It’s January 31, 2020, and the British Columbia Athletic Commission has just made a first of-its-kind ruling: they have approved Elias Theodorou’s application for a Therapeutic Use Exemption for medical cannabis.
If you are wondering why you hadn’t heard of this until now, you wouldn't be alone. At the time of this writing, it is legal to use cannabis either recreationally or medicinally in 33 states (plus the District of Columbia) and legal recreationally throughout Canada.
But not so much in the sports world, and especially not combat sports.
With medical equality, I don’t have to be forced to use opioids with side effects that would put me at a competitive disadvantage.
“It’s starting to get there. It’s been an ongoing thing. I have no problem putting in the work,” Theodorou tells me. With his track record, I have no reason not to believe him.
Theodorou is 17–3 in professional MMA. When he was cut by the UFC in 2019, reactions ranged from shock and disappointment to relief and disinterest.
Those in the "relieved" category were arguably made up of armchair keyboard warriors who are more comfortable writing a snarky YouTube comment about a “boring” fight than learning the proper mechanics of a rear naked choke.
Considering how infrequently he has lost a fight, Theodorou has had to weather a surprising amount of criticism, whether for his unorthodox fighting style or his duties as "ring boy" for Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-female MMA promotion.
When asked how he stays so confident with so much criticism hurled his way, he says, “I think that comes from accepting that losing is a part of what I do in life. I do it on a very public stage. Other people, on a bad day at work, they get to go home and eat. I've got a bad day at work, I can get my ass kicked on national TV. Everyone's a critic.”
He then goes on to reference the famous Teddy Roosevelt “Man in the Arena” quote from 1910.
Those in the "disappointed" category when Theodorou was released from the UFC included most fight media, including MMA commentator Robin Black, who has described Theodorou’s fighting style as “misunderstood” and “hard to read.”
Known to be media-friendly, Theodorou knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. He’s got an agenda, but in a good way.
On being a free agent with a newly minted Therapeutic Use Exemption, he recites, almost word for word, the same response he gives everyone: “Ironically, now being a free agent, I can be an agent of change in medical cannabis.”
You can’t blame him for having canned responses; he’s got a lot going on. Professional athlete, businessman, activist, model, actor... Cliché as it may seem, you can’t help but wonder if part of the hate he receives is out of sheer jealousy. Unarguably ambitious, charming and—yes—good looking, you get the distinct sense that professional MMA is just a pit stop for Theodorou along a long path of successful pursuits.
In his earlier years, Theodorou played baseball and was competitive in skateboarding. “I travelled all over North America competing and doing stuff for my sponsors.” After a bar fight in university that didn’t go his way, his father suggested he start training to make sure it never happened again. “I just kind of showed up at the gym at age 20, 21, and just never left.”
Less than five years later, Theodorou became the first Canadian to win The Ultimate Fighter. That's where bilateral neuropathy comes in.
Ironically, now being a free agent, I can be an agent of change in medical cannabis.
Being a professional athlete comes at a price—physical degradation and injury being one of them. Theodorou was diagnosed with bilateral neuropathy, which can cause numbness, tingling and pain during activities that shouldn't cause pain.
While the medicinal use of cannabis was determined by his doctor to be the best option for Theodorou’s case, he couldn’t make use of the herb because in the UFC, cannabis is a banned substance during competition. Theodorou explored a myriad of pain relief options with his doctor, including opioids and eventually antidepressants, the idea being that, even though he was not depressed, the antidepressant medication would simply numb everything.
With Canada being in the midst of an opioid crisis—where in some cities, regular Canadians are being asked to carry Naloxone in case they witness an overdose—it feels irresponsible for someone to be cornered into using a highrisk medication when a medically proven, lower-risk option is available.
“Not being allowed to medicate with cannabis, my ability to compete was affected. Obviously, I tried to find ways around it and it evolved into the style that I had.” Suddenly, Theodorou’s awkward and unorthodox style during his UFC career makes sense. “My last fight in the UFC, I wasn't able to be me.”
In the UFC, cannabis is prohibited during competition. The UFC follows the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) guidelines, with the concern being that if an athlete were to fight after using marijuana, they could potentially take more damage, thus conferring an unfair advantage in the match.
Theodorou explains, “In Ontario, cannabis isn't a banned substance unless a larger company like the UFC comes here, because they have the United States Anti-Doping Agency that's third party testing, and they test for cannabis because it's part of their prohibited list.”
“Other sports have anti-doping programs that are generally collectively bargained,” says Erik Magraken, licensed judge in British Columbia for the sports of Muay Thai, Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts—and Theodorou’s lawyer.
“The regulation of combat sports is unique in that the government is the regulator. The government actually hands-on regulates professional combat sports,” says Magraken.
Though he frequently won his fights in the UFC, Theodorou developed a reputation for not finishing those fights by submission. A win by decision is not inherently bad, but the crowds certainly have their opinion on it.
Fast forward to Theodorou’s fight in Windsor with Prospect Fighting Championships on December 6, 2019—his first professional fight after being cut by the UFC. Theodorou was able to medicate with cannabis all the way through because Ontario doesn’t have cannabis as a prohibited substance. Fighting against Hernani Perpetuo, Theodorou pulled off an exciting, dominant performance and a win by TKO. He calls this latest fight a “case study,” finally being able to compete on what he calls a level playing field now that he can medicate appropriately. Being his first finish in the last four years, it is promising.
Theodorou feels he can now be his best with the proper medicine. “With medical equality, I don't have to be forced to take opioids with side effects that would put me at a competitive disadvantage. This is less to do about cannabis and more to do with medical equality, which is afforded to me as a fundamental right.”
This is less to do about cannabis and more to do with medical equality.
“It is precedent-setting,” says his lawyer. “There's nothing unique about getting a TUE. That's a process that does exist. What was unique here is that one has never been granted for cannabis.”
“In the combat sports setting, when one regulator makes this decision, I think others are more comfortable making a similar decision in the future. So I think there are broader implications beyond simply Elias’s Therapeutic Use Exemption. In many jurisdictions, I think regulators are going to
be more comfortable making this decision so long as they're presented with the adequate evidence to substantiate the decision,” says Magraken.
Theodorou realizes his victory in having the TUE approved is just the first step. He plans to put his Therapeutic Use Exemption to use in British Columbia later this year in an upcoming fight.
Considering himself an activist, Theodorou also wants to shine a light and #FightTheStigma, as he says, for others who may have limited access to medical cannabis, especially veterans and first responders. n t“I'm going to keep fighting the good fight, both inside the cage and out.”