When the news broke Saturday of Chael Sonnen failing another drug test, this one administered on June 5, I was shocked, and it is likely many in the MMA community were stunned, too.
It wasn't that Sonnen failed a drug test, or that he or any of a number of top athletes in the sport may have been using Human Growth Hormone (HGH) or Recombinant Human Erythropoietin (EPO). The fact that one was caught doing so, a first for the sport of MMA, and an extreme rarity in the sporting world, is major news in both MMA and on the drug testing front.
For all the talk of steroids, the belief by athletes is that certain drugs - HGH, EPO and Insulin - provide a strong performance enhancing stack and can be used with limited fear of detection. The standard urine tests don't pick up those drugs. Blood testing, which is expensive and not used with much regularity, has limitations in detecting those substances, a short window of detection for the former two and the belief the latter, because the body produces Insulin, is almost impossible to test for added use. Most sports don't test for those drugs with the feeling it's not effective. In the major sports, there are union issues that haven't been worked through involving regularly taking blood samples. In those that do, there have only been a handful of athletes who have ever been caught using HGH despite the knowledge within the sports world that use is rampant.
Sonnen's failure may be breakthrough in itself, and an important message not just in MMA, but in all sports, that if testing is vigilant enough, perhaps the belief will change that you can use those substances with no fear of repercussions. But the circumstances really only lead one to open their eyes that the real message is more of a negative than a positive.
The circumstances of the detection methods, and if Sonnen is honest in addressing his time line of usage, at the scheduled July 23 Nevada Athletic commission hearing, could either reveal Sonnen's failure was a fluke of timing, or it's a warning to at least a few top fighters, that the game has the potential to change.
Yet, despite scientific advances, there are costs involved. The fact is there were plenty of HGH tests administered in a variety of sports over the past six or so years, ever since the new HGH test was unveiled. The lack of failures led to widespread belief that the test was ineffective, and did virtually nothing to deter usage. The belief still remained in the heads of most athletes that HGH is banned, but you will almost never get caught using it. In U.S. combat sports, it's going to take a few more Sonnen cases before a clear message is sent.
The belief has been that HGH, because it breaks down in the body so quickly, can only be detected in the relatively new tests for several hours after a shot is administered. Actual HGH disseminates throughout the body rapidly. After minutes, HGH in the blood stream is converted to a derivative form, which is why the original HGH testing caught almost nobody. The new and more sophisticated testing looks for an unnatural increase in IGF-1 or P3NP, that occurs shortly after an injection of HGH.
That remains in the blood stream for between four and ten hours, and can be active within cell receptors for up to three days. It's the ability to detect this form in the cell receptors that is said to have strengthened the detection methods of HGH.
While doctors have talked of being close to HGH tests dating back decades, there has been no legitimate test until recent years. The first actual positive test came in late 2009 of rugby player Terry Newton, widely believed to be a tip off because of awareness that he had just administered a shot. But with the belief HGH was rampant at the London Olympics, which were more heavily tested for HGH than any sports competition in history, there were only two failures.
With EPO, the belief is also that there is a short detection window, of less than one day. If Sonnen admits to having used the substances, and is honest in the hearing about when he last administered them, it will give more information that claims that modern science has improved in detection, or he tested positive because he was unlucky to have been tested right after administering a shot.
For those who believe PED's pervert this and other sports, a breakthrough like this is major because if athletes truly believe testing can detect the substances, and that they can be tested at any time, usage becomes a risk because the penalties of being caught, both reputation wise and financial, are huge. The problem, as this case as well as recent publicized cases with both Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort have shown, is the protocol of testing in this sport.
In all three cases, as well as that of Alistair Overeem in 2012, it was unannounced random testing done by Nevada that resulted in the failures, and not the standard urine tests done the night of the fight that fighters are expecting. All four fighters, had they not been star fighters in headline matches in Nevada, would have never been tested so stringently, and would have almost surely skated through under normal circumstances.
If anything, this proves the need for year-around extensive testing throughout the UFC roster, not just for Nevada main eventers. But doing so looks to be cost prohibitive. In the end, these failures only underscore there is a problem, and it's probably significant, and leave one frustrated about the lack of a viable solution.
While no data is out, it would appear that the percentage of failures in the out of competition unannounced testing dwarfs those of the testing methods used in almost all states. If anything, the recent stories accentuate just how ineffective the testing procedures in MMA are unless one is scheduled for a high-profile fight in Nevada, or, like Jon Jones and Glover Teixeira, they agree to be randomly tested in a high profile championship fight and UFC agrees to foot the bill. And even in all those cases, most of the tests were done a couple of months before the fights.
At a press conference recently, Dana White noted the cost of the enhanced testing that Jones and Teixeira asked for ran in excess of $40,000. That was only for a short period, basically testing throughout the training camp of two fighters. Multiply that by 500 fighters and for 12 months of the year instead of two months, and you get a figure of $60 million annually. UFC generates a lot money. Nobody in this sport generates enough money to come close to affording that bill. Even though you can probably get a major group discount, and the actual figure wouldn't be nearly that high, the number puts this game into perspective.
As far as Sonnen himself goes, the HGC and Anastrozole failures in the June 5 test, and the Clomiphene and Anastrozole failure in the May 23 test could all be attributed to legitimate medical usage of those substances to help wean getting off testosterone, which he had an exemption to fight with. Even so, Nevada was going to have to take action because they are banned substances. Sonnen, at the very least, needed to inform the commission ahead of time as to what he was using to attempt to get his testes to start functioning after years of TRT, which he didn't do. But there was a very valid excuse as to why he was using those substances.
That doesn't apply to HGH and EPO, clear performance enhancing compounds.
Sonnen's career is likely over now. He announced his retirement earlier this month. One could have argued some sympathy in punishment before. That argument can no longer be made. Even if his suspension is over in a year, given his age, and questions as to how well his body will function clean, as well as the controversy, make it a lot less likely he could come back and perform at the top level, or that UFC would bring him back given the lightning rod of bad publicity.
Given what Sonnen failed for, he's now like the baseball players whose entire careers are called into question. He wasn't the only one using, but he's the one who got caught because of tests that had improved, or extreme bad luck of timing. But those drugs are an attempt to circumvent the system, break the rules with limited fear of repercussions. You can make an argument they could speed up his body being able to train at a certain level while going through the natural testosterone crash of cold turkey dropping TRT, there is no ambivalence as to whether HGH and EPO are banned or would be considered illegal to be used under any circumstances in this sport.
UFC President Dana White was heavily criticized for defending Sonnen somewhat on the first test results, even though in that case White was more rational based on the evidence as was known at the time than many. With the new evidence, the situation is different.
I'm in the same boat, as I recognized there was a major problem in how the banning of TRT went down, even though it's best for almost all concerned for it to be eliminated from the sport and it would have been better if the can of worms was never opened a few years ago in the first place.
Sonnen's protests of a few weeks ago that the drugs he was using were not PEDs looks terrible in hindsight.
Before he had an easy transition after fighting, as he was FOX's golden boy announcer going forward. He wasn't the best analyst on the roster as far as breaking down fight strategies, but he was very good and well spoken. His delivery and promotional ability put him at a different level. Sonnen had remained host of UFC Tonight and continued to serve in that role after the first test failure, a decision that caused virtually no backlash. But now, it's a different game.
And it was a black eye for Fox Sports 1's UFC coverage on Saturday night, while covering a live event just as the news broke, to not mention the story until the end of the post-game show. They offered no serious discussion of something involving not just one of UFC's most high-profile fighters, but someone who had been on its airwaves several times since the first drug test failure explaining his other test failures. The fact his explanation fell apart needed to be discussed, far more than the usual standard running through the results and highlights of a just-completed show.
As far as long-term goes, Sonnen's reputation took a major hit. He had potential as an endorsement pitchman because of his sales ability. He was even talked about within UFC as being the replacement as front man of the UFC itself should something happen to White. Now his future as a broadcaster has to be up for serious questioning.
As bad as it looks for him, there's another reality of time. What happened with Sonnen, with the denial and then more evidence springing up making the denial look incredibly dishonest has happened with Lance Armstrong, who Sonnen himself once criticized, Marion Jones and even Hulk Hogan, all of whom got far more mainstream coverage than Sonnen will. It disgraced Armstrong and Jones, and did Hogan no favors short-term, but Hogan did largely recover and two decades later is still a campy advertising pitchman.
Time will tell for Sonnen.