There are certain things you can get away with if you’re as big as Alistair Overeem. Simple things, really. Things like taking up two seats in a crowded movie theater or talking way too loud on your cell phone in public. People might be annoyed with you, but they’re probably not going to say anything about it when you look like a body double for the Incredible Hulk. Such are the perks of being an enormous dude with a talent for unarmed combat. People tend to give you a little extra space.
But there are other things that you absolutely don’t get to do, and for the exact same reasons. Unfortunately for Overeem, he did one of those things when he failed a surprise drug test, which immediately lent credibility to the accusations that have dogged him for years. When reports of his extraordinarily high testosterone levels went public, it was as if he’d just told all his detractors that they were right not to trust him. Maybe he also told his fans that they were fools to ever believe him.
Now the past few years of his career -- his most successful years in the fight game by far -- will probably get a great big asterisk next to them in the minds of fight fans. And his future? That becomes one giant question mark.
Overeem has put tremendous strain on our collective understanding of reasonable doubt lately. When he claimed that it was horse meat and heavy lifting that transformed him from a beanpole in Pride to a mountain of muscle in Strikeforce and the UFC, we couldn’t say for sure that this was an impossible feat. People bulk up, right? It happens.
Same thing when he seemed to prefer fighting in places like Japan, where there is apparently no word for ‘drug test.’ Maybe he just liked it better over there, we told ourselves. Maybe it was the pachinko and the pork cutlets.
Even when he was conveniently unavailable back when the Nevada State Athletic Commission asked him to take an out-of-competition drug test in November, before his fight with Brock Lesnar at UFC 141, he seemed to have a good excuse. The man’s mother was sick, after all. And his assistant! His assistant didn’t tell him about it. See? There’s a reasonable explanation for everything.
And then this. Even with the NSAC’s somewhat lax standards for allowable testosterone levels (as BALCO founder and doping, uh, expert Victor Conte pointed out, most other agencies cap the permissible ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone at 4-1, rather than the 6-1 that the NSAC uses) he still missed by a mile. Overeem came in somewhere north of 10-1. How far north? Still no word on that. Just know that it wasn’t even close.
The worst part is, nobody can honestly claim to be shocked by this news. Disappointed? Sure. Enraged? If you’re UFC president Dana White, absolutely. But surprised? Not really. That’s because Overeem’s drug test failure confirmed what we already suspected, which is that the world is not, in fact, some magical place where hard work and an equine diet can give anyone the physique of a cartoon character.
Sadly, the world is far less mysterious than that. As professional sports keep on teaching us, the world is a place where, if it looks like a cheat and has the bulging traps of a cheat, it’s probably a cheat. And, in Overeem’s case, if a man has looked that way for years, one has to assume that this probably isn’t a new development. This probably isn’t one of those ‘I got desperate trying to rehab an injury’ situations, or even one of those ‘there was something weird in my creatine’ situations. No, the details of Overeem’s physical transformation make it seem more like a premeditated, habitual abuse, and one that was most likely taking place in plain sight for the last half a decade or so.
We suspected it. Maybe we assumed it. At times we even joked openly about it, as if it were somehow a joking matter that a man was artificially and illegally improving his ability to hurt other people for money. But with an actual test result to back up the rumors, what happens now? Will Overeem get to do the same choreographed little dance that other fighters have done, begging forgiveness one minute and then declaring the whole thing ancient history that he won't deign to speak of six weeks later? Will he get the same chance to take his lumps and come back clean, even if we have ample reason to believe that this merely the first time he’s been caught, and far from the first time he’s cheated?
Or will he just disappear in a giant puff of muscle-bound smoke, opting to spend the rest of his career fighting in the unregulated fringes of MMA and kickboxing? What are we supposed to do with a guy like Overeem, if he turns out to be exactly who we were afraid he was?
I really don’t know, but it does seem like there was a time when being an MMA fan didn’t mean you accidentally learned so much about things like the normal testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of a healthy adult male. It’s just a part of our vocabulary now, and the bizarre thing is how easily we accept that. The most disconcerting part about the developing Overeem story is how normal it seems, how completely unsurprising. We’re all cynics when it comes to pro fighters and PEDs, and having a bunch of cynics for fans makes it easier for them to get caught, feign remorse, and start all over again. They don’t have to be better, because it’s not like we expect it from them. Not really.
Maybe we’re getting what we deserve. Let’s be honest: most of us are upset about this development for the same reasons the UFC president is. We’re not outraged over ethical concerns. We're not mad that he might have been trying to cheat, and in a way that could seriously injure someone. We’re bummed because Overeem’s superhuman testosterone levels will likely torpedo the bout with Junior dos Santos at UFC 146, and dammit, we really wanted to see that one. Why didn't he know this test was probably coming? Why couldn't Overeem have gotten his act together and saved that main event?
I completely understand that reaction, that disappointment in both the loss of an interesting fight and in the dumb predictability of it all. Who can even spare any outrage, when high testosterone levels have become so common in this sport that simply being a fan makes you feel like a part-time endocrinologist? Overeem failed his test, but we knew he would, didn’t we? We knew it was just a matter of catching him at the right time, with the right element of surprise. We were prepared for that. We had the jokes and the clever one-liners all queued up for this very situation.
What we’re less prepared for is what happens next. That’s when we tend to lose interest in the story, move on to other things. It’s almost as if we’d rather speculate than actually know. Because when it’s all just whispers and rumors, at least then we get to see the fights we want. At least then we can still claim that we had no idea.