Alistair Overeem Case Latest Example of UFC's Weak Stance on PEDs
The UFC has a serious problem on its hands. This is bigger than the usual problems like free agent fighters and repairing injury-riddled cards. The UFC is at a serious crossroads when it comes to PED use, and it is not coming down on a side that the public should be happy with.
The talk, obviously, has been almost entirely focused on Alistair Overeem failing a pre-fight urine test just weeks before he was to fight Junior Dos Santos, nice guy extraordinaire, for the heavyweight title. The bout has been canceled (JDS will now face Frank Mir), which is both a huge disappointment for fans and likely a hit to the UFC's wallet.
Make no mistake about where the UFC's priorities lie, however. The promotion was at the helm of Overeem's protest to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, a move that shows a blatant lack of integrity and demonstrates how much it cares about the sport itself.
No matter which way the UFC will try to spin it, there is only one message to be taken from its handling of Overeem: the UFC brass does not care about fighters' steroid use unless they are caught, and organizers will do as little as possible when it comes to maintaining a safe, fair competition. This is not a message that should be sent, but it just keeps getting repeated.
There are several cases that demonstrate this unscrupulous policy. Though Dana White talks a big game about the UFC's supposed cleanliness, the way he has handled several fighters tell a very different story.
Before Overeem ended up at the center of attention in the MMA world, a lot of talk was surrounding testosterone replacement therapy. The treatment is designed to help men advanced in age who, for whatever reason, have low levels of testosterone.
TRT was not designed with athletes in mind and was not meant to be a component of cheating in MMA. Unfortunately, many allege its place in fighting is just that.
I am no doctor. I am not going to preach about who needs TRT and who does not, or who is abusing it and who really needs it. Many high-profile fighters are lauding its benefits, including Quinton Jackson, Chael Sonnen and Dan Henderson.
One of the common misconceptions about TRT is that it is exclusively used to rebound testosterone levels after steroid use. This is not necessarily true, as low testosterone is fairly common in males, athlete or not.
Additionally, and let me reiterate that I am not a doctor, it seems possible that years of weight cutting and intense training will have some impact on any given bodily function.
There is also a misconception that, essentially, TRT is a doctor helping a fighter to legally juice. While, again, I am not a doctor and cannot say who is abusing it and who is not, there is a fair bit of regulation to the treatment, and it requires a doctor's approval (though that is not worth that much) and must be reported to athletic commissions.
People are leery of TRT because of those two ideas, and while it is a bit hasty and unfair to declare all fighters who undergo the procedure as cheaters, both of these stereotypes apply to Nate Marquardt.
Marquardt, Sonnen, Jackson and Henderson are all openly using TRT. All of them are over 30 years old (Marquardt at 32, Jackson at 33, Sonnen at 35 and Henderson at 41) and each have been fighting for over 10 years.
Marquardt, though, has a past of steroid abuse in the sport, as he tested positive for nandrolone in his UFC debut against Ivan Salaverry. He also ended up being forced out of the main event of UFC on Versus 4 the day before due to elevated levels of testosterone. If there was a poster boy for abusing this legitimate medical treatment, it would be him.
In spite of his history with anabolic steroids and his repeated improper behavior, the UFC was quite forgiving when it came to Marquardt's latest, and biggest, indiscretion. Marquardt was publicly dismissed from the UFC the day of the event and was immediately approached by numerous promotions.
He ultimately signed with BAMMA but never actually fought for the promotion, leaving after being approached by Zuffa's lesser promotion, and the UFC's sister, Strikeforce. It is ridiculous to think the Marquardt ended up getting, essentially, no punishment for such a great offense.
Even though Marquardt literally started his UFC career with a suspension and ended up sabotaging a main event, the UFC keeps on extending him an unwarranted amount of leniency. While there are more recent examples, the Marquardt case is one of the longest-running examples of how the UFC simply will not take any real action, as long as the individual offenders remain a draw.
While Marquardt has a lengthy history of issues, Josh Barnett is easily the greatest problem child in MMA. He actually has a legitimate claim as possibly the most disrespectful, cancerous athlete in any sport, ever.
Barnett owns one of the shortest reigns as champion in UFC history, beating Randy Couture for the belt at UFC 36 and holding on to it for a matter of hours. The title was removed shortly thereafter when he tested positive for a variety of steroids.
From there, he parted ways with the UFC, took some time off and spent the next five years in Japan fighting for a slew of promotions (predominantly Pride).
He came back stateside on a permanent basis with the Affliction promotion in 2008, beating Pedro Rizzo and Gilbert Yvel. From there, he was scheduled to face the top heavyweight in the world at the time, Fedor Emelianenko.
While criticism was leveled against Marquardt for scuttling the aforementioned headline fight with Rick Story, Barnett successfully ruined an entire card by, once again, testing positive for steroids. From there, Affliction ceased its operations in the fight business, making Barnett one of the only fighters to successfully destroy an entire promotion.
In this sort of situation, most fighters would decide go into damage-control mode. They would play the sympathy card and claim an injury. Or they may say an unreasonable amount of pressure to perform pushed them into illegally obtaining and administering synthetic testosterone to their bodies.
Josh Barnett is not like most fighters, though.
Josh Barnett decided the best way to go about any given positive test was to say he was innocent. He cried that athletic commissions have a grudge against fighters. He claimed that everyone else is on steroids. He pleaded that performance enhancing drugs do not actually enhance performance. He stated that back in his day, there were no regulatory bodies, and, therefore, he should still be allowed to juice.
He has also habitually insulted his bosses, calling Dana White a hindrance to the sport and saying that Tom Atencio's own lack of business savvy was responsible for Affliction's collapse as a promotion. Basically, everything is always somebody else's fault, and he has never done anything wrong.
White, for a long while, had been outspoken when it came to Barnett. In 2010, he explicitly stated in an interview with MMA Weekly, “Josh Barnett tested positive three times. This guy denies it every time...that's why Josh Barnett isn't and never will be in the UFC.”
He also stated that while everyone makes mistakes, how people react to them and make up for them is more important than the mistake itself. Barnett's selfish attitude and complete lack of respect for anyone, White said, made him somebody to avoid doing business with.
As is becoming an unfortunate pattern, White is backpedaling fiercely on this. He now says that Barnett is welcome back to the UFC in spite of all his transgressions. This is actually perplexing.
Well, it would have been a year ago.
Right now, it is business as usual.
Yahoo! Sports' Kevin Iole recently wrote a pretty compelling article on Thiago Silva's return to the UFC, the message it sends and the dilemma athletic commissions face when it comes to how much responsibility they have over fighter safety and drug use.
While the article ends up trailing into the UFC's card structuring, the allegations regarding conscious efforts to try and downplay fighter indiscretions are spot-on. Silva fits this bill well.
Silva was a top-10 light heavyweight after his bout with Brandon Vera. In that fight, Silva manhandled Vera and repeatedly taunted him en route to a unanimous decision victory. This was overturned, however, when Silva's urine sample was found out to have been falsified.
Silva was suspended for a year and returned very recently in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 2 against Alexander Gustafsson—in spite of his record (he was 1-2 (1) in his last four fights) and in spite of disrespecting the UFC, the athletic commission, his opponent and the sport as a whole when he did a very, very bad job of falsifying his urine sample because he knew he would not pass.
He lost to Gustafsson, bringing his record since 2009 to 1-3 (1) and teasing that karma perhaps does exist. Regardless, the fact that the real-life hero and all-around outstanding individual Brian Stann ended up being slotted underneath Silva speaks volumes about the UFC's priorities.
Now it is full circle. Alistair Overeem. The muscular fighter at the center of all this talk.
I am not going to talk at length about Overeem's transgressions. That story has been done to death, and there is no reason to rehash it. What I am here to talk about is how the UFC handled it.
The problem with the UFC right now is that it is trying to completely wash its hands of any sort of responsibility in handling fighters' PED abuse. This case is unique, and shows just how little the UFC is willing to do to ensure the safety of its fighters.
Everyone knows now that Overeem used PEDs in his preparation for fighting Junior Dos Santos. This, unfortunately, is a fact.
The UFC was in Overeem's corner when he pleaded his case to the NSAC, and the UFC likely would have simply went forward with the fight if things had worked out for Overeem (he was suspended but is likely to return later this year). They pulled him off the card for business reasons, nothing else.
To reiterate, it is not up for debate whether or not Overeem used PEDs to prepare for the fight. He did. His claim that he was on a steroidal anti-inflammatory should not be taken seriously, given how he did not immediately point to it after testing positive.
The UFC cannot and should not try and claim that the athletic commissions are the only authority on what fights should be allowed to take place. Just as the NFL has become active in protecting players who suffer from concussions and the NHL has been working diligently to scale back the number of blows to the head, the UFC itself, not the NSAC, needs to take action for fighter safety.
Overeem cheated. The UFC knew it and still did everything in its power to leave the door open for a fight with Dos Santos. JDS deserved better treatment from the UFC than to be pitted against an opponent that it knows took illegal substances.
While taking Overeem off the card was the right thing to do (but was still done for the wrong reasons), the damage has been done. The UFC's continued efforts to try and keep Overeem on the card was a terrible PR move.
It was immoral, and just the bad publicity from Overeem possibly winning should have been enough to keep the UFC from putting the fight together. Never even mind what would have happened if, by sheer chance, JDS ended up getting a serious head injury during the fight.
The UFC shed a lot of integrity with how it handled Alistair Overeem.
Compare this to MLB's battle with Ryan Braun a few months ago and ask if a combat sport should be the lenient one when it comes to steroid use.
Conclusions and Eventual Backlash
The point of this exercise is to highlight a fact. The UFC has a “do not get caught” policy on steroids, and nothing else. It will not punish you, and its only moral barometer is its buyrate.
Granted, there have been plenty of fighters suspended for PED use. Thiago Silva lost fourteen months' worth of wages. This is an undeniably hard hit to his wallet and a far harsher punishment than an athlete would receive in any other sport.
The thing is, the UFC cannot continue to defer to the athletic commissions on drug testing and punishment. It needs to step up and, at the very least, discourage fighters from using PEDs with stronger means than name-calling from Dana White.
There are many, many reasons PED use needs to be banned in MMA. It is downright foolish to deny or downplay this. Steroids' negative effects are very well-documented in both the short-term (damage to the liver, a slew of heart troubles) and long-term (increased likelihood of cancer, immunity problems).
More needs to be done when it comes to combating PED use, and that help is not coming from the athletic commissions. More so, if the UFC wants to move closer to the NBA and NFL and further from the WWE in the court of public opinion, it should not expect all the work to be done by others.
The UFC wants to become one of the top sports in the world. An important part of that is having a game that fans view as legitimate. A lack of a comprehensive drug policy undermines this, and PED abuse is only going to get bigger with time.
Fans and fighters alike should be criticizing the UFC's handling of fighters found to be using PEDs. The UFC should not wait for a fighter to die from a heart attack at age 31 to do something about it.
Make no mistake, that is where we are headed.