The story that never ends had its latest chapter on Wednesday when Kevin Casey and Robert Drysdale -- both who fought during the UFC's International Fight Week in early July -- failed the IQ version of MMA drug testing. Both came up positive for tests they knew full well, months in advance, were coming.
It's not exactly a secret that when you fight for UFC in Nevada, you are getting tested the night of the show. It's generally a urine test, meaning drugs like HGH and EPO, which nailed Chael Sonnen to the cross and may have ended his career, are not tested for. These tests are generally not a strong deterrent. Usually, it's those unannounced tests of competitors weeks (or months) away from the fight, when they aren't expecting them, that yield results. That's what happened with big names like Vitor Belfort, Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva (his disappearing act when the tester came), Alistair Overeem, and even Drysdale himself, before UFC 167 last year.
Nobody really seems to know the true breadth of the PED issue in the sport. Dana White can't deny it exists, but has tried to downplay it, citing the few positives that were happening for a while, and that the era of commission-approved TRT was over. But besides the three musketeers -- Sonnen, Silva and Belfort, who managed to both destroy one of the most anticipated fights of the year, as well as any possible backup plans by all having issues -- in recent weeks we've added flyweight title contender Ali Bagautinov to the list, and two more fighters on tests taken three weeks later.
Some people will tell you that everyone is dirty of something, that you simply can't recover from training multiple disciplines daily, with all the aches and pains throughout a fight camp, with an unenhanced body. Yet, the outrage many fighters have towards users indicates a sort of never-ending frustration of trying to compete in a sport where being clean often feels like a stupid cause to stand up for. That, or, if the "everybody is doing it" brigade is even close to true, people like Georges St-Pierre, Michael Bisping, Tim Kennedy, Luke Rockhold and many others who have spoken out on the subject -- in particular Jon Jones, who outright forced the hand of increased testing -- could only be viewed as hypocrites of the highest order.
More likely, the number of people on PEDs is significant, as is the number who aren't. In a sense, that makes for the worst sport possible. If everyone truly is on it, like is the case in bodybuilding, or the glory days of cycling, weightlifting and sprinting, it's not really an unfair sport as much as a dirty sport with a level playing field. Most major sports are probably more similar to MMA. The playing field isn't level, and those clean who make it near the top, but never go over the hump, will take extreme and justified bitterness to their graves. And MMA may be one of the worst because in a non-contact sport, you may lose out on a job opportunity or career advancement. In a contact sport, you're risking significant injury. And unless the subject is taken seriously, that's why the incentive to use in a contact sport can be higher than most. It's not just financial, it's physical self-preservation.
It's getting so bad that people are now seeing PED ghosts. Any fighter over 30 who enjoys a career resurgence, well, he must be dirty or we have to be suspicious or we're naive. Anyone with an impressive physique, well, enhancers must be behind it as well. Anyone from certain countries, or certain geographical regions within the U.S., wink, wink, we suspect they are as well.
In recent weeks, we've had Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes fire barbs at each other. The charge of Aldo being dirty seemed related to Mendes' belief that his foe is under less scrutiny because he's residing in Brazil. Aldo then shot back at Mendes, largely because of how much muscle mass he carries on his compact frame. Neither has ever failed a test. But while that line may work with the gullible, fighters aren't gullible on this subject. A clean track record of tests doesn't convince anyone of anything.
For media members, it's even more frustrating. Every time you praise a great performance, in the back of your mind, you always wonder if the scales were balanced in the fight. Kevin Casey showed new-found striking skill and power when he knocked out Bubba Bush in 61 seconds. What a great performance. Or do we wait until drug tests come back?
We all know the post-fight drug tests are only going to nab guys who are being fed bad advice. It doesn't catch those who used PEDs through camp, giving them the ability to recover faster, thus do more to sharpen their skills, and maintain muscle mass while weight comes off from training and dieting.
While the public may see the recent rush of high-profile positives as proof that the problems have gotten worse, it's more likely the problem is at about the same level it's been for a long time. But with money earmarked for testing outside of competition for headliners, it feels like things are more dirty. In addition, there is a sophistication increase in the testing. No UFC fighter ever tested positive for Growth Hormone; in fact, few athletes in history had. Sonnen is now proof that good timing of testers and bad timing of athletes may actually catch someone using a drug most fighters believed to be untouchable.
Inside the game, you have two schools of thought. There are clean athletes, who end their careers bitter, believing everyone who beat them was on something. Some, like Bisping, have an open and shut case, given his title shots were derailed by losses to Dan Henderson (TRT), Belfort (TRT), Wanderlei Silva (subject of conjecture for years, confirmed in many people's eyes by his running for cover at the first sign of a random test) and Sonnen (TRT, and who knows what else). The other school of thought is everyone is doing it, and that testing only favors those who are rich and well-connected, thus can afford the best stuff, along with scheduling by experts to skate through.
No fighter in UFC history had ever tested positive for EPO. Then Sonnen and Bagautinov both did in tests taken roughly eight days apart. That's either more vigilant testing, or more sophisticated tests. Whether either will lead to less usage of those drugs is a question today. But if these drugs get picked up with more regularity in time, usage will decrease. Nandrolone was once the performance enhancing drug of choice in sports. Now drug tested athletes avoid it like the plague because of its ease in detection.
But with all this publicity, the repercussions have to follow.
It hardly went unnoticed, by the fans or the media, that Sonnen was all but ostracized from the sport for his failures at the same time Belfort was licensed and given a championship fight. Nor, was anyone surprised it went down that way.
Belfort's explanation that he took a larger than normal dose of testosterone as part of his TRT regime because he'd missed a shot while traveling, and not even getting a tongue-lashing from the commission was a sad sight. This was Belfort's second positive test in Nevada. After his first positive in 2006, when he was not in UFC, he defied the commission by fighting in England (which at the time had no commission) while under suspension.
This time, there was no suspension -- nor any fines -- for the failed test. There wasn't even public disclosure of it until Belfort, months after the fact and long after rumors about the test result were known by everyone in the sport, publicly released the results. This was all due to a loophole. While Belfort was expected to, at the time, have a championship fight with Chris Weidman on May 24, he was not licensed in Nevada at the time he was tested.
Nothing was said at his hearing. He gave his excuse, and promised to headline what is expected to be one of the biggest gates of the year in Nevada. The contradictory aspect of the commission is that the revenue comes from a percentage of live gates, so licensing Belfort is good for short-term revenue. It's also about keeping Las Vegas as the home site for the biggest fights. Yet, they are also supposed to keep the sport clean and honest. But if this becomes a pattern, it will not be good for the sport.
Belfort will be tested to death between now and his scheduled Dec. 6 fight.
The issue isn't the title shot, which was inevitable given that it's a fight UFC believes, and few would argue, that the fans want to see. Belfort and Weidman in many people's minds finished 1A and 1B for last year's Fighter of the Year. And this is not a title shot, like many, given for marketing reasons. Belfort's wins earned him the shot. His notoriety of being a star in this sport for two decades would have given him an edge in getting a title fight or marketing reasons. But it's an edge he didn't need. Knockouts of Bisping, Rockhold and Dan Henderson in succession made his point with an exclamation mark.
The issue is to learn from this. Had Belfort at least been given a tongue lashing by the commission, and told that in their minds, a fight in December is agreed to only because it was nine months after the positive test, it would have changed nothing, but perhaps people who were outraged would feel a little better. Realistically, as a second offense, it would have been better to make a point. It would have been better to not license him for December, but in February, one year after the positive test, and say that at that time he would be welcomed back, provided he continues to pass his tests.
It delays the title fight, but the fight still happens. It would send a message. Belfort would still get his shot, but would have been handed down real punishment. Everyone would know there were repercussions involved.
But that's history. What we should learn from the mess over the last six months is this: There needs to be more out-of-competition testing. Additionally, the UFC should either insist on every name fighter carrying a Nevada license year-round, or, at minimum, have its fighters get licensed before a fight can be announced in the state. The loopholes of unlicensed Belfort and Wanderlei Silva, both advertised for big matches, having limited punishment that can be meted, while the rules are different for those who have a license, need to be closed pronto.
Nine-month suspensions for first offenses are fine. But a second offense, if its PED-related, should be a consistent two years. What does it tell you that Drysdale tested positive for the exact same thing a second time that he did last year? Everyone is entitled to mistakes, but those who refuse to learn from them, well, they should not be in this sport.
UFC should fire Drysdale. Two positive tests for the same drug in a one-year period, and only one fight to his credit, means he's neither got the name value (where it makes parting hard), or the benefit of the doubt as a singular case of bad judgment. I'm not saying he never comes back, but it should be a serious penalty. People miss the Olympics due to failing a single test. Failing two should at least, for a significant period of time, cost you your sport.
Silva, for avoiding a test, has to be punished more severely than he would have for a failure. Fighters have to be shown that running away gets you 18 months away from the sport on a first offense, double the time of a first-time positive. Fighters shouldn't be rewarded for their hide-and-go seek skills.
And somebody needs to think about regulating submission grappling, if it's promoted under banners like Metamoris, as a professional sport. There are still many states that regulate pro wrestling, which is not a sport. The idea that Sonnen is allowed to compete as a professional athlete while under a commission suspension makes the new sport look abhorrent. If people running that sport can't see it, well, they deserve outside regulation because they proved they can't be trusted to regulate themselves.
Clean fighters are always going to be swimming upstream in this or any other sport. But they deserve, at the very least, the satisfaction of knowing that the commissions are there to protect them, and that the organization, as a platform for fair competition, has their backs.
Whether clean fighters believe that right now is one thing. What needs to happen, is both the commissions and organizations should, starting today, make it a goal that they believe it one year from now.