Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
STOCKHOLM -- I don’t blame UFC president Dana White for feeling a little sick and tired of hearing about drugs and drug testing. Coming off what was supposed to be a break from UFC action, he must feel like he’s heard a lifetime’s worth of questions about what happens when grown men are made to pee into a cup.
Maybe that’s why he was in no mood to even entertain the idea of UFC-mandated random drug testing following the UFC on FUEL TV 2 press conference here on Sunday morning, blasting the idea as wholly unrealistic.
"I have 375 fighters in every country all over the world," White fumed. "The battle that I have to get these guys to get their [expletive] bout agreements back and show up for press is un[expletive]believable. The fact that I have to make personal phone calls to tell guys to talk to the [expletive] press. Now I’m going to start making personal phone calls to go show up for random drug tests? The general public and the media need to grasp some [expletive] concept of reality, okay? The reality of us doing all the [expletive] things that we’re doing, when we already have the gold standard in drug testing, and then trying to chase 375 guys all over the world to randomly test them too? It’s impossible."
Impossible? Not really. Difficult? Probably. Something the UFC shouldn’t be responsible for? Arguably. But if the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that something needs to change if we want to make a serious effort at cleaning up this sport, because excuses -- even valid ones -- aren’t going to get it done.
As drug testing experts will tell you, the science of cheating often tends to be one step ahead of the science of catching cheaters. Steroids used to be way that MMA fighters got an unfair advantage. At least then the state athletic commissions stood a decent chance of nabbing them with fight week testing, since all it took was a slight miscalculation in the timing of steroid cycles. Now testosterone is the performance-enhancer of choice, in part because it’s hard to detect unless you do the right tests at the right time, which are rare in MMA.
That’s why it’s tough to swallow when White claims that the UFC currently has "the gold standard in drug testing" for all of pro sports. As he pointed out this weekend, fighters are tested when they sign a Zuffa contract or show up to a fight. But because fighters know that, those are tests they can plan around. Especially with short-acting agents like testosterone, any test that isn’t a surprise to the testee is practically a waste of time. At the moment, MMA has very little of that kind of testing, which is a problem that needs fixing.
There are exceptions, of course. The Nevada State Athletic Commission reminded us of the effectiveness of random testing when it popped Overeem for elevated testosterone levels in a surprise test just a couple weeks ago. It’s exactly that sort of testing that commissions should be doing more of, even if they also have very valid reasons for why they aren’t.
As NSAC executive director Keith Kizer explained to me this past February, it’s not just a financial issue.
"To me, it’s not the funding so much as the lack of other resources. We’re just one state. We’re one state, in one country, so obviously we’re going to have less ability than a national or international agency," Kizer said. "...Tell me who’s going to be fighting on the [UFC] card here [in Las Vegas] on July 7. I don’t think even Dana [White] and [UFC matchmaker] Joe [Silva] can tell me that right now."
Just like White, Kizer has a point. Not all states have equal access to funds or necessary information, and they don’t feel they have the kind of ongoing jurisdiction over every fighter in MMA to effectively pull off random, out-of-competition drug testing. That makes some sense.
But then, what are we supposed to do? Just give up? Throw our hands in the air and say that the testing is as good as it’s ever going to get?
I guess that’s one option, but then what do we tell guys like UFC middleweight Brian Stann, who just this week told me he was glad to see the MMA media spotlighting the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in MMA.
"It’s frustrating for guys like me who are trying to do it completely clean when you know that there are guys out there cheating and finding a way to get away with it," Stann said. "To have your hopes and dreams stolen by someone who cheated, it’s not cool. And so what, even if they get caught afterwards, if you got knocked out by them? Every knockout in this sport knocks down your career another level, as far as how much more you can take. Fighters have mileage on us."
If that doesn’t make you think twice about the importance of effective drug testing, it should. To the fighter who’s putting his brain and his dreams on the line when he steps into the cage, the argument that drug testing is just too difficult or too time-consuming doesn’t mean much. If we want guys like Stann to stay clean, don’t we owe it to them to crack down on the guys who aren’t? How do we look him in the eye and tell him that more could be done to keep him from getting hit in the head by an unfairly enhanced opponent, but man, it would really be inconvenient for us?
To the UFC’s credit, it does more on this issue than any other promoter. It’s also the sport’s leader and standard-bearer, so that’s to be expected. White was right when he pointed out that there’s a reason no other promoter has been able to successfully do what he does.
"You know why?" he said. "Because this job is insane. It’s [expletive] crazy. I was standing in Las Vegas ten hours a guy filming a [expletive] TV show, and now I’m sitting here. And I’m going to randomly drug test 375 guys around the world. You know where I’m going in a few hours? To Abu Dhabi. Then I go back and film ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ then I go to Atlanta, Miami, and I’m in Rio de Janeiro for three hours, then back to Las Vegas where I’ll film ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ again. And in between there somewhere I’m going to randomly drug test 375 [fighters]."
The answer is no, he’s not, and I don’t think anyone is suggesting that he personally take that on himself, just like he doesn’t personally ensure that the Octagon is properly assembled for each event. White doesn’t have to convince any of us that he’s got a full schedule. We’ve all seen it in action. If I tried to run at the pace he does, I’d have died of a heart attack or complications from jet lag a long time ago. Then again, the old ‘Hey, I’m busy’ defense doesn’t fly with an issue as important as this one.
For the record, I don’t think the UFC should be the one to administer random drug tests. For the same reasons that Marc Ratner is right to want to get out of the self-regulation racket, the UFC shouldn’t be responsible for being its own PED watchdog. That’s not fair to the fighters or to the UFC.
But it’s clear that the athletic commission testing -- which ranges from pretty good in some states to might as well not even bother in many others -- isn’t enough. The UFC must realize that on some level. Otherwise, why would it do any of its own testing? Why wouldn’t it leave it entirely up to the commissions?
The UFC has done a lot to address this issue -- more than it is legally required to, in fact. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of room for necessary improvement. I think we all understand that it’s difficult (though not impossible). We all understand that there are several good reasons why it isn’t happening right now. But who said it was supposed to be easy? Either this matters to us or it doesn’t. And if it matters, then we should find a way to do it, even when it’s hard.
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