A few years ago, it appeared Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) middleweight contender Vitor Belfort's best days were behind him.
At the time, the Brazilian had just come up short in a title match against then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva at UFC 126. Which is really just a euphemistic way of saying he got knocked the fuck out in the fight's opening frame via a front kick to the face right out of the first "Karate Kid" movie.
Belfort was 33 when Silva went all "Daniel San" on him, which made many people conclude his time as a viable title contender was likely drawing to a close. After all, 30-something mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters aren't like fine wines -- they don't typically get better with age.
But then a funny thing happened. Belfort won his next two fights in emphatic fashion -- a first round knockout of Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 133 and then a first round submission over Anthony Johnson at UFC 142.
"The Phenom" then moved up in weight to fill in as a last minute challenger against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 152 in the fall of 2012. Although he ended up getting submitted by way of a keylock late in the fight, he had Jones in serious trouble thanks to a deep first round armbar that caused damage to ligaments in the champ's elbow.
After that brief setback, Belfort had arguably the best year of his career. Not only did he notch up three consecutive victories over top contenders, in each instance he did so by way of a highlight reel-worthy head kick knockout.
It should have been the feel good story of 2013: One of the legends from the pioneer days of the sport defying the odds and staging an unlikely career resurgence at age 36.
However, that's not what everyone was talking about when looking back at Belfort's accomplishments last year.
Instead, the subject on the tip of everyone's tongue was the self-proclaimed "Young Dinosaur's" use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).
The coincidence of a guy in his mid-thirties beginning a steady regimen of synthetic testosterone and then turning into a fearsome head kicking machine was just too fishy for many of us to suspend our disbelief and play along with. For a mixed martial arts fan with even a smidgen of critical thinking ability, it was impossible not to wonder whether or not all those knockouts were fueled by something more than just protein shakes and long hours in the gym.
All along, Belfort attempted to portray his use of doctor-prescribed testosterone as a legitimate, necessary medical treatment that is perfectly legal according to the rules of the sport.
However, that all changed on Thursday (Feb. 27, 2014) when -- just days after an in-depth ESPN piece cast a light on the prevalence of TRT in MMA -- the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) voted unanimously to no longer issue therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for fighters on TRT.
It wasn't long before UFC threw in its support for the Nevada commission's decision. In an official statement, the world's leading MMA company announced it would also no longer be issuing exemptions for TRT on overseas shows (which are often regulated by UFC). What's more, in a statement issued earlier this week, UFC President Dana White urged other state athletic commissions to comply with Nevada's ruling.
All of that may have been monumental enough, but just a few hours later things got truly interesting. First, White went on FOX Sports 1 and revealed that Belfort had pulled out of his scheduled bout against middleweight champion Chris Weidman at UFC 173, set to take place May 24, 2014 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Then, Belfort himself contradicted White's report, by way of a Facebook post where he claimed, "UFC...decided to put another opponent in my place because...I won't have time to suit NSAC's new rules."
As if that wasn't enough, a report surfaced Friday morning (Feb. 28, 2014) that Belfort was administered a random, unannounced drug test by the NSAC on Feb. 7. A public records request for the result of that test was denied because Belfort wasn't under license in Nevada at the time of the test. Which means we'll never know if Belfort was clean on Feb. 7 or not.
Logically, one would assume if Belfort had nothing to hide, he would have no problem revealing the results of the Feb. 7 PED screening. As of press time, he has yet to do so.
Whether or not Belfort's test result had anything to do with the decision to yank him from his May 24 match against Weidman, and slot Lyoto Machida in his place, is beside the point as it pertains to how "The Phenom" will be remembered.
What's important here is that, no matter how you spin it, years of continued synthetic testosterone usage forced Belfort out of a big title match -- arguably the biggest fight UFC has on deck in 2014.
To say that puts an indelible stain on Belfort's recent career resurgence is putting it mildly. Much like how baseball fans can't look back fondly on the 1998 Mark McGuire vs. Sammy Sosa homerun race or admire Barry Bonds for eventually setting the all time homerun record, it's going to be difficult for MMA fans to watch any of those spectacular finishes Belfort notched up in 2013 without wondering how much of his performance was attributable to anabolic steroid use under the euphemistic guise of a benign "therapy."
Because, as we move out of the therapeutic use exemption era, how the MMA world thinks about TRT is sure to change. Before there may have been some apologists who defended it or thought it wasn't a big deal, but that's sure to change now that we are no longer drawing a distinction between anabolic steroid use in one context -- and man am I glad this is the last time I'll need to remind everyone that testosterone is an anabolic steroid -- while condemning it in another. Unless you're in favor of fighters using steroids, it's hard to make an argument for TRT.
Which means Belfort's legacy is going to be indelibly tarnished unless he comes out in his next fight and is the same jacked, head kicking beast who terrorized the MMA world in 2013.
In the event a TRT-free Belfort ends up resembling Popeye months into a national shortage of spinach, it's not going to be a good look. Simply put, if Belfort's achievements weren't attributable to a regular regimen of synthetic testosterone use, then there's no reason he shouldn't be as impressive after the NSAC's ruling as he was before it.
Judging by his physician's estimates, it should take approximately 90 days for Belfort's body to acclimate itself to no longer receiving TRT.
"Any performance advantage results not from the use of medication, but from the athlete's unshaken discipline and absolute dedication to an extremely demanding training routine, impeccable nutrition and resting," said the unnamed physician in today's release (via MMA Fighting).
"In the name of his passion for the sport and dedication to his fans, my patient made the decision to interrupt his health treatment," he continued. "We are going to need 90 days to adapt Vitor's treatment and nutrition in order to support his extremely hard training routine."
It may seem slightly unfair to base a judgement on the validity of Belfort's legacy on one fight, but this is one those cases life is so fond of presenting us with that prove the truth in the old adage about reaping what you sow.
After all, if "The Young Dinosaur" was gaining a performance enhancing advantage from his TRT use over the past few years, then it wasn't fair to Michael Bisping or Luke Rockhold when Belfort knocked them out.
Which is why, if we can take Belort's word at face value that his return will be against the winner of Weidman vs. Machida, the nearly 18 year veteran of the sport is going to be fighting for more than just a championship
Thanks to the events of the past few days, in his next fight Belfort will be battling to determine how we remember him: As a legend who underwent a remarkable resurgence late in his career, or as a PED user who attempted to game the system in order to extend his run as a top contender past its natural expiration date.