It started small, the way these things often do. Kyle Kingsbury knew a guy who knew a guy. A training partner of his at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. was hooking him up with some pre-workout supplements that he really liked, and eventually it occurred to him to seek out the source.
One thing led to another and pretty soon Kingsbury, who had just come off a decision loss in his UFC debut, was sitting down for a meeting with none other than Victor Conte – the man whose name had become synonymous with steroids in the sporting world. It's the kind of thing that might have made UFC president Dana White pop a forehead vein, had he known about it at the time.
"I had my reservations at first," said the 28-year-old Kingsbury (10-2-1). "That first meeting I had with Victor, we sat down and we must have talked for two and a half hours. I think what allowed me to have trust in him was him telling me about everything that had gone on with him going to jail, how his wife had passed away, and it was just all on him to take care of his four daughters, and there was no way he could ever take a chance on going back to jail. He just had a lot of regret."
In case you've somehow made it this far in life without ever hearing the name before, Conte founded BALCO – the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative – which created and distributed designer steroids to everyone from pro baseball players to Olympic medalists in the biggest doping scandal in American sports history. Conte was the man behind it all, and after pleading guilty to steroid distribution in July of 2005, he served four months in a minimum-security prison followed by four months of home confinement.
These days he's back in the gym with a few select pro athletes, which has raised eyebrows in the offices of Major League Baseball and recently prompted a visit from HBO's 'Real Sports,' which chronicled his work with Chicago Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd and boxer Nonito Donaire.
Since early 2009, UFC light heavyweight Kingsbury has been among that small group of pro athletes to work closely with Conte and his preferred strength and conditioning coach, Remi Korchemny. Also since early 2009, Kingsbury is undefeated in the Octagon, racking up three straight victories, the most recent of which was a 21-second TKO of Ricardo Romero at UFC 126.
"I wouldn't give him all the credit for my three-fight win streak, but we've been on board together since that started," Kingsbury said. "In the two years I've been working with him, it's worked wonders. I've put on about five pounds of lean muscle, which doesn't seem like a lot on paper, but I feel the difference. I'm stronger in the gym, I recover faster, and my cardio's gone up tremendously."
But Kingsbury's under no illusions. He knows exactly what's going through the minds of most fans when they hear the name Victor Conte paired with stories of sudden athletic success. He had the same concerns himself when he realized that he'd been getting supplements from the most notorious steroid cheat in modern sports history. If no one believes a fighter who claims to be the victim of a tainted over-the-counter supplement from GNC (and they don't), who would have any sympathy for him if one of Conte's products showed up in a post-fight drug test?
"I did worry about it at first, but all his stuff gets tested more than anybody else's products, for obvious reasons," said Kingsbury. "There's a lot of people who want to see him fail and want to see him be the bad guy. The way he explained it to me was, he got a slap on the wrist. He called [prison] Club Fed, kind of making a joke out of it and saying it wasn't so bad. But if he got in trouble again, then they'd throw the gauntlet at him. He'd be in jail for years."
Despite what some of the more cynical fans might suspect, Conte wasn't exactly eager to get involved with an MMA fighter. He thought the sport was too violent, too brutal, and not fit for civilized athletes. Then he got to know Kingsbury, a physically imposing but gregarious former Arizona State defensive lineman, and he slowly came around on the fighters themselves. As people, they were okay. It was just their training methods that were woefully misguided.
"A lot of what I hear about their training, it's just not scientific," Conte said. "I believe for the most part, they're overtrained."
The all-out sparring days, the two-a-day training sessions during fight camps, these are things that could very well be hurting fighters more than they're helping, Conte said. It's the same with some of the habits that are borrowed from boxing's training regimen.
"These old ideas where these guys will get up at four or five in the morning and run six or seven miles, that makes no sense at all," said Conte. "Why would you do that? That develops slow-twitch muscle fiber. What they need is sprint work, explosive work. What, are you going to run six miles and then go chop wood after that?"
What really began driving Conte crazy, however, was fighters' love affair with altitude during their fight camps. From boxers like Oscar de la Hoya to former UFC champion Tito Ortiz, many fighters have adopted high-altitude training camps as a pre-fight staple. While actually training at a higher altitude does have its benefits, Conte said, sleeping and recovering at that same altitude is ultimately counter-productive, since the thinner air accelerates an athlete's heart rate and puts his body in a catabolic state.
"To sleep at a higher elevation, because there's less oxygen, it actually causes you to lose power and muscle mass and speed. That's what the science shows. If you're a marathoner or some kind of endurance athlete and you don't really need explosive power, it makes sense, but boxers need speed and power," he explained.
Instead of hiding out in the mountains for weeks, Conte puts athletes like Kingsbury on a regimen with a hypoxic altitude simulator mask, which allows them to get the benefits of high-altitude training without being stuck at elevation when it's time to rest and recover.
"The numbers don't lie: I've lowered my resting heart rate fifteen beats a minute in the course of a two-week span from doing altitude training, and doing it the specific way Victor asked me to do it," said Kingsbury.
But it's not just the simulated altitude training that makes Kingsbury's work with Conte different, he said. It's also things like unconventional sprint and hurdle work, or regular blood testing to examine vitamin deficiencies and the effects of training on his immune system, he said. While the results have made Kingsbury into a full-fledged convert, there are those around him who aren't convinced.
"There's a debate even within my gym at AKA," he said. "You've got guys like [Josh] Koscheck who will say, why am I going to lift weights when that hour spent lifting weights could be spent doing an extra couple rounds of sparring or working on my jiu-jitsu? Even my coaches are split down the middle on altitude training. It's funny because I'll tell them, you've seen how far I've come in the cardio department. The non-believers will credit that to something else, like just being in the gym more, but I know that the difference is night and day."
AKA trainer Javier Mendez, for instance, won't deny that Kingsbury has made some rapid gains, but he's not sure how much is a direct result of the work with Conte and how much is due to a sort of placebo effect.
"To me, personally, a lot of the benefits of the things those guys work on are more mental than physical, in my opinion," said Mendez. "Maybe aesthetically they look better, but to me, if they do the work in their MMA training and do whatever type of cardio they want to do, to me it's the same thing. Their body's going to perform as long as they're doing the right things."
It's not the first time Conte's training philosophies have run up against the standard operating procedure in a martial arts gym. He had the same experience when he worked with the U.S. Olympic judo squad before the 1988 games, he said. Coach Willy Cahill had his team doing two-a-days in the gym, but Conte's blood tests showed that some of the athletes needed to be limited to one practice and then spend the rest of the day recovering while their teammates headed back in for more training.
This caused, as Conte put it, "a little conflict among the team," but in the end it was the right approach, he said, and the medal count that summer showed why.
"It's the opposite of a one-size-fits-all approach," said Conte. "Every program I'm involved with for an athlete is based on their bio-chemical individuality and how their adaptive mechanisms hold up to the training load. We're watching the gauges, we're measuring, so like with Kyle, all of the decisions he makes with his training is based off scientific data that we're collecting."
Some trainers might not like it when their fighter tells them that his blood work suggests he stay in bed this morning, Conte admitted, but at least it's a decision that's grounded in actual research.
"I know, because Kyle has told me, that he personally takes heat from other trainers and other MMA athletes that he works with because they don't get it," Conte said. "But ask these trainers if they're measuring all these parameters. What are they doing to measure whether it's the right training or the right recovery interval for each individual fighter? Ask that question. What tools are they using? What information are they basing their decisions on? Probably none. What, they've got a good eye, is that what it is?"
AKA's Mendez, who comes from an old school kickboxing background himself, said he's come around on Conte's methods precisely because they are rooted in cold, hard data.
"What Victor does is he verifies when taking the rest is going to be better, and he gets proof. I'm just going on instinct as a coach, so his way is more sound. Those that can afford it and get that kind of advantage, it's great."
And there, it would seem, is the rub. Regular blood tests, training sessions with a former Olympic sprinting coach, a steady diet of supplements – all that can't be cheap, right?
Kingsbury wouldn't know, since he doesn't pay for any of it. Conte foots the bill for all that in his role as a sponsor, Kingsbury explained, which is why you'll see Conte's SNAC (Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning) logo on Kingsbury's shorts every fight night.
To hear Conte tell it, the goal is not to spread the word about his company, which is already highly profitable. And it's certainly not to attract more fighters as clients, since Conte insists he "couldn't care less about picking up more MMA athletes."
"This is not about money at all," Conte explained. "My business makes enough money that I don't have to worry about that. It's about fun. It's about excitement. It's like a guy who has enough money and his business runs itself. If he chooses to play golf every day or go fishing every day, that's what he does. My mantra has now become, if it's not fun I don't do it. So I'm not looking for more guys to train."
The 60-year-old Conte knows that no matter how clean his practices might be now, it will never be enough to placate some of his critics. He also knows there will be those MMA fans who react with horror to his involvement with a UFC fighter, and he knows it's likely too late to change many people's minds on that score.
"My response to that is that I'm grateful for Kyle and Marlon Byrd and Nonito Donaire and other athletes who have found forgiveness in their hearts to take on that type of stigma," said Conte. "The reason it's so difficult is that it's virtually impossible to prove a negative. Let's face it, the testing's not foolproof."
In fact, Conte maintains that professional and elite amateur athletic associations are not completely serious about stamping out performance-enhancing drug use altogether. There are too many existing loopholes, he said. Too many ways to cut corners.
"People are going to have to realize that there will always be this doubt, whether it's someone new or someone already in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And it's a mess, and I agree and I contributed to the entire problem, and I feel very badly about that. It was wrong when I made that decision to go down the slippery slope, and I will have to live with that bad decision. I don't think I'll ever be able to gain back the respect of a certain segment of fan or athlete, and I understand that. I just have to do the best that I can do, but it doesn't mean that I should stop doing what I love to do, which is be in the trenches with athletes."
That's good news for Kingsbury, who said he has no intention of working with anyone else as long as Conte is still around. If that makes some fans suspicious, so be it. As long as Kingsbury's improving and winning -- and passing the drug tests with flying colors -- no one can tell him he's not on the right path.