The one thing that immediately dominated the internet as soon as Vitor Belfort was pulled off of a clearly unconscious Luke Rockhold was those three little words that are the scourge of the MMA world: Testosterone Replacement Therapy. Vitor, who hasn’t been forthright on the use of it, has experienced a career renaissance at a time when by all rights he should be winding his career down. Vitor was someone who had been a UFC champion (both during the no-holds barred days as well as a brief dalliance with the UFC light heavyweight championship) but had never really been someone you considered an elite level talent; he was a tough out but the best always managed to do so.
He could stop anyone but that very top, cream of the crop level competition was just out of his grasp for so long. In Pride Kazushi Sakuraba and Alistair Overeem beat him. His UFC days were marred by losses to Randy Couture in his prime as a heavyweight, and his resurgence at 205, as well as being one of Tito Ortiz’s victims at 205 as well. In his recent stint in the UFC his only losses have been to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, two of the top three fighters in the world regardless of weight class. In between those two losses he has finished everyone who stood in his path in devastating fashion, to boot.
And it’s not like he’s been clearing dead wood from the UFC, either, as he’s knocked out both Michael Bisping and Luke Rockhold in his past two fights. Throw in a shellacking of Yoshihiro Akiyama, back when “Sexyama” was still viewed as a potential title threat sooner than later, and his collection of scalps has become impressive as he’s aged. TRT clearly has done something for Vitor, or so we think, based on the visual evidence in front of us. Vitor looks better, physically, and the results coming off the ends of his fists seem to indicate that the dreaded boogeyman of TRT is making him into an elite fighter well after he should be.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this in sport, not just MMA.
Barry Bonds went from being an elite left fielder to one of the deadliest home run hitters in MLB history at a later age in life allegedly based off of steroid use. Roger Clemens had a late career surge as a pitcher in the same sport with the same allegations dogging him as well. Lance Armstrong recovered from stage 4 Testicular Cancer and used a doping regimen of extraordinary qualities to become the greatest cyclist of his generation, which he admitted to recently. Dan Henderson has seen a similar maintenance of his abilities in his 40s while on TRT, one of the first in MMA to be granted an exemption for it.
There’s precedent for guys having an “extended prime” as opposed to naturally declining in sport, not just MMA, because of something that doesn’t smell right. Guys are supposed to be more like Anderson Silva or Floyd Mayweather Jr, two counter-strikers who’ve made up for lost steps with other aspects of their respective games. That’s the norm in sport, or at least has been over the years. Greg Maddux lost MPH off his pitches but still got outs because he could place it where he needed it. John Elway didn’t have the cannon of an arm, or the running back legs, of his youth but with better decision making he wound up winning two Super Bowls at the tail end of his career. Elite level talent can stay up on for longer naturally by adaptation and improvement (not athletic talents) which is why Belfort’s ability to finally reach that level of being in the rare air of elite, and not just the final gatekeeper to it, is so remarkable.
Belfort’s use of TRT has coincided with his rise up, of course, but it’s not as if this all occurred in a bubble either. Belfort’s game has noticeably improved and he’s no longer the “I’m going to throw everything I have at someone in the first and pray they go unconscious before I get exhausted” type of fighter that defined his meteoric rise. Look at Vitor before the Bisping fight and then after; he’s more patient and looking to land something specific as opposed to just bull rush someone and swing as hard as he can as long as he can. If you’d have said two years ago that Belfort would win two fights with head kicks nearly everyone would’ve laughed at you. Now Vitor’s ability to finish a fight with a wheel kick, or something else spectacular, has to be taken into consideration because his game has finally caught up with his prodigal hand speed and power.
It’s not as if TRT is the only thing that’s made Vitor into arguably the second best middleweight in the world right now. To dismiss his evolution purely to TRT is to throw out the baby with the bathwater at this point, as well. It’s not as if Belfort found the secrets missing from his game all these years in a needle; you don’t bust out head kick knockouts from a drug you take. But his use, and lack of commentary on it, it puts Vitor in the spotlight as the new poster boy for TRT. It’s something he’s taken over from Chael Sonnen, who’s two losses to Jones and Silva have placed his use of it as almost a non-issue at this point.
But is his use of it solely responsible for his rise? To do so would be to take away from the staggering improvements in his game over the past two years. But to call his improvements solely based on hard work, and not TRT, would be to ignore history.
Clemens overhauled his workouts and became a physical specimen after he left Boston for Toronto, getting into impressive physical shape and having his late career resurgence. Bonds bulked up after years of being the prototypical left fielder and that natural power swing became deadly. Both guys worked hard, not just took something that may or may not have been legal, but to argue that hard work alone can keep someone in their mid 30s is child’s play. Belfort was in the same spot as they were, historically, and his use of TRT played the same role that it did for Clemens and Bonds.