Just more than 24 hours ahead of their Memorial Day fight this year, UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman stepped up to his opponent, Vitor Belfort, in public, ready to accuse him of cheating.
At a weigh-in inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Belfort, 38, disrobed to boos. A densely muscled frame had helped him savage foes as far back as 1996, when at the age of 19 he debuted in mixed martial arts by bouncing super-heavyweight John Hess’s head off the canvas like a basketball to score a 12-second victory. From that day forward, people were drawn to his athleticism, his dynamic finishing ability, and his physique, the latter of which would be augmented over the years with performance-enhancing drugs.
Nearly 20 years after his debut, as he came in at 184 pounds ahead of the Weidman fight, talk among knowing fight types centered on the Brazilian’s appearance. Having purportedly ended a three-year course of testosterone replacement therapy in February 2014, he looked, observers said, “deflated.”
Weidman, a 30-year-old from Long Island on his third title defense, strolled onto the stage and the scale, flexing for the crowd. Bob Bennett, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, instructed the champion to quit posing so an official weight could register. He did, touching the title-fight limit of 185 pounds.
The champion then took a swig of liquid and stalked toward Belfort to tell off one of the most successful and recognized figures in MMA history. As reprisal for “still cheating,” Weidman promised, he would punish “The Phenom.” Belfort briefly backed off. Several thousand spectators in the arena roared at the unexpected exchange.
Chris Weidman confronts Vitor Belfort at a pre-fight weigh-in earlier this year.
During the traditional post-weigh-in interview with commentator Joe Rogan, Weidman outright accused Belfort of doping, following a report by ESPN.com’s Brett Okamoto regarding out-of-competition urine tests conducted by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
“I’m 10 years younger than him,” Weidman said. “He’s got a way higher testosterone level.”
Though the NAC claimed that nothing was out of order with the urinalysis Weidman referenced, Belfort’s involvement with performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, including failed drug tests in Nevada in 2006 and 2014, made it more than reasonable to suspect otherwise. Weidman—who had twice registered testosterone levels of 370 nanograms per deciliter, as compared with Belfort’s results of 1200 and 500—concluded that his aging challenger was up to no good.
Belfort’s peers have long viewed the Brazilian as a doper. That perception is reinforced by the facts, which include not only the well-known public record, but a previously unreported incident in 2012 in which the UFC mistakenly emailed out results of a Belfort blood test to a group of 29 fighters, managers, and trainers three weeks ahead of his late-notice challenge for Jon Jones’s light-heavyweight title, which took place three years ago this week.
Those results indicated that Belfort had higher than allowable levels of testosterone in his system, and that—at minimum—red flags should have been raised inside the UFC, which became aware of the information as it regrouped from the recent cancellation of UFC 151.
Belfort, people close to Belfort, and representatives of the UFC, including top executives and doctors associated with the company, ignored multiple requests for comment.
Vitor Belfort reportedly began testosterone replacement therapy, or TRT, in 2011, after Anderson Silva landed an iconic finishing kick to his face in a middleweight title fight. Following a battery of tests, a “UFC doctor” informed Belfort that his energy was low and recommended he begin taking doses of testosterone.
Other fighters had been informed by doctors working with the UFC, or unaffiliated anti-aging specialists, that TRT would be suitable to address such problems as low energy; the UFC generally kept tabs on fighter use. When Chael Sonnen infamously tested positive for an elevated testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio in California in 2010, UFC doctors and executives, including Dana White, were actively monitoring his blood work. The promotion, it turned, had issued the fighter an “exemption” to use testosterone, a year before any commission was asked to issue a similar hall pass.
This is how the UFC came to possess Belfort’s test results.
The .pdf encompasses a facsimile transmittal sheet from “Dr. Pierce” of Ageless Forever, one of several anti-aging facilities clustered around the 6000 block of S. Rainbow Blvd in Las Vegas, to “Greg” regarding “Vitor Belfort - lab results,” as well as the first two pages of a three-page report from the Laboratory Corporation of America, or LabCorp. It can be viewed in full here.
A detail from lab results the UFC mistakenly forwarded to third parties.
This document shows that Belfort’s free testosterone levels were high—two and a half times above the average for a man his age, in fact. At a time when the TRT exemption as a form of sanctioned doping was becoming a major issue in the sport, the document rightly raised suspicions among those who received it.
Though the results made their way through MMA circles, they have, rather amazingly, not seen the light of day until now.
One prominent fighter said that while he was not emailed the results directly from the UFC, he nonetheless saw them, via someone not on the original recipient list, and came to the conclusion that Belfort had cheated and that the UFC had covered it up. This sentiment was echoed in numerous off-the-record conversations with people in the industry.
“please delete ASAP!!!!!”
Sept. 4, 2012, got interesting at 3:01 p.m. Pacific time for the people who received the .pdf from the UFC. A paralegal working for the UFC had meant to send an email with the subject “Vitor Belfort Labs” to three UFC executives. Instead, much of the known MMA world, including several people with whom the promotion openly feuded in the past, received it.
At 3:04, the paralegal sent out an email attempting to recall the original message.
At 3:55, a third email explained that the original had been sent in error and that the attempt to recall had come too late. Recipients were asked to “please disregard the e-mail, please delete ASAP!!!!!”
At 7:16, recipients got a memorandum from Ike Lawrence Epstein, UFC’s executive vice president and general counsel at the time:
You were the unintended recipient of an email that contained personal, confidential information related to Vitor Belfort. We ask that you destroy the email and the contents thereof immediately if you already have not, and that you refrain from any disclosure of the contents of the email or further dissemination of the email or contents thereof to anyone. You do not have the authority to be in possession of or to disclose to any third party this information. Please note that if you have and/or intend to disclose and/or disseminate this information to anyone, Zuffa will have no choice but to seek all available judicial remedies against you in both your professional and personal capacities. I respectfully request that you confirm via a response to this email that you have received this email and that you will comply with the directives contained herein by immediately. Please contact me if you have any questions, or wish to discuss further.
Monte Cox, one of the familiar names included on a seemingly random list of longtime MMA operators, is the only recipient contacted for this story who agreed to speak on the record.
Zuffa had emailed out all sorts of information about fighters by mistake in the past, Cox said, but not drug test results, and never anything that elicited the type of statement made by Epstein, now Zuffa’s chief operating officer.
“It’s not uncommon for me to get other people’s stuff,” Cox said. “I would say at least once or twice a month I get something that I send back and I say I don’t manage this guy. Then I got the email about ‘delete it.’ That was a little odd. Again, it was one of those things I get so many emails that you don’t pay as close attention as some other people would. Certainly a letter like that you don’t get very often. I knew there was something.”
Soon he started fielding phone calls, and claims that’s when he took a close look at the .pdf. Afterwards, Cox says, he deleted the document and went about his business.
“You’d like to think that everyone was treated equally,” he says. “If I have a fighter that fails a test and the UFC knows about it, I’m assuming my fighter is not going to fight. That’s just the way it goes. I’d like to think it’s the same across the board.”
“A normal person should never have a level above that”
Belfort’s test—administered, according to these records, on Sept. 1, 2012 by Dr. Pierce—measured 1038 nanograms of testosterone per deciliter. A person in Belfort’s age range is more likely to be in the 700s, so while this result was within the normal range, it was near the high end of it. His free testosterone levels, though, were clearly elevated.
Beneath “FLAG,” to the right of the “RESULT” column on the LabCorp document, Belfort’s free testosterone result is labeled in bold as “High.”
The acceptable range listed on LabCorp metrics—standards vary between laboratories—is 8.7 to 25.1 picograms, or a trillionth of a gram, per milliliter.
Belfort’s free testosterone, which encompasses .5- to 3-percent of the testosterone in the body and is crucial to enhancing recovery and performance, registered 47.7 pg/ml. That’s two and a half times where a man his age should have been.
Vitor Belfort works out for the cameras ahead of UFC 152. Photo via Getty
“That wouldn’t be acceptable,” says Dr. Timothy Trainor, medical advisor for the Nevada Athletic Commission. ”If either one of those would be above the normal range, that would be a red flag. It would basically mean the person whose lab was high has some kind of a medical condition—meaning someone who has a tumor that can make an overabundance of testosterone, which can occur—or it means that if it were someone taking testosterone, that they were taking too much.”
Is that normal, or acceptable? Trainor says no.
“A normal person should never have a level above that normal range. They shouldn’t. It would be very rare or uncommon for someone to have that without it being for a disease state or someone who was taking too much.”
By comparison, Belfort’s elevated blood test in 2014 registered a 1472 total serum level and >50.00 free testosterone.
A grey area
Three days after drawing Belfort’s blood, Pierce’s office faxed the results to “Greg” at UFC headquarters in Las Vegas. That was Greg Hendrick, the man in charge of results management for the UFC along with Dr. Jeff Davidson, a medical consultant who has worked the UFC since 2008 after he parted ways with the Nevada Athletic Commission. Hendrick has since left the UFC to become a manager of fighters, including flyweight contender John Dodson. Citing a nondisclosure agreement and the advice of his attorney, Hendrick, brother of UFC chief legal officer Kirk Hendrick, declined to comment on the 2012 blood work or anything related to his time with the UFC, including which procedures, if any, the promoter used to determine whether a fighter was abusing TRT.
How did the UFC react to the 2012 results? Other than the obvious—allowing Belfort to fight Jon Jones for the light-heavyweight championship—that’s unclear.
At the very least, suggest Trainor and anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin, results like Belfort’s in 2012 should have raised red flags.
“Would it be a concern? Sure, it would be a concern,” Trainor said. “Would it necessarily lead to a severe disciplinary reaction? Again, you’re talking about something with 18 different scenarios. It does get convoluted. There’s no black and white with this because there are so many variables. A lot of gray area.”
For non-experts, though, grey areas can seem black and white. High is high.
Vitor Belfort chokes Anthony Johnson in 2012. Photo via AP
Regulators in Ontario, Canada, oversaw the Jones-Belfort fight at UFC 152 on Sept. 22, 2012, and were unaware of Belfort’s TRT or apparent use exemption. As far as the Ontario commission was concerned, any details related to testosterone exemptions were spelled out in the contract between the UFC and its fighters, said Stephen Puddister, a representative of the province’s Ministry of Consumer Affairs. Any questions should have been directed to the UFC.
Ahead of the fight, Marc Ratner, the UFC’s head of regulatory affairs, told TheScore.com that the UFC “cannot disclose” drug testing or use exemption information because of the commission. On the night Jones stopped Belfort—though not before the young champion’s arm was injured during a submission attempt by the Brazilian—Puddister told me that Ontario was not preventing UFC from disclosing this sort of information.
Jon Jones tells Deadspin that at the time he fought Belfort he was unaware the Brazilian used TRT. He also says he was unaware of the questionable drug test result.
“What would have happened if Jon Jones gets his arm ripped off in the armbar?” asks one recipient of the accidentally-forwarded email. “Or if there was a career-ending situation? Or he got knocked out badly or was really injured? What would the liability have been at that point? It was inconceivable to me that they went forward with the fight and didn’t cancel it.”
A conflict averted
The fact that Belfort had any kind of use exemption for testosterone wasn’t disclosed until five months after he challenged Jones. The UFC, responding to questions from the press and recent Belfort knockout victim, British middleweight Michael Bisping, revealed Belfort’s TRT use on Feb. 6, 2013. That was one year and a day before the NAC tracked Belfort down at an MMA awards show at The Venetian hotel in Las Vegas for an unannounced test—which would have consequences down the road.
Of the people who were aware that Belfort used TRT leading up to the Jones fight, Dr. John Pierce was the only one willing to respond to questions for this story. Pierce was connected to several UFC fighters in ESPN.com’s 2014 investigation of TRT in MMA, which I helped report. He said that to his knowledge none of them were referred to his clinic directly by the UFC. Pierce declined to speak about Belfort’s lab result, citing patient privacy laws. He said he was unaware what internal mechanisms the UFC was using in 2012 to decipher drug test results.
Vitor Belfort gives an unhinged interview after knocking out Michael Bisping in 2013
“I don’t know what their physicians do with the lab values they get. You’d have to ask them,” Pierce said. “If I had a patient that requested me to send their results someplace, it would be done following the strictest guidelines. Once the receiving party has the information, it’s up to them to protect it.”
As of this summer, that responsibility, among many others, falls on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, the non-profit group that handles U.S. Olympic testing. Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA, now claims full control over drug testing, drug analysis, drug penalties, and results management of UFC fighters. He says that if the USADA’s authority were to be usurped, the agency would simply walk away from the arrangement, likely denting the UFC’s image.
When the deal was announced, USADA maintained a reputation as real difference maker in preventing doping in sports. It has, however, needed to work to protect its name after coming under fire by reporter Thomas Hauser, who expounded on USADA’s involvement with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and boxing for an accusatory long-form article published by SB Nation. A week after the piece was published, USADA said Hauser’s report contained no less than 40 inaccurate facts and misleading statements.
Many of the broad concerns posed by Hauser’s piece would also apply to USADA’s relationship with the UFC. The deal is something the UFC’s Ike Epstein worked to make happen even as company president Dana White publicly floated that UFC would back off its pledge to engage in third-party testing. This move, in theory, represents the UFC finally divorcing itself from the conflict that comes with directly monitoring the drug-testing results of athletes they promote and rely on to make money—while subcontracting that work to an organization that had to defend itself from serious questions about its independence and credibility.
USADA told Deadspin that in the first few months under its comprehensive in- and out-of-competition UFC testing program, athletes have been sampled. A focus has been placed on making sure the fighters “receive education about their rights and responsibilities.” Athlete test histories will go live on USADA’s website on Oct. 1, and any violation of the anti-doping policy will be announced online.
A history of doping
Vitor Belfort is hardly the only fighter to be associated with PEDs in MMA, which has earned a deserved reputation as a steroid haven over the last two decades. What makes him unique is the way his documented use of performance-enhancing drugs—both sanctioned and unsanctioned—maps the history of doping in the sport.
Barriers against performance-enhancing drug use didn’t exist in MMA until 2002, when Josh Barnett became the first fighter popped for steroids after Nevada began experimenting with anti-doping measures. Use among combatants was, for a long time, simply the regular course of business. Not everyone partook, but many did, with little to no pushback in the U.S. or anywhere else. The original promoters of the UFC treated steroids as if they didn’t exist, and fighters such as Mark “The Smashing Machine” Kerr claimed the promotion’s doctors were well aware that fighters like him juiced and competed.
“You hear rumors. You look at certain guys,” said legendary champion Randy Couture, who battled Belfort three times between 1997 and 2004, and lost the UFC heavyweight belt to Barnett in 2002 before that result was overturned and the new champion was stripped. “I fought Vitor back in those early days, and to see him grow significantly over the course of time from his very first UFC fight to when I fought him, I didn’t have any knowledge firsthand but we certainly suspected he was doing something.”
By the time Belfort tested positive for banned substances in 2006 following a fight against Dan Henderson in Nevada promoted by Japan’s Pride Fighting Championship, which offered no roadblocks to steroid use, it was apparent the sport had a serious problem.
Belfort claimed that a Brazilian doctor had, without his knowledge, injected him with a concoction that included a banned substance, 4-hydroxytestosterone, to promote healing of a torn meniscus. (The doctor backed his claim.) Belfort also fingered an over-the-counter supplement designed to maximize testosterone levels. The Nevada commission fined Belfort $10,000 and suspended him from competition for nine months, a penalty he ignored by fighting in England a half-year later. Blaming doctors and supplements increasingly became go-to moves for fighters caught doping by state regulators.
A UFC highlight reel of some of Vitor Belfort’s most devastating knockouts.
Due to his history, Belfort became the face of TRT when the UFC revealed in 2013 that he was fighting under a use exemption. (He was one of 11 fighters affiliated with Zuffa, UFC’s parent company, utilizing TRT before Nevada’s prohibition last year. Compared to athletes in other sports, and even those working with other MMA promoters, this was an abnormally high figure, as ESPN reported in 2014.) One point of contention was that steroid use can cause a depletion in natural testosterone production; a use exemption allowing an aging fighter to boost their testosterone levels could, in certain cases, functionally work as a reward for past doping.
In June 2014, ahead of applying for a license with the NAC to make the Weidman fight a reality, Belfort publicly admitted that he had tested high for both total and free testosterone levels during the surprise test the NAC had administered in February.
As Belfort told the story, his routine involved injecting himself with testosterone on Mondays and Fridays, but in this particular case, because of his travel schedule, he took a double dose on a Monday and was tested the next day. The story made no sense, because the exam took place on a Friday. Either way, the results were undeniably elevated, which for a properly monitored TRT patient of several years would be rare.
“I cannot change the facts,” Belfort said after Nevada licensed him in July 2014. “It was a little high. A little high. I was surprised. Actually, I wasn’t surprised because I took the treatment the day before. It became an issue. But if you study TUE being 200 above the level is not high. It’s normal for who is on TRT—if you ask a doctor.”
Trainor says it is never acceptable to show ranges above the lab threshold. Moreover, fighters issued exemptions in Nevada needed to maintain their testosterone levels in the middle of a fairly wide range.
“We didn’t want them to be high normal,” Trainor says. “If the range was 300-1100, we didn’t want to see a 1000 level. And if we did, technically they’re still normal but they’d get a letter from us or a phone call saying, ‘Hey, you need to lower your dose. You’re getting a little too high. You’re getting too close to abnormal range.’”
When cheating isn’t cheating
Standing as close as anyone to the middleweight fighters, Dana White and UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta listened while Weidman verbally attacked Belfort ahead of UFC 187 on May 23. Afterwards, Zuffa executives pulled aside the middleweight champion and the New Yorker’s trainer, Ray Longo, to explain what the champion and his team called cheating really wasn’t.
Among those who attempted to talk Weidman down was Jeff Novitzky, the former FDA and IRS agent who, using unorthodox methods, chased down Lance Armstrong like the peloton. Hired to oversee the creation and implementation of UFC’s drug testing regime—“The most comprehensive anti-doping policy in professional sports,” claimed UFC senior vice president and chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein in a press release—Novitzky said that even though Belfort’s levels were inconsistent and, seemingly, high, several factors were at play that made this test result not such a big deal.
“With Lorenzo, it’s all jokes and laughs,” Longo said. “[Novitzky] walks in it’s like I was back in high school. This guy’s not fucking around. I think he just wanted to put everyone’s mind at rest that it wasn’t what it looked like. He was saying that [the lab results] didn’t mean that they were cheating, but they’re looking at it.”
Previously that meant Zuffa’s self-regulation and all the natural conflicts that arise out of such a thing, leading to at least one situation in which a questionable test result did not get in the way of a major event for the UFC. How many close calls were there? What about outright failures? Limited transparency makes it difficult to know the answers to those questions, and test results don’t get emailed out by accident every day.
Three years later, just by simple comparison, USADA, for all its faults, would appear to be the better option.
Vitor Belfort struggles against Chris Weidman. Photo via AP
Less than two weeks before the UFC revealed details of the potentially culture-shifting partnership that will allow USADA to conduct random, unannounced drug tests at any time, the promotion’s middleweight champion wasn’t swayed by Novitsky. As he stepped into the Octagon, on May 23, 2015, Weidman carried the distinct impression that Belfort was on something, and had gamed the system. Belfort has since hurled allegations of steroid cycling at the UFC champion, and Weidman contends that he refuses to use performance-enhancing drugs.
At their start of their fight in Las Vegas, Weidman weathered a rough launch—a classic Belfort start. Longo says Weidman was rope-a-doping, but Belfort sure looked dangerous. Then, the bubble popped. Some fans, giving little thought to the fighters that never wished to use drugs but felt they had no choice if they wanted to compete, lamented that this up-armored policing of PEDs will damper action in the cage and increase chances fights are called off from injury or failed tests. That sounds like progress.
After humbling Belfort on the ground, pounding him out from the mount at 2:53 of the opening round, Weidman flexed and this time no one told him to stop.
“Chris definitely took it personal,” Longo says. “That was it.”
Josh Gross has covered mixed martial arts since April 2000. Currently he is authoring Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment, due to be published by BenBella Books in summer 2016. Follow him on Twitter @yay_yee.
Top photo via AP.