So maybe testosterone replacement therapy doesn't transform an old man into Superman after all.
Dan Henderson is one of the miracles of science who've been granted exemptions by athletic commissions to sip from the fountain of youth and prolong their mixed martial arts careers. But look what happened to him on Saturday night. The 43-year-old aged a decade in the span of 1 minute 17 seconds, the amount of time it took him to be knocked out for the first time in his 40-fight career.
So much for TRT, right?
Not so fast. The man who took out "Hendo" in the main event of a UFC Fight Night before a noisy 10,565 throng of witnesses in Goiâna, Brazil, is the poster child for the astounding reinvigoration that's possible with a little chemical enhancement. Vitor Belfort is 36 going on 21. His head-kick knockout of Henderson was not just his third victory this year, it was his third by head kick -- a weapon he'd never before had in his finishing arsenal.
"Vitor is a completely different fighter than he was when he was younger," UFC president Dana White said earnestly at the post-fight press conference. "He's mentally there. He's physically there. He's more well-rounded than he's ever been. I'm blown away by tonight's performance, and we'll see what's next."
What's next, obviously, is a middleweight title shot. White hemmed and hawed a bit when reporters tried to pin him down, saying "you never know what's going to happen" when Chris Weidman defends the belt against Anderson Silva in their December rematch. But eventually the fight promotion poobah acknowledged that barring injury or "something crazy," Belfort (24-10) is next in line.
Who else could be? Vitor sits right behind Weidman and Silva in both the SI.com middleweight rankings and the UFC's media-voted tally. He rose to that hallowed position back in January, crumbling Michael Bisping with a foot to the noggin. Then, in May, he took out another Top-5 contender, Luke Rockhold. And on Saturday night, in a bout competed at light heavyweight because Belfort apparently was unwilling to accept a middleweight fight that wasn't for the title, he did what no one before him ever had. In Henderson's 40 fights extending all the way back to 1997, with punches having been aimed his way by everyone from Fedor Emelianenko to Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva to Quinton Jackson, the two-time US Olympian in wrestling had never been finished with strikes. Now he has, which makes Belfort the rightful owner of the title shot.
But here's where things get complicated for the UFC, and it has to do with something other than head kicks that Belfort's three 2013 fights have in common: All have been fought in Brazil. In fact, Vitor hasn't competed in the United States since the summer of 2011, and while White would have us believe that it's entirely a reflection of the fighter's popularity in his home country -- he told reporters over the summer that Belfort's recent bookings have been to please Brazilian TV partner Globo -- the fighter's TRT use is a significant factor.
Belfort is different from other fighters on TRT. Back in 2006, following his first meeting with Henderson, a bout in Las Vegas that Dan won, Vitor tested positive for an elevated level of testosterone and was fined and suspended for nine months. Even though Belfort defiantly took a fight outside the country before the suspension was over, the Nevada State Athletic Commission did license him for his 2011 title challenge of Anderson Silva in Vegas and likely would license him again. But as NSAC executive director Keith Kizer told Bleacher Report earlier this year, "I don't see Vitor Belfort getting a TRT exemption from us." Most other commissions in the United States tend to follow the lead of Nevada.
So will Belfort's shot at glory go down in Brazil? That would seem likely if Silva regains the brass-and-leather strap in December. But if Weidman retains his belt, is he going to be willing to lug it to South America to fight this assassin in front of his adoring public?
What's lost in all of this gnashing of teeth, unfortunately for Belfort, is the part of his career transformation that's owed to hard work in the gym. TRT itself doesn't magically turn him into a killer in the cage. He still has to put to good use the added energy he's been artificially gifted for training. That might seem like faint praise, but the point is that the guy clearly is utilizing his exemption to its fullest. By contrast, the TRT-boosted Henderson now has lost three fights in a row and, with his UFC contract having played out, is fading fast.
And it should be noted that Vitor is not cheating. He and others on testosterone exemptions are following guidelines set forth by athletic commissions. The commissions are the ones that should be answering for the continued use of TRT -- how it's problematic from a standpoint of both competition and safety, counteracting the aging process no less dramatically than any performance enhancing drug.
Of course, in Saturday night's bout that was not a concern, since both fighters were thought to be on equal footing. It didn't take long, though, for one to lose his footing. For the entirety of the first minute, Belfort and Henderson (29-11) circled each other, not a punch or kick being launched by either. Suddenly Dan came surging in, and as he missed with a right hand he was nailed by a Vitor uppercut that lifted him off the canvas and planted him on it. He took a few more shots as he lay on his back, and scrambled onto hands and knees as Belfort's assault continued. Henderson struggled back to his feet, and Vitor immediately connected with a stunning left foot to the head. Referee Dan Miragliotta was jumping in before Henderson had even crumbled to the mat.
"The first thing I want to tell the crowd is, believe in yourself," Belfort said in the cage after having his hand raised, speaking in Portuguese. "Whenever someone tells you you cannot do something, God will give you another chance. God will give you the life to go out and do that."
If the church doesn't do it for you, though, right down the block is a pharmacy.