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Starting soon, we will have a completely new UFC

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Make no mistake about it. If UFC does what it said it is going to do, Wednesday was demarcation today for the sport and the start of a new era.

For those who want a clean sport, everything said indicated they are doing the right thing. But even if their hearts are in the right place, the cost of the "right thing" is huge.

The millions of dollars a year to implement a year-around testing program is only the tip of the financial iceberg. There are going to be potential huge money fights fall through. There are going to be big star careers euthanized. Fans, promoters and fighters are going to be sad a lot more at first than happy.

But deep down, any other approach was going to be nothing more than lip service.

When it comes to the PED issue, there have been a few schools of fighters.

There are the ones who use them, and justify it with the idea that everyone does it, you can't recover from the necessary training without it, and the drug tests are intentionally made easy to pass. The promoters and commissions really don't care, but have to give the appearance to the public.

Keep in mind, this isn't the mentality of fighters, but the mentality of athletes in virtually every drug tested sport where use remains prevalent.

There are also the ones who don't use, who get frustrated, and often wonder if the people who beat them were using. Or, in some cases, they even know that's the case. Many of them end up using themselves, and eventually falling into the former groups line of thinking.

Others are just so talented they believe they don't need them. And others don't use for all kinds of different reasons.

But it's a subject everyone knows about and everyone talks about.

Whatever the UFC was prior to Wednesday morning, and what people wanted to believe it was, it is a changed sport today at its highest level.

The key is not the implementation of random unannounced year-around drug testing of the roster, which they hope to put into effect by July 1. That wasn't much of a surprise. Any other reaction to the problem would be seen as lip service, because that's what it would be. People know that failing a test on the day of the fight, when you know months ahead of time you are going to be tested, is more an IQ test than a drug test.

People also know that a far higher percentage of fighters, and bigger names (largely because up to this point only the biggest names have been subject to this testing), have failed the very limited out of competition that a few of the more vigilant state athletic commissions have implemented for big fights over the past year or so.

The biggest surprise out of Wednesday was when UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta talked about penalties. He suggested a two-year suspension for a first test failure, and said that if the World Anti-Doping Association establishes four-year bans for first time use for Olympic athletes, they will support that.

While these terms are in effect for Olympic athletes, that's far beyond the standards of most major sports. For the NFL, a positive test will get you a four-week suspension. For baseball, you'll lose 50 games, or just under one-third of a season. These are athletes making a lot of money. And while they take a financial hit, they are not going to be forced out of their sport and into the working world. They are only losing a percentage of their season.

A two-year ban is life changing, particularly in a professional sport where all but the highest-tier talents are not paid anywhere near as well as football or baseball players.

A first positive test once this goes into effect, and for almost every fighter, you're going to have to look at another means of supporting yourself. A few guys may be able to take fights overseas with other organizations, but one would think, and hope, that the UFC will not look kindly on that. They need to publicly state, and stick to a zero tolerance policy on those people returning.

That likely shocked a lot of the roster. The ones who believed those in charge only wanted the appearance of a clean sport, but didn't really care, got thrown for a loop. A nine-month ban is an annoyance. It's basically like suffering a somewhat serious injury, but without the injury part of it. A two-year ban will force most fighters to get full-time jobs to support themselves, and in many cases, will end careers. If that becomes a four-year ban, it's a death sentence to most careers.

Fertitta, on two occasions, made it clear this program is not going to make things easy on the company. There will be almost surely be more positives, at least at first. There will be fights, both big and small, that will fall through. The year 2014 was bad enough with limited drug testing and lots of injuries. In 2015, you are going to have fighters trying to adjust to differences in training and fighting clean. There will be all kinds of psychological issues and self doubt of fighters who will know that they weren't able to hit as hard or recover as fast from training. For those who relied on PEDs for self-confidence, that crutch is gone and some are going to have a very difficult time with that. For those who relied on PEDs to either give them added energy in training, or recover from hard training, they are likely not going to train as hard, which will make a difference come fight night. 

This was no rah rah speech that we're going to rid ourselves of PED users and all will be good.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," said Fertitta, who later said that ignoring the problem may have been the easiest thing right now, but they are in this business for the long term.

"So be it, if we lose main events, we lose main events," he said.  "We'll survive."

Not everyone fighting in the UFC uses PEDs, and nobody really knows how many do. But the number isn't small, and usage is very much embedded into the culture. Today was a culture shock.

There will be fighters at first who will be lacking aggressiveness and failing to pull the trigger. Not everyone will be like that, but enough will that one of the talking points going forward in analyzing fights will be, based on physical changes and style changes, who was suffering the effects. There will be some formerly great fighters who won't be able to adapt to fighting clean, just like some fighters aren't the same after tearing an ACL. We will see fighters whose careers were going one way, suddenly have them change trajectory.

No sport where PEDs has been epidemic has ever been able to completely eliminate them. That won't happen here either. No matter what is said publicly, HGH and EPO are extremely difficult to catch.

Still, it's one thing to say the right things, another to do them. This is a star-driven business with a small number of big money players. It's one thing for one of them to be on the shelf for nine months and even to strip them of a championship. It is very different to have management pull the trigger on potentially ending one of the few true superstars' careers, and costing themselves tens of millions of dollars in having to cancel a heavily anticipated fight after all the promotional expenses have been paid and with a public wanting to see it.

"The Nevada Athletic Commission would never let a fighter go into a fight if they knew he was on performance-enhancing drugs," said UFC President Dana White, in addressing the Anderson Silva situation and saying that neither the commission nor the UFC knew about Silva's positive test on Jan. 9 until three days after the fight. "Neither would we. It would never happen. This test came back after the fact. There are some issues there.  These are all things being worked on now. We would never do that. The Nevada State Athletic Commission would never do that."

Like with all major changes, there will be a lot of tough decisions that will have to be made. It's one thing to say all the right things. It's one thing to even want to do all the right things. When tens of millions are at stake, they can be quite the mitigating factor.

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