In the world of combat sports, including mixed martial arts (MMA), boxing, kickboxing and wrestling, one of the most common performance enhancers fighters take is testosterone. Considering it’s typically banned for these athletes and can result in the fighter being suspended for months or years, it stands to reason that it provides results commensurate with that level of risk. Here’s a closer look at how this natural steroid works.
What is Testosterone And What Does It Do
Males and females both have their own primary sex hormones that are responsible for their unique characteristics. For women, this is estrogen, and for men, this is testosterone, although each sex also has smaller amounts of the other primary sex hormone. Testosterone helps men develop their reproductive systems, produce sperm, grow hair, deepen their voice and develop muscle mass. It also plays a role in aggressive behavior. Men who have higher levels are more prone to acting aggressively and engaging in risky behaviors.
Due to its role in helping people build muscle mass, it’s a steroid hormone, in effect. With this natural steroid pumping through a man’s body, he can work out harder than he did before, recover more quickly, and develop a physique with more muscle and less fat. The results a man gets will depend on how hard he works. Fighters, bodybuilders and other athletes work out at high intensity levels and for several hours per day to maximize the benefits of their improved recovery.
This hormone is what spurs the transition of a boy into a man during puberty. During this time, the boy’s levels of it will be very high, resulting in the developments listed above.
When a man takes this steroid hormone for performance enhancement, they typically inject it into their body. Although there are also creams available that the user can rub on themselves, injection is known to be the most effective way to take the substance and will provide far more significant effects.
Why Fighters Take Testosterone
Fighters obviously aren’t taking this steroid hormone because they want more hair on their bodies or to deepen their voice. They’re taking it improve their bodies and so that they can work out longer, harder and more often.
Being able to train more than your opponent is a major edge in combat sports, because it allows you to hone your skills and potentially develop a technical edge. Training more also gets you in better shape, and that’s in addition to the physical advantage you’re already developing due to the added muscle that this steroid hormone will give you.
The muscle growth that this substance can cause will make the fighter stronger and more powerful, which are two important characteristics for any sport. A boxer may find that they’re able to hit harder and score more knockouts, while a wrestler may be able to overpower more opponents thanks to their strength gains.
While high levels of this hormone are correlated with aggression, and that aggression can be useful for a fighter, this isn’t the reason fighters take it. If a fighter isn’t already aggressive enough in their sport of choice, then performance enhancers alone likely won’t change that.
The Illegality of Testosterone in Combat Sports
In many combat sports, this steroid hormone is outlawed because of how it enhances performance. If one fighter is taking it and their opponent isn’t, then the first fighter will have a significant advantage. It won’t guarantee that the fighter taking it wins, but there won’t be a level playing field.
Whether the steroid hormone is outlawed, and whether this even matters, depends in large part on the efforts of the promotion handling the fights and the athletic commission. For example, Pride Fighting Championships (FC) was a popular MMA promotion that lasted from 1997 to 2007 and served as a major competitor for the UFC. Fighters that competed in Pride FC have since come out and mentioned how in its fighter contracts, Pride FC specifically included a statement that read “We do not test for steroids.” It may not have specifically said that steroids were allowed, but the message was clear as day – fighters could take what they wanted with impunity.
Not surprisingly, many of those Pride fighters ended up testing positive for steroids or having notable drug test issues when they began fighting in organizations with drug testing. Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva are two of the biggest names to have this happen, and you can also see a significant change in their physiques now compared to during their respective primes.
For many years, the UFC allowed testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). TRT is intended to help men with low levels of the hormone get those levels back in the normal range.
This may have seemed good in theory, but TRT ended up being controversial among fans and fighters. It was seen as a way for fighters to game the system and get their levels up to the very limits of the allowable range. Vitor Belfort, who had already failed a steroid test in the past, was one of the fighters who used TRT for years to the disdain of many opponents. Dan Henderson was another.
The UFC eventually did away with TRT. The fighters who were using it had to stop and fight without it. It also began working with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which has a long list of prohibited performance enhancers and tests athletes at random. This has led to quite a few UFC fighters getting caught and punished.
Despite its illegality, fighters (as well as athletes in other sports) keep looking for ways to take testosterone without getting caught. It becomes a constant cat and mouse game between the fighters who cheat and the organizations that drug test them. There is no official count on how many fighters cheat this way, but the number is thought to be very high, considering the pressure they face to perform at their absolute best.
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