Lost in the dramatic flair of Anderson Silva's knockout victory over Chael Sonnen last night (Sat., July 7, 2012) in Las Vegas, Nevada, was something that could have been a huge cloud hanging over UFC 148's main event, but wasn't because Silva won: Sonnen's sanctioned usage of testosterone via a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) granted him in May by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC).
A victory by Sonnen would have ushered in all sorts of questions, and given the sport a controversy it didn't need, albeit a legally sanctioned one. But the long-term trend is that TUE and Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) aren't going anywhere. Steroids, which are optimally stacked with synthetic test as part of an athlete's cycling process, get a lot of attention as a "problem" in the sport, and they are.
But what's far more discomfiting is the groundswell for test "exemptions" under the rubric of a natural deficit, which will only open the floodgates for anyone with a willing physician vouching for them to get in on the party.
With the slow creep of TRT from being perceived as a performance-enhancing drug of cheaters to quasi-legit in the form of TUEs, mixed martial arts (MMA) commissions need to handle the issue proactively and aggressively.
Sonnen, whose use of testosterone before the first Silva bout in Aug. 2010 saw him test at a whopping 16.9-1 ratio of test-epitestosterone (the natural ratio is 1:1), claims he needs it to counter a lifelong low testosterone issue, caused by hypogonadism. Exemptions for TRT were previously granted by the NSAC for Dan Henderson and Todd Duffee, but Sonnen's case was the first to truly shed light on the testosterone issue.
And it surely won't be the last.
I attended Sonnen's Dec. 2010 hearing before the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), and it was obvious that his case brought up all sorts of delicate issues, ones the sport's regulatory leadership wasn't up to speed on enough to deal with adequately.
The scientific argument for the need for TRT does include some evidence that years of weight-cutting can cause drop-off of natural testosterone production. That I can buy (Dan Henderson, a lifelong wrestler and a guy that never looked like an Adonis to begin with). Todd Duffee I cannot, nor Nate Marquardt, the latter's last-minute admission of TRT getting him yanked from his June 2010 bout with Rick Story.
Quinton Jackson's admission that he'd done TRT rocked the MMA world after his decision loss to Ryan Bader; Frank Mir's TUE became public after his loss to Junior Dos Santos. In Mir's case, his massive size increase after his loss to Brock Lesnar at UFC 100 was obvious, and he was a 240-pound elite athlete to begin with.
Drop-offs with age, mileage and the natural progression of life are part of the game. It's what makes Silva, 37 and with 15 wins in as many UFC bouts, such a special product. Opening the doors to allow for TUEs, even if they are legitimate (and at present there's no real way to discern if a Testosterone deficit has been caused by years of weight-cutting, or usage of performance-enhancing drugs), also avails room for plenty of cheaters to move in on the boon, as well. Tonight, the sport dodged something of a bullet it didn't need. In the future, until TRT and the bullshit associated with gaming the system is addressed, it won't be so lucky.
Jason Probst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jasonprobst.