With last week’s release of baseball’s Mitchell Report, as well as suggestions for improving the game, it's a good time to take a look at mixed martial arts and how to combat performance enhancing drugs.
One of the big problems with this topic, in all sports, is that the athletes have been taught, out of basic self-preservation, to lie about usage. It is a natural defensive mechanism: the public considers performance-enhancing drug use cheating, but the players who use rationalize that it's something the public doesn't understand.
So it becomes difficult to combat the problem, because there is no simple solution, and working on the complex question of how to truly level the playing field requires admitting the problem is widespread.
Worse, because the problem is widespread, it does the athletes no favors.
Every fighter who has a good physique, whether clean or not, is widely not just suspected but presumed to be on steroids. Since top-level fighters train extremely hard, those with good genetics are going to be pretty muscular to begin with, particularly when competing in a weight-class sport. The goal is to have the most muscle possible at a given weight, which makes body fat your enemy. So a clean, hard trainer with some genetic gifts is in many circles a suspect.
Even worse, those who train hard are suspected because steroids help in recovery from training. Those who show great strength, explosiveness, or simply stay competitive at an older age, are also the heaviest suspects.
In many cases, there is probably truth to the matter. But sadly, there have been athletes with great physiques who trained exceptionally hard and somehow managed to recover from that training who were strong and had great longevity long before athletes were using and abusing steroids.
And they competed at times when equipment, training techniques and knowledge of nutrition were primitive compared with today. But it's sad that some of the most successful performers who train the hardest have people saying, wink-wink, they must be on something. And this comes with no evidence except the fact they are successful, are in shape and train very hard, things they should be admired for.
Mixed martial arts has its own unique set of issues. With the sport still in its infancy, any perception that it may be a drug sport could risk alienating the public. A steroid issue won't affect the NFL’s bottom line, but the last thing MMA needs is the idea its fighters are guys on steroids beating each other up. MMA has had to work very hard to clean up what had been a largely unfair public image.
For a fringe sport, the steroid label can be damning, both when it comes to sponsorship and mainstream acceptance. Bodybuilding, powerlifting, weightlifting and track & field, even at the top level, have virtually no mainstream interest today as compared with previous generations, all in large part because of the drug cloud that hangs over all of their heads.
But the fact is, steroids work. In baseball, it's one thing to try to get an edge to keep your job. In MMA, there are limited numbers of jobs with top organizations. If you are outgunned in MMA it's not a matter of having your long fly balls caught or going over the fence, it's a matter of avoiding getting beaten up. That's quite the incentive to rationalize what you are doing isn't cheating, particularly if you think everyone is doing it, including your opponent. Potential health risks never scared athletes in other sports, but in this one you choose between an immediate health risk of being beaten up that you know is real, or a potential long-term health risk that many rationalize won't happen to them.
In California, over the past eight months, there have been 15 steroid positives in 54 MMA events, including major names like Royce Graice, Johnnie Morton, Phil Baroni and Sean Sherk, even though all but Morton publicly claimed they were innocent. Keep in mind that on most of the smaller events, only around six competitors per show were tested. On big events like UFC, K-1 and Strikeforce, every competitor was tested.
During the same time frame, there were two steroid positives in 85 pro boxing events in California and no positives in 13 kickboxing events.
In recent years, three UFC champions – Tim Sylvia, Josh Barnett and Sherk – tested positive in championship matches that they won. In Barnett's case, he tested positive the night he won the heavyweight championship from Randy Couture. Barnett and Sherk were stripped of their title while Sylvia voluntarily relinquished his before it would have been taken away.
PRIDE fighting superstars came to the U.S. this year and, as a general rule, were disappointments. PRIDE did not test for steroids before or after Japanese events, and the fact that fighters who excelled under those conditions did not do so with testing in place led to plenty of speculation.
Without steroids, fighters feel different. They don't have the same level of power or aggressiveness. Whether it always works, when fighters are facing a guy they presume is on steroids, their strategy is very different. They often rely on playing an early defensive game when the opponent would be at his strongest, thinking the early boost works against them in later rounds.
At this point, few MMA promotions do any drug testing. Most rely on the local state athletic commission. UFC has done random testing when they have run shows in the United Kingdom, because their equivalent of athletic commissions do not oversee MMA events.
This leads to inconsistent application and inconsistent punishment. California has a one-year penalty for a positive, but if you complain about it, there's a good chance it'll be cut to six months. Nevada seems to have a uniform nine months. Nevada fines a percentage of the purse, while California fines everyone, whether they make $500 for a match or $500,000, the same $2,500.
In Nevada and New Jersey, if you win a fight and test positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the result will likely be changed to a no contest. In California, the result stands, so Royce Gracie still has a recorded victory over Kazushi Sakuraba (after which he tested positive for steroids), which wouldn't be the case if that fight had been in Nevada.
On a positive note, MMA fighters, at least in key states, are tested by an outside agency. That probably makes the results more credible than a league whose best interests are in keeping taint away from its superstars. There has been much controversy over allegations baseball players were tipped off a day ahead of testing, and thus perverting the process.
In MMA, every fighter not only knows days ahead, but usually a month or two ahead, when he is going to be tested – the day before or day of the fight. But a fighter is not tested between fights.
The current process is better than nothing, but it is inadequate for combating the significance of the problem. Fighters have to be under the fear that an unannounced test can come at any time and with no warning. Without that, it becomes a game of learning to time how many days before a test your body clears whatever substance you are using. There is no deterrent for using, only for using during a short time frame before a fight.
The major promoters and major commissions need to work together to come up with a system that creates a uniform policy, both for suspensions, and overturning wins by fighters who test positive.
Ultimately, anything short of unannounced year-around testing isn't going to act as a significant deterrent, or leave anyone with full confidence in the system.
That leads to the worst problem of all. The fighters who are clean are not only at a competitive disadvantage in a sport where that disadvantage can mean a lot of physical pain, but if they are talented enough and train hard and smart enough to overcome it and dominate, they become the ones suspected the most.