Steroids Test MMA's Resolve

Eight weeks out from a UFC title fight, an injured ankle put Hermes Franca in a bind and he thought the only remedy was in a steroid-filled syringe.

"I came here from Brazil with $300 in my pocket and I was working hard for all my dreams to come true," the mixed martial arts fighter said. "But my body was all (messed) up. I wasn't able to train. It was a mistake, but I felt I couldn't say 'no.' "

Instead of passing up a title bout with Sean Sherk at UFC 73 in July 2007 for what would have been the biggest payday of his career, Franca began taking the steroid Drostanolone. Franca lost the fight via unanimous decision, but any victory would have been short lived, as a post-fight drug test mandated by the California State Athletic Commission discovered the steroid in his system. Ironically, his opponent Sherk also flunked his test, which found that his natural Nandralone level far exceeded what the body can produce naturally.

One fight. Two positives. No title awarded.

More than three years later, the entire mixed martial arts community is still grappling with how to handle performance-enhancing drugs. The problem has been further highlighted in recent weeks when federal authorities said former interim UFC heavyweight champ Shane Carwin allegedly received shipments of anabolic steroids and UFC middleweight title contender Chael Sonnen tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone in the aftermath of UFC 117.

"Is there a problem? It's really hard to say," CSAC executive officer George Dodd said. "You do hear more about the high-profile cases in MMA than you do in any other sport. Like baseball or football, it goes back to an athlete's choice. If the individual is going to find a way (to cheat), they are going to do it."

UFC president Dana White said MMA is no different than other professional sports -- or society in general for that matter.
"Like baseball or football, it goes back to an athlete's choice. If the individual is going to find a way (to cheat), they are going to do it."
-- George Dodd

"There are always going to be problems," White told MMA Fighting before UFC 119 last weekend in Indianapolis. "There are problems with alcohol and cigarettes and all theses other things. You can't control everything and everybody. You can't do it. There are problems in sports in general with performance-enhancing drugs."

But it is how MMA athletes are policed that sets them apart from their counterparts in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Like boxing, each state sets its own rules for doping that vary widely across the nation.

On the strict end are states like California, Nevada, Missouri and Oregon where fighters are tested thoroughly on the day of the event and are subject to limited out-of-competition testing. Then there are states like Texas, which don't mandate drug screenings -- even in title bouts.

"Can you imagine a situation where other sports leagues or the NCAA had different standards applied state by state?" said Frank Uryasz, president of Drug Free Sport, a company that counts Major League Baseball, NFL and NCAA as clients. "It just doesn't work. There needs to be an independent, national oversight program for there to be an effectively administered program."

Uryasz said Drug Free Sport has never fielded a call from the nation's two largest MMA promoters, UFC and Strikeforce.

And neither White nor Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker appear ready to change how their fighters are tested.

"What you guys have to understand is that this isn't the NFL [where] you get busted and we are going to decide to suspend you for four games," White said. "The government comes in and takes away your ability to make a living for a year or whatever it is. Then, on top of that, the money you made in that fight, they are going to fine you."

Coker adds that Strikeforce is happy with the way commissions go about testing their athletes -- even if none were tested at an event in Houston earlier this year.

"We have zero tolerance for steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs," Coker said. "I think those who do cheat will be caught by the commissions. It comes down to the athlete and if he wants to self-destruct his career. We stand by the policies in place by the commissions and by their rulings."

Strikeforce spokesperson Mike Afromowitz said the "zero tolerance" policy hasn't changed since the organization signed former UFC heavyweight champ Josh Barnett, who previously tested positive in the UFC twice and then again with Affliction. The positive for Drostanolone before he was to fight Russian superstar Fedor Emelianenko in July 2009 effectively sunk Affliction as a promoter since the main event had to be canceled.
"It comes down to the athlete and if he wants to self-destruct his career."
-- Scott Coker

White said he's all for second chances for first-time steroid offenders who are repentant, not that Barnett fits in that category.

"This guy has tested positive three times and denies every time he's taking steroids," White said. "The only person he cares about is himself. (Barnett) single-handedly put a company out of business for doing what he did and he has zero remorse. ... Those are the kinds of guys I have zero tolerance for and that's why he's not in the UFC and never will be."

Afromowitz said Barnett will be required to pass a drug test before CASC will license him.

According to cagepotato.com, 30 MMA fighters have tested positive among mid-level and top-level promotions since 2002. That list includes seven fighters involved in UFC title fights and five Strikeforce fighters since that organization began to promote MMA bouts in 2006.

Retired fighter Frank Shamrock fought one of those Strikeforce fighters caught for doping. As he entered the cage to face Phil Baroni for Strikeforce's middleweight crown in June 2007, Shamrock said he immediately realized something was off with his opponent.

"He was 100 percent juiced," said Shamrock, now an announcer for Strikeforce. "He just had the look. He had lost weight and blown up at the same time before the fight. Nobody looks that shredded without drugs. You could tell. He also had a short fuse, which comes with doing steroids. I used that as a tool to open him up."

Shamrock won the fight, and Baroni tested positive for Boldenone and Stanozolol. Baroni argued in front of CSAC that he unknowingly ingested the substances via an adulterated food supplement and the board voted to halve his suspension to six months, even though the Boldenone -- typically used as a veterniary drug -- can only be found in injectable form.

Shamrock said he felt pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs -- from those close him, including his former UFC champion brother Ken Shamrock, no less.

"We all knew Ken was doing it," said Frank Shamrock. "He was my teacher, my mentor. My father even told me to get on steroids so I could be wonderful and great like Ken."

Frank Shamrock said he never got a boost from a vial. Meanwhile, Ken Shamrock tested positive for three different anabolic steroids at a low-level promotion in Fresno, Calif., in February 2009.

Beyond the integrity issues linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, experts said MMA, like boxing, poses hazards that don't pertain to other pro sports.

"I think it's a safety issue, although if we were truly concerned about health and safety, we would recommend they not participate in this sport," Uryasz said. "Still, it's a balancing act. You are always trying to find the balance in any sport to reduce the element of risk. Obviously, in some sports risks are much greater than others. You need to do what you can to avoid the unnecessary risk that isn't part of the sport."

The battle against steroids isn't limited purely to state testing, White said. UFC brings all its fighters in once a year for a seminar on performance-enhancing drugs and requires a drug screening when it signs a fighter. UFC also tests its fighters when they head overseas for events -- like next month's UFC 120 in London -- and also performed its own tests the last time it held an event in Texas, something Strikeforce didn't do when it visited the state in August.

Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, said he'd be in favor of a federal mandate that would require all states that sanction MMA events to have the same anti-doping standards, much like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his fellow legislators tried numerous times to pass in Congress over the last decade for boxing. None of those bills -- which would have created a national registry to log medical data for boxers and enforce minimum safety standards -- were signed into law.

Lueckenhoff, who also oversees boxing and MMA regulation in Missouri, said Strikeforce didn't balk at the cost associated with the state's requirement for out-of-competition testing before an event there earlier this year. While his state has never hosted a UFC event, he also doesn't think anybody there would be opposed to the cost of a full screening.

"I do have serious doubts that we could pass the cost along to other promoters," Lueckenhoff said. "Some of these guys get paid $200 to show (for a fight) and another $200 if they win. A steroid test can cost $250."

Victor Conte, known best for co-founding Bay Area Lab Co-Operative (BALCO) which supplied steroids to several elite athletes, offered up an idea on how to go about testing: scrutinize the top 10 fighters in each weight class.

"Those fighters need to be in a pool and subjected to 24-7, 365 testing," said Conte, who runs the food supplement company SNAC and advises UFC fighter Kyle Kingsbury on nutrition. "You don't have the dollars to test everybody, so you need to focus your attention at those at the top of the list."

That would have included Franca, who was part of the bout three years ago where both fighters tested positive. Words certainly didn't deter him from turning to a needle filled with anabolic steroids.

"If you have somebody telling you not to do something, you are not always going to follow their advice," Franca said. "It's like your mom. She'll say don't do this or don't do that, but you never follow her advice. You can tell fighters to stay straight and be smart, and there's a good chance they aren't going to listen."

MMA Fighting writer Ariel Helwani contributed to this report from Indianapolis.

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