When Stephan Bonnar tested positive for the steroid Boldenone after a 2006 fight with Forrest Griffin, it cost him a nine-month suspension. That meant missing a fight or two in the prime of his career as well as a job with Spike TV, who was using him at the time as a television personality.
In fact, Bonnar was the guy Dana White used to bring up when people would say how guys in the UFC failing steroid tests were getting slaps on the wrist. Certainly that was more than the four weeks off an NFL player would get for a similar offense, but not the two years out that an Olympic athlete might get.
Whatever the severity of the punishment was, it wasn't a big enough deterrent to keep Bonnar from testing positive a second time in the twilight of his career, this time for the steroid Drostanolone. He tested positive for the drug after his Oct. 13 fight for UFC 153 in Rio de Janeiro, where Anderson Silva beat him in the first round. Bonnar announced his retirement from the sport on Tuesday night.
Two days later, he got a call from the UFC, which handled the drug testing at the Brazil show since they don't have athletic commissions there, informing him of his positive test. He didn't deny or protest or claim there was a mistake. There was no cry of a contaminated supplement, evil forces out to get him, a screw-up lab, spiked iced tea or a doctor's shot. He never said he had no idea what was in it, arguing chain of custody or whatever the plethora of excuses we're so used to hearing are in these situations.
Now that all the denial is out of the way, there becomes a question of why, which he has yet to answer. For the Griffin fight, he was injured late in camp. He used the steroid to heal up faster so he could keep his payday. That's not a valid excuse, since the rules that govern the sport don't allow for steroid use to heal injuries suffered a few weeks before fight time. But it is a reason.
Drostanolone, the drug Bonnar failed for this time, is primarily a drug used in weightlifting sports. It allows one to maintain their muscle size and strength while dropping weight, and helps in ridding the body of some water weight. It's exactly what athletes in all weight-class sports want: the ability to keep their strength while dropping down to weigh-in at a lower weight class.The problem? Drostanolone needs a minimum of two weeks to clear if you are being drug tested. In this sport, cutting water weight, something it's good for, is something you are doing 48-to-72 hours before fight time.
Bonnar being suspended is a moot point, since he's not planning on fighting again. To a degree, it does put a damper on the end of his career. He wasn't leaving with a win, but he was leaving with a measure of respect for being a an entertaining fighter with a good personality who simply wasn't quite good enough to beat the guys at the highest level. Now he's leaving with that tempered, although it may be forgotten given that today nobody talks about Royce Gracie failing a steroid test to beat Kazushi Sakuraba in their rematch. They just remember his early career and try to forget the latter match or that test result ever took place.
Whether this hurts Bonnar in future endeavors in the sport - such as being a television analyst, which is something he's good at - remains to be seen.
How Bonnar, a veteran of the sport, got caught a second time is a different question. It could be he was unlucky. Perhaps he did the drug several weeks before the fight, but his system played a trick on him. Guidance on drug clearance time isn't 100 percent foolproof, which is why even experienced drug users on rare occasions get caught in what is generally considered for UFC fighters as an IQ test. Perhaps, taking the fight on relatively short notice, he did it to make sure he made weight. Perhaps it was being faced a fight with Anderson Silva, a scary proposition to just about anyone.
He's being heavily criticized, and rightly so. He broke the rules, got caught, and whatever the repercussions are, he has to live with them.
But there's a much bigger picture, bigger than Bonnar, far bigger than UFC, and that is the drug culture in our current sports scene and hypocrisy it causes. National heroes from Lance Armstrong to Marion Jones did what, behind the scenes, almost all top athletes in their respective sports did. They used performance enhancers. They were taught to lie to the bitter end, and in their cases, terribly bitter end. Unlike most who compete using performance enhancers, learn to avoid detection, don't win, and go on their merry way, they were brought down due specifically to their success.
But MMA is a different ball game. Steroids may cut a couple of tenths of a second, the difference between a gold medal and finishing in the pack, for a sprinter. They may turn a dozen long fly outs into home runs during the course of a season. They may allow one to throw the shot a little farther or lift heavier weights. In MMA, like boxing and kickboxing, usage allows you to punch or kick someone with more power and velocity, and do physical damage to your opponent. It's cheating in most sports, but the potential repercussions may be worse in MMA than most.
Yet, many people have marveled at obviously enhanced athletes doing physical damage to their opponents, and wanted to see those men, or women, get main events and championship opportunities. On rare occasion, when they test positive, it's pick your excuse, find a doctor to predate a prescription or whatever the game is that's being played.
Yet, use is plentiful. And one has to understand an athlete's mentality. In their world, it is not cheating, it is trying to be your best and performance enhancers are part of the game. So is timing when to get off them, and what to use in what dosage for maximum benefit in this specific sport. The majority of athletes on them have convinced themselves they are not cheating. And the majority of athletes not on them believe they are cheating.
There is the fear that if everyone is doing it, you can't be left behind. Keep in mind that even though many who do it like to say everyone is doing it, that's not the case. Some will say that you simply can't compete at the top level without them. They'll say you can't recover from the arduous training necessary to be proficient in so many different disciplines and train a level of cardio that allows you to fight for 15 to 25 straight minutes, without help. Of course, that belies that there have been ridiculously hard training athletes who do recover from their workouts long before steroids were on the scene. And there are today. But those who use will say it often enough that it's justified.
There are a significant percentage of clean fighters, and a significant percentage of those who aren't. I've had these conversations with athletes for more than 30 years on this subject and many believe those in charge of the sports don't really care about use. To them, they only care about public, media and sponsor reaction. What you hear with UFC fighters is no different from track athletes and football players in the early 80s. They don't believe the organizations really want to get rid of use, but they don't want people to fail tests. Granted, they are told the opposite every year at the fighters summit. Whether they are right or not, as long as the testing is the way it is right now, they can point to that and believe it.
In this sport, the vast majority of fighters, even at the UFC level, are going to know the date they are being tested ahead of time. The only exceptions are a few main event fighters in high profile bouts in a few states that may be randomly tested in camp. So those who have already accepted that use isn't cheating, believe the rules are that you can, wink-wink, use performance enhancers in camp.
Of course, the rules say no such thing. But until testing is more plentiful, and done with no advance warning, at any time for any level of fighter, that is the message the athletes are getting. Until that message is changed, there will be those who continue to think that way. In fact, even if everything possible is done to eradicate drug use, there will still be people who think that way.
None of that excuses Stephan Bonnar. But perhaps it may give an idea about the world he's coming from.