomly drug tested seven times ahead of his UFC 187 showdown against Weidman. All of Belfort's reported results have come back clean, as have Weidman's. The champion's tests, though, have been more infrequent, and Belfort made a point to criticize that inequality in calling for an "equal system" that would test both parties evenly.

Given his muddled history with PEDs, the Brazilian's words drew some criticism, so he elaborated on his thoughts on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, drawing a comparison between the inconsistency of the testing policy to the uncertainty of the UFC's new Reebok sponsorship program.

"What I meant is this: the sport is coming towards a big change," Belfort said. "Let's talk about uniforms. You see this? (Points to sponsor's shirt.) These are the people that I have a big contract with. Big contract. Lots of money. So now I've gotta go to them and say, ‘Listen, I cannot have you guys inside the cage because we have these guys that sponsor UFC, this big company, that people are only going to be allowed to wear them. And in their mind, they say, ‘Okay. But they will pay you what we pay?' And I say, ‘No, I don't have anything with them.' And we have a lot of discussions -- it's right, it's not right, people like it, people don't like it. But you know, I understand that things have to be done today for the future. So as a businessman, I was talking about (wanting) something to be fair. It's a rule, everybody has to follow the rule.

"Somebody is going to be on my uniform and they're not going to pay me monthly? It's fair? I have a 19-year career. 19-year career. I don't think it's fair, because some fighters have the privilege to have a contract with this big organization that comes for my sport (Reebok), and they have monthly pay. So the same thing I was talking about with it, I was talking about this thing that I love -- I love to work with the commission in Nevada. They're great people and they're going after everybody. And I said, to be fair, something to be fair has to apply to everyone equal."

Belfort illustrated his point by drawing up a hypothetical situation in which his Blackzilian teammate, Anthony Johnson -- a top 205-pound contender who has no documented history of PED abuse -- would get randomly drug tested five times by the state commission prior to UFC 187, while Johnson's upcoming opponent, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, would only get tested once.

"That would be fair for you if that happened?" Belfort asked.

"That's what I mean. I didn't talk about me. For something to be equal, for the sport to be equal, for the system to work, if you want the system to work, it doesn't matter if I was caught in my seat without a seatbelt.

"I didn't talk about my fight -- as a businessman I was talking about my future. They drug test everybody. Forty-percent (of fighters), they fail drug tests. Forty. That's a big amount. So now they come with these new rules. These new rules, to work, everybody's guilty until they're tested. So if we want to be right, if someone is going to fight for the belt, it doesn't matter if it's Vitor Belfort or if it's Joe Joseph or if it's Ricardo. It doesn't matter the name. It should be equal. Everybody has to be treated equal. It doesn't matter if this is a rule. I'm just talking about what I think is fair. Not about me. Nothing about me. I could pass it everyday, I don't care. But I'm saying, for something to work, for the future of our sport, everybody has to be treated the same."

Weidman has traditionally been one of the stauncher advocates of increased drug testing in MMA, and not surprisingly he responded to Belfort's initial statements over UFC 184 fight week with wary cynicism, stating of Belfort, "If he passed seven pre-fight tests, that's great; I hope there's seven more."

There's certainly no love lost between the two middleweights, especially when one considers that their grudge match has been on the books for nearly a year. But one thing Weidman and Belfort share in common is the one fact Belfort mentioned in passing -- both fighters, despite their champion and top contender status, currently find themselves lacking the individualized Reebok sponsorships carried by a handful of UFC athletes, including non-champions Paige VanZant and Conor McGregor.

Starting July 6, those Reebok sponsorships will be the only in-cage sponsorships available for UFC fighters hoping for additional income aside from their standard Reebok stipends, which will be decided based upon a fighter's rank. That means the various South American brands Belfort has become synonymous with will see a massive drop in UFC visibility, and Belfort elaborated on how that could impact his earning potential moving forward.

"I'm not talking about Vitor the person or fighter. As a businessman, it's how I see the future of our sport," Belfort said. "So for example, I don't see us like NBA. I don't get paid by the Miami Heat, by Blackzilians. So what I mean is, we can compare our sport more to ATP, like tennis players. They have to have their sponsors because they're the ones who pay all the traveling, all the expenses. Not everyone can win the championship and make a lot of money, so a lot of players, they need sponsors to travel around the world. I get paid by the UFC when I fight, but monthly, the sponsors help us too. Sometimes we have injuries, sometimes we don't fight.

"So now comes a new regulation for the good. I believe it's going to be good for the future, but right now -- it's like NBA for example, these guys receive monthly (checks). If they have injuries, if they don't play, they're still making money. They still can play with their Nikes, with their whatevers.

"Everybody's like, ‘What's going to happen, what's going to happen.' Nobody knows. But I believe that when we implement something, like a regulation or a rule, we have to apply to everybody equally. And that's what I mean when I'm talking about the tests, about the sponsorships. We don't know about the future. I believe, UFC, it's going to come up with something that's going to be equal and is not going to hurt us, it's going to help us. But in the beginning of everything, it's like, what's it going to be? What is right? What it wrong?"

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