31-year-old MMA champ says pain management is not only a key to being a successful athlete, but key to his humanity
Canadian MMA fighter Elias Theodorou is the only professional athlete in the world who has an exemption to use medical cannabis exemption to compete in his sport. A professional fighter since 2011, the 31-year-old has had 125 stitches in his face, arthritis in his hands and knees, broken bones and suffers from peripheral neuropathy, which is nerve damage in his brain and spinal cord. He says he is always in pain.
“It feels like constant stingers and radiating heat,” says Theodorou, who was granted his medical exemption last week — after six years of appeals — by the British Columbia Athletic Commission (BCAC). “Cannabis allows me to be more in tune with my body, medicate, and manage my pain — not just as an athlete, but the pain management helps me manage my condition as a human being.”
It’s a watershed moment for sports and parallels evolving cannabis policies in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Theodorou believes that all sports should allow medicinal marijuana consumption and he’s not afraid to speak out, saying his hero is Muhammad Ali.
In his quest for his cannabis exemption, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) ordered him to first “exhaust” every other type of medication. He tried pain pills, opioids and antidepressants. Nothing alleviated his symptoms as well as the sativa he vapes in the morning and the indica he vapes before bed.
“They recognized my condition, but we got to the point where they just basically try to numb you,” says Theodorou, adding that one of his medications, Lyrica, left him bloated and constipated, a professional hazard when your job involves your stomach being repeatedly kicked and punched. “My doctor kept saying, ‘We know what works, this is backwards,’ but the USADA doesn’t look at cannabis as a medical option — they liken it to heroin, a Schedule 1 drug.”
Aaron Bronsteter, the host of TSN’s MMA Show, says that many professional mixed martial arts athletes already have CBD endorsement deals. Last week’s ruling could usher in a new perspective on cannabis and professional athletes.
“He’s trying to change things, not just for Canadian or MMA athletes, but all professional athletes, all over the world,” says Bronsteter of Theodorou, who first came on the global sports radar by winning Ultimate Fighter: Nations in 2014. “As the mainstream use of cannabis continues to grow, you’ll see the stigma of it go away in sports. I remember when the NBA suspended Lamar Odom for using cannabis [in 2001]. I don’t think you’re going to see that anymore.”
Theodorou, for his part, says his medicinal cannabis consumption is protected by the Canadian charter of human rights. Last week, the BCAC agreed. At 31, he thinks he can fight for another five years before becoming an activist full-time. He’s currently securing a fight for this spring and says that incorporating cannabis into his training is paying off dividends. It doesn’t give him an advantage, he says, like a steroid or amphetamine might. Instead, it allows him to do his job — side-effect and pain-free.
“With cannabis, I’m able to compete at a level playing field and hopefully I’ll be able to open the door for other athletes,” he says. “I have plenty of fight left in me and I will continue knocking down the barrier between cannabis and sports.”
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Written by Ben Kaplan