MONTREAL -- The issue of drugs in sports has existed for years, but has been unrelenting since the baseball home run chase of 1998 gave way to the discovery of the "steroids era." As it turned out, baseball was hardly alone. The NFL had its own scandal around the time, and even more genteel sports like professional cycling were not immune to the cheating plague.
Meanwhile, the modern era of mixed martial arts has its own problems. Aside from the convicted steroids users, of which there are several, there has been a recent influx of fighters being approved for testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), the controversial treatment which is legal under the care of a physician, though rife with potential for abuse. Among those who have successfully applied for therapeutic use exemptions for TRT with various regulatory bodies are Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir, Nate Marquardt, Quinton Jackson, Todd Duffee, Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin, among others.
While once, UFC president Dana White felt the therapy was fair, he no longer feels that way. Within the last month, he has done an about-face, announcing that he would test fighters on TRT "brutally" to ensure they are not cheating by elevating their dosage levels in camp before bringing them down to acceptable limits during fight week.
His end goal, he says, is to completely eradicate the sport of TRT.
"We’re focusing on the things that we can manage," he said after Thursday's UFC 158 press conference. "If you put in a TRT exemption, we’re going to make sure you’re not using this much TRT and then showing up with this much. So what that does is, the guys who do that, that are on TRT, their training camp is a lot easier than the guy who’s all natural. The bangs, the injuries, all the s--- that goes on, they’re recovering 10 times faster than the guy who’s not doing it. So we’re going to f---ing test these guys and make sure that’s not happening until TRT exemptions don’t happen anymore."
Of course, this step leads to the logical question of, Why wouldn't the UFC just test everyone during their camps to ensure no other cheating is taking place? Singling out the TRT users seems somewhat arbitrary.
At least in theory, those users aren't doing anything wrong, and beyond that, if White was observant enough to notice a few incidents have led him to believe that TRT is not always being used as though it is intended, surely, he must hear the whispers of PED use throughout the sport.
To that, he said, the answer is that every company has its limitations. White reiterated his belief that it would simply be cost-prohibitive to conduct random tests on the entire roster of around 400 fighters.
"We’re regulated by state athletic commissions," he said. "For us to go out on our own and start drug testing every fighter under contract, it’s impossible. It’s impossible. We couldn’t do it."
In offering his perspective of the problem, White noted that on this very card he is promoting, there is a fighter, Nick Diaz, who has already failed two drug tests for marijuana in his career. On Thursday, Diaz, who has a medicinal use card in his home state California, couldn't guarantee he would pass a test. Because the UFC can't send someone to live with Diaz and control his behavior, White is forced to simply sit back and hope that Diaz will pass.
"I can’t stop this kid from smoking weed," he said. "What if he wins my title [Saturday] and tests positive for marijuana? I can’t stop it. Do you think I would not like to stop Nick Diaz from smoking weed leading up to a fight? I would love to do it."
As noted by some journalists who pressed White on the issue, performance-enhancing drugs continue to plague the image of the sport, but White responded with the statement that no plan would ever be enough to truly ensure integrity.
Even if he brought in a third-party drug testing company to randomly screen his fighters, he insinuated, it wouldn't necessarily prove anything. Citing the long and blatant history of cheating in cycling well before any riders got caught, he voiced a frustration about the demands being placed upon his organization.
"If the cycling guys were being tested so strenuously, by such an amazing f---ing testing system, then how the f--- was everyone in the sport doing it, and they never caught them for years?" he asked. "The athletic commission does the testing, and you guys think we should do this strenuous testing that the f---ing cycling guys blew by for years?"
So for now, the athletic commissions will continue to drug test fighters, and the UFC will force additional monitoring on TRT users. For now, phase one of the war on drugs in MMA starts with TRT, in a move that could force some name fighters to make important decisions about their futures.
"If [you] can't stop taking it, maybe it's time to hang them up," said White.