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UFC's decisions regarding PEDs will change direction of the sport

Claire Greenway/Getty Images

Probably the best analogy for the PED issue in MMA is it's the athletic equivalent to our country's ever expanding national debt.

In other words, it's a huge problem with no easy solution.

It's like Brendan Schaub said earlier in the week when he asked people to give him a reason that a fighter shouldn't use steroids. The fair play argument is tough, because no matter what the true extent of PED usage is at the UFC level, the clear evidence from out of competition testing over the past year plus indicates that among the top level, usage isn't small. It's significant enough that fighters are constantly complaining about it. Every clean fighter has suspicions, and every non-clean fighter in their own mind has justifications for it. The UFC not taking stronger action thus far is at least part of the reason Georges St-Pierre, one of the greatest fighters of all-time, and the sport's biggest box office draw for years, has given for stepping away while still in his early 30s.

There are two obvious ways to approach the problem, and both are unpleasant. You can avoid the issue, and like the debt, it avoids the inevitable. Problems will exacerbate and the company is running headfirst into problems. Some day the ramifications will be unavoidable, whether it's serious injuries suffered by a fighter whose opponent tests positive, a doctor or fighter on the side blowing the whistle publicly or even a bust of doctors as has happened in other sports where major names are linked.

If the public believes MMA is nothing but guys on juice beating each other up, it's something sponsors will not want to be in bed with, and much of the public will have a low opinion of it. It's not a good thing for a sport that is still battling for respectability.

And if no action is taken, the problem will get worse. We are already long past the time frame where some fighters who want to be clean are now using because they feel they have to if they want to compete with opponents they believe are on. Inaction does make it easy to live our lives day-to-day, but down the line, the sport will be far worse for it. A very public drug scandal in some form is inevitable if no action is taken.

Based on comments this week, action is coming on Wednesday as Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta will be making a statement addressing the issue. This comes less than two months after an expensive year-around testing program that had been talked about for months was scrapped. In that two-month period, Anderson Silva, who had been a vocal foe of steroid use in the sport, tested positive three weeks before his fight with Nick Diaz. Jon Fitch, no longer in UFC and struggling at 36 to keep his career going and a fighter who had also been a vocal opponent of PED usage in the sport, was revealed as having tested positive. So did Hector Lombard.

In the case of Silva, the reason given is that the commission didn't get the results of the test back until after the fight because they didn't order a rush on the results. Since that time it's been learned that handled correctly, the results should only take a week to be returned. In some cases, like borderline results that require follow-up Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) tests, or positive tests that lead to a "B" sample test to make sure there wasn't a mistake, can delay the process somewhat. Yet, it still should be not much more than a week after a sample is taken for the commission and the promotion to know that there is at least a problem.

Truly going all out to eliminate the problem is even more painful short-term and it's a constant fight that will never be won. It's not a secret that there are plenty of athletes in the most heavily drug tested sports who will use, have success, and go through their career not getting caught. It's also true that their competitors either know, or strongly suspect and believe that is the case.

This decision involves spending millions of dollars annually on a testing program that is only going to make the company's life miserable at first. At least early on, more fighters will fail tests. During the year, a number of fights, from meaningless prelims, to the biggest of main events, will have to be canceled due to results of testing, and more fighters than ever will have to be suspended. Eventually, the sport will evolve and survive, but it'll be a tough period to get through.

Whatever one believes to be the truth of when the commission or the UFC knew about Anderson Silva's Jan. 9 test failure, the excuse given of the results not getting back in time is one that can only be used once. It can be accepted as a learning experience. But let's just say that if the test had come back in 20 days, or two days before the Silva vs. Nick Diaz fight.

The show wasn't strong enough to be a viable pay-per-view with Silva off the show. It would be difficult to get Diaz a viable opponent with two days notice, although UFC last year was able to survive main eventer Renan Barao's passing out and hitting his head from weight-cut issues and dropping out of a main event one day before the show. But even though Barao was a longtime champion, getting a rematch for the title, he was not a major drawing card. While there were probably some economic losses in having to change the main event at the last minute, in no way is this comparable to what losing Anderson Silva off a show late would be.

At that late stage, you probably don't shut down the show. There are fans who have flown in from all over the world and were already in town. But most of those fans came largely to see Silva's return. By law, refunds have to be offered. In the case of Barao, the number of refunds wasn't large, but Barao is not the kind of draw that Silva is. The UFC has canceled shows twice due to main event fighters being injured a few weeks out, and suffered significant economic consequences from it.

All of the advertising was done. All of the costs of bringing people in was done. All of the costs of getting ready for a show was done. And if the show is canceled, or the main event was canceled, the economic picture changes greatly. The show did a $4.5 million gate, and UFC took in somewhere in the range of $18 million or so in pay-per-view revenue. There is television and sponsorship revenue from around the world. There bars and restaurants that were carrying the show, as well as movie theaters around the country. Everyone takes a hit economically from Silva not fighting. The company hit could be tens of millions in lost revenues, a disaster for the annual bottom line, as well as the company's bond ratings.

The more testing is done, the greater the risk that the above scenario will happen, because it came perilously close to happening two weeks ago.

Also, for the first year, if a significant percentage of the athletes are on PED's, the period getting off them can lead to trouble, with short-term repercussions of listless fighting and diminished performance, to problems handling the workload and recovery in training. PEDs are both physical and psychological crutches. Unless training methods are changed, many, trying to perform the volume of work off PEDs, will tear their bodies down without getting full recuperation, which increases the odds of training injuries. That could also reflect badly on fight performance. Training injuries are already one of UFC's biggest problems.

Eventually the game will change. Injuries eventually teach the fighters to train smarter. On the flip side, the experts with the sophistication to know how to beat the tests will also become more valuable. And with big money and big game involved, in a sport where the difference in income between No. 1 and No. 10 in a weight class is substantial, there will always be people looking for an edge and having little trouble justifying it.

For a fighter, a moral code of not cheating is tough to hold onto when you're trying to make a living for your family and/or keeping a career alive in its latter stages. Plus, from a fighter standpoint, being outgunned against a PED user and on the wrong end of a fight can lead to both long and short-term injury problems.

Scare stories, whether true or not, of health consequences of PEDs are tough to resonate to fighters. Unlike in many sports, where the consequences may be losing a game, or maybe being churned out of the system a year or two earlier, the combat sports world is different.

In MMA, or boxing, or kickboxing, or football, whatever the risks of PEDs are on health, short-term, and probably long-term, they pale in comparison to the risks of getting punched repeatedly in the head, struggles that tear up knees and shoulders. If PED's allow one to train defensive technique longer and harder, you can argue they make things safer for that fighter in the big picture, and certainly in the short-term. And most fighters, by their very nature of focusing on the next task at hand, are thinking short-term. 

If the power enhanced by PEDs turns a solid punch into a fight-ender, that's a quicker win with less damage incurred. Is their a price to pay at the end? Probably. It is worse than the price to pay at the end that seems almost inherent in long-term participation in high contact sports? Probably not.

We also have to face the fact that no matter how much money is spent on testing, the sport will never be fully clean. But for all the talk that the big stars will know how to beat the tests, most of the people caught in the last few years, from Anderson Silva to Vitor Belfort to Chael Sonnen to Alistair Overeem, were among the highest paid fighters in the company. Wanderlei Silva, another of the highest paid fighters, ran from a test, So the idea that rich guys will find a way to skate through the tests unscathed has been contradicted strongly by real world evidence.

Other questions White and Fertitta will have to look at are the penalties for failure. Some fighters believe the suspensions and fines aren't strong enough deterrents. A nine-month ban, which is generally what the UFC and the commissions use, generally amounts to missing one fight cycle. In the Cung Le case, which blew up in the UFC's face, Fertitta, on what would have been Le's first offense, lengthened the suspension to one year, which was at least an indication things may get harsher. But the Le case, with its procedural issues, may have also led to the the UFC decision of dropping handling the drug testing itself.

But make no mistake about it, whatever decisions are announced Wednesday, they will change the sport.

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