SAN ANTONIO – Athletic commissions exist to ensure the health and safety of the athletes who compete in combat sports in their respective states, but doling out exemptions to fighters to use Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) essentially amounted to a state-sanctioned license to cheat.
And so kudos to the Nevada Athletic Commission for confronting arguably the most serious issue facing combat sports today and ordering an end to all therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for TRT. A fighter who has low testosterone levels will no longer be permitted to petition the state to allow him to use exogenous testosterone.
In a statement, UFC president Dana White said he "fully supports" the 4-0 vote by the Nevada commission. White said he would order the UFC to adopt the ban in international events where there is no commission and it self regulates.
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The battle is far from over, however. Other states remain free to make their own decisions and can still provide TUEs for fighters who request it.
Still, the decision figures to have far-reaching implications, almost all positive. Thursday's ban not only stamps Nevada as the leader in the fight against the use of performance enhancing drugs, but it begins to build momentum against the issuance of TUEs in other states.
Last month, the Association of Ringside Physicians called for a ban on TUEs for TRT. In a statement signed by chairman Dr. Ray Monsell, the ARP wrote:
"The incidence of hypogonadism requiring the use of testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) in professional athletes is extraordinarily rare. Accordingly, the use of an anabolic steroid such as testosterone in a professional boxer or mixed martial artist is rarely justified. Steroid use of any type, including unmerited testosterone, significantly increases the safety and health risk to combat sports athletes and their opponents. TRT in a combat sports athlete may also create an unfair advantage contradictory to the integrity of sport. Consequently, the Association of Ringside Physicians supports the general elimination of therapeutic use exemptions (TUE) for testosterone replacement therapy."
Six mixed martial arts fighters have been given exemptions to use TRT in Nevada in the past. Nevada had granted TUEs to Chael Sonnen, Dan Henderson, Frank Mir, Shane Roller, Todd Duffee and Forrest Griffin.
Nevada soon was going to have to confront the most notorious TRT user, UFC middleweight contender Vitor Belfort. Belfort used TRT for his last three fights, all of which were in his native Brazil and all three of which were won by devastating knockouts.
The 36-year-old is noticeably more muscular, as well as more powerful, than he was earlier in his career. He has been dogged about his usage almost since it began, in large part because he failed a steroids test after a Pride fight in Las Vegas in 2006.
Use of anabolic steroids inhibits the body's production of natural testosterone. TRT can boost the levels into, or above, normal ranges. Thus, the most common reason athletes seek TRT is because of past steroid usage.
White recently called Belfort a pin cushion because the UFC tested him so frequently since he'd been on TRT to make sure he fell within the legal limits. The Nevada commission had Belfort randomly tested last month on the night of an awards show in Las Vegas, though results of that test have not come back.
However, because the UFC plans to have Belfort challenge Chris Weidman for his middleweight title May 24 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, Nevada was going to have to confront the TRT issue eventually.
Nevada commission chairman Francisco Aguilar, while not mentioning Belfort by name, said it would not be fair to make a wide-ranging decision on handing out TUEs with an applicant in front of it.
Instead, he said, it made more sense to tackle the problem on a bigger scale and simply end it.
"Over the last six months, we have been able to learn and understand more about this issue and we were able to ask questions and gain insights into what this is," Aguilar said. "With a full grasp of the issue and that knowledge we gained, we were able to make the decision to end [handing out TUEs] effective immediately."
Nevada's decision won't mean much if other state commissions as well as the Association of Boxing Commissions fail to follow suit. However, given the Nevada commission's influence in the combat sports world, it is likely that Nevada's move will cause other state athletic commissions to examine their regulations.
Performance enhancing drugs can never fully be eradicated, because those who cheat always have more money than those who are trying to prevent the cheating.
By no longer granting therapeutic use exemptions, Nevada is signifying its intent to battle the PED problem. The next step is for more random tests.
The tests that are done immediately after a fight are the easiest for a cheat to beat, because the athlete knows when they're coming. But state athletic commissions need to become more aggressive and randomly test fighters.
State budgets are greatly constrained, and taxpayers, even the most fervent fight fan, are extremely unlikely to agree to higher taxes in order to fund more state-sanctioned testing.
The $35,000 it is costing Nevada to randomly test Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley for their April 12 boxing match in Las Vegas is close to 10 percent of the commission's annual budget. Fortunately, Top Rank agreed to pay for the testing and put the $35,000 into an escrow account.
Thursday was a victory for proponents of clean sport.
It is, however, a long and uphill battle, and one that won't easily be won. This is a small win in a much larger war.
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