MMA’s “Stray Dogs”: A Last Look at Belfort, Sonnen, and the NSAC Hearings

Image Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

MMA fans, at least those interested in a clean sport, are abuzz about the Nevada State Athletic Commission hearings Wednesday — which brought about a title fight in December for one PED user, and, perhaps, a job opportunity for another.

For those who missed it, Vitor Belfort received a license to compete, despite his recent tests for elevated testosterone, and will now fight Chris Weidman in December for the UFC Welterweight title. Belfort will receive “elevated testing” for the rest of his fighting career, but escaped suspension.

Chael Sonnen wasn’t so lucky. He was suspended for two years (which may be irrelevant as he already announced his retirement, but whatever…) and has been ordered to assist the NSAC with “education of its athletes” after his failed test. (To be fair, it’s said to not be a paid position.)

Does all this sound like a ridiculous circus act? Sure it does. Despite having been confirmed to be using five banned substances in preparation for his (eventually cancelled) UFC 175 bout, only one NSAC board member seemed interested in exacting any punishment to Sonnen at all. While his colleagues praised Sonnen for his “courage” and even noted, “We don’t want to kill the poor fella’s reputation!” – new board member Anthony Marnell finally sounded out as a voice of reason. “I’m not kicking him (Sonnen) while he’s down. He’s already done that to himself!”

(Bless you, sir.)

It was kind of an ugly sight. But then, it’s easy to forget that this all represents a huge improvement from the MMA climate of just one year ago.

Sometimes you need to look back to find perspective… or, away.

A recent visit to the Philippines offered me that opportunity: a glimpse at a very different culture – and surprises were found at every turn. I had known the Philippines to be passionate about their boxing heroes, with MMA on the rise.

But, I didn’t know the story of the “Azkals.”

One night, I turned on a television and enjoyed the Philippine National Football Team, affectionately known as the “Azkals” (a moniker derived from the Filipino/Tagalog word for “stray dogs”). Unlike basketball, there’s not much of a history of football (soccer) in the PI; and as the name suggests, the team seems kind of a rag-tag bunch, captained by an English-born striker. But they’re gaining in popularity — and success. During my visit, the Azkals would lose a valiant effort in the finals of the AFC Challenge Cup.

The Filipino TV commentators sounded heartbroken by the result, but then, I heard one remark… remember where we were a year ago. It was unthinkable that we’d be disappointed by this result, a loss in the finals of an international tournament.

So, maybe our stray dogs in UFC and the NSAC – still struggling, it seems, to regulate this once-outlaw of a sport, didn’t quite come through for us yesterday. But, similarly, where we a year ago?

In March 2013, Chael Sonnen and his synthetic testosterone had just contended for the UFC Light Heavyweight title. That other testosterone user, Vitor Belfort, went 3-0 for the year with three knockouts. It was the heart of the “TRT Era” and some fans seemed happy to see PED use legitimized, and even hoped for more to come. Georges St-Pierre was laughed at when he mentioned that the UFC’s refusal to improve its drug testing protocol was a factor in his departure from the sport.

Today, that same random drug testing protocol which St-Pierre championed has begun to be implemented in the UFC’s biggest bouts. The “TRT Era” is over – banned even in Belfort’s native Brazil.

Sonnen’s days are done for now, and Vitor Belfort finds himself under greater scrutiny than ever before.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s an improvement.

If you’re interested in an MMA climate which favors clean athletes, maybe it’s safe to say the tide is turning.

As the line goes (in that movie Chael Sonnen quotes ad nauseum), every dog has his day.