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The tangled regulatory web of Vitor Belfort

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Vitor Belfort
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Vitor Belfort wants a title shot in Brazil next, despite a recent failed drug test. (Getty Images)

UFC middleweight contender Vitor Belfort once more inserted his name and complicated situation into the limelight with controversial comments in the past week saying that the UFC has told him he is next in line for a title shot and that he wants the bout to take place in Brazil. Belfort, of course, shot to to the top of title contendership once more with three straight KO wins in 2013.

The only problem was that Belfort, who tested positive for a banned steroid in 2006, was not licensed to fight in Nevada - where the UFC planned to have him fight champion Chris Weidman for the middleweight belt in May. Belfort has not fought in the U.S. since 2011, and since that time began using testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) because he says doctors told him that he suffered from hypogonadism and could not naturally produce enough testosterone to be healthy and compete in MMA.

TRT was banned for fighters but states like Nevada had begun providing therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for a select few fighters who provided documentation from doctors saying that they had hypogonadism, in recent years. Belfort received exemptions from athletic commissions in Brazil, for example, but the Nevada Athletic Commission's (NAC) executive director at the time, Keith Kizer, said that he imagined Belfort would have trouble receiving such an exemption because of his past documented steroid use.

A consulting physician for the NAC, Timothy Trainor, also advised against granting Belfort a TUE for TRT. A side effect of steroid use is a body no longer being able to naturally produce enough testosterone on its own, naturally, just as TRT-using athletes like Belfort claim has happened to them. 

The cases of naturally-occuring hypogonadism are extremely rare, according to expert physicians like Trainor, but it is quite common for past steroid used like Belfort to suffer from similar symptons. 

Allowing past steroid users like Belfort to continue to use testosterone through TUEs for TRT, then was seen by the executive director at the time and doctors like Trainor as an obvious loop-hole for steroid users. Belfort continued to use that loop-hole and receive TRT while fighting abroad, mostly in his home nation of Brazil where fight regulation is less developed and credible, in recent years while letting his fight license in Nevada lapse.

Belfort then fought on for the UFC without being licensed by reputable U.S. commissions and while using drug treatments stateside regulators said he would be unlikely be allowed to use here because of his past steroid use.  After the resignation of Kizer, however, the UFC booked Belfort to face Weidman in May and "The Phenom" planned to apply for a license in Nevada and for a TUE for TRT treatment.

The NAC then decided to administer a random drug test to Belfort since he had now once more become a fighter booked to compete in Nevada. Belfort took the test and failed it. 

Then, the commission decided to end TUEs for TRT altogether, effectively banning the drug treatment. The day after the TRT ban, Belfort then decided to pull out of his title shot against Weidman and decided not to apply for a license to fight in Nevada again, quite yet. Lyoto Machida replaced Belfort against Weidman and the two fight this Saturday at UFC 175 in Las Vegas.

When Wanderlei Silva was dropped from his scheduled UFC 175 fight against Chael Sonnen because he fled a random drug test from the NAC, the UFC replaced him with the unlicensed Belfort, who had recently failed his second Nevada drug test.

A licensing hearing was scheduled for Belfort on June 17. Belfort's most recent drug test results were kept secret until new NAC executive Director Bob Bennett told Yahoo! Sports that the results would be revealed at Belfort's hearing.

The fighter then responded by revealing that he had indeed failed the recent drug test. When Belfort's planned opponent, Chael Sonnen, failed two random drug tests in May and June, and was pulled from the card and retired, Belfort was left without a fight July 5.

The NAC then took him off of the June 17 meeting agenda and Belfort has yet to come before the commission to discuss his most recent failed drug test. NAC chairman Francisco Aguilar told Yahoo! Sports that the commission's decision to pull Belfort from their June 17 meeting was just a matter of scheduling priority.

"We had fifty agenda items and four really important ones so, because he wasn't fighting in July anylonger, we made the decision to take him off," he said

The commission chair went on to say that the plan is to still have Belfort come in and face the music, possibly at the NAC's next scheduled meeting on July 23. "We haven't yet asked him to appear," he said.

"But we would hope that he would appear in person."

Hearing from Belfort and seeing how the commission and UFC act is more important than ever, in light of Belfort's recent statements. Belfort's camp claims that he has been promised the next middleweight title shot by the UFC.

If the UFC has indeed promised Belfort the next crack at the a title, that would mean they have incredible confidence that an unlicensed fighter who has failed two drug tests in Nevada, the most recent of which happened this very year, would not get punished by the NAC and instead receive a prompt licensing. Aguilar would not comment on the likelihood that Belfort would receive a license to fight in Nevada should he apply for one this year.

"It wouldn't be fair to an applicant to comment on the likliehood of their getting licensed before a hearing. At a hearing we would hear what they had to say, hear from doctors, talk to our Attorney General," he explained.

The commission certainly has many options when dealing with either a licensed fighter who has failed a drug test or a fighter re-applying for a license to compete and who has recently failed a test. However, Aguilar said that listing specifics would be difficult.

"There are so many options and combinations of decisions that it is hard to say what the commission could do," he said.

Aguilar went on to say that the questioning and deliberation by commissioners on any case is essentially entirely done during a hearing, though commissioners could decide to indivudally consult with physicians to learn about issues before hand. "The work is done during hearings. We could individually call doctors up, if we wanted to, though," he said.

Although Aguilar says he hopes Belfort would appear before the NAC soon to discuss licensing and his failed drug tests, Belfort's recent calls for his next fight to be held in Brazil would seem to indicate that the fighter may feel he can continue to participate in UFC main events without being licensed by reputable regulatory bodies, as he has for several years now.

With few exceptions - Belfort's case being one - the UFC has made a point to abide by the decisions of reputable and real athletic commissions, like that of Nevada. For example, if a fighter failed a test in one state and received a suspension, the UFC did not take them to fight in territories where that suspension would not be upheld.

In Belfort's case of a fighter using drug treatments that he was unlikely to be allowed to undergo by reputable commissions, the UFC has indirectly been skirting regulation by having the Brazilian compete where different standards for drug use were maintained by less experienced regulators.

Belfort has fought his last five bouts outside of the U.S., for of them taking place in his native Brazil. Aguilar declined to say whether or not the NAC would look unfavorably at a fighter or promotion who would book a fighter who has just failed a drug test without that fighter first appearing in front of the NAC for licensing.

"I know you want me to give a definitive answer, but without hearing the context of this case, I can't say anything definitive," he said.

Belfort himself may be holding out hope that he can fight again, and for a UFC world title, without answering to the NAC for his recent failed drug test, but such an occurance would be an embarassment to the NAC and the UFC, both. UFC officials declined to comment on the situation but it seems unlikely that the promotion would go so far as to book him for a fight in any territory, without his first appearing before the NAC to answer for his failed drug test.

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