The news of Lavar Johnson's release from the UFC on Thursday shouldn't have surprised anyone. Not really, anyway.
But I wouldn't blame you if you were at least a little bit surprised, because it's not as though the UFC has been remarkably consistent in how it handles these types of things over the years.
I'll say this up front: I'm fine with Johnson—or anyone else who uses performance-enhancing drugs—having his contract terminated. If you're willing to cheat the system in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage over your opponent, well, you should be willing to suffer the consequences when you get caught. And to Johnson's credit, he hasn't raised a fuss over being fired. Not yet, anyway.
What I do have a problem with, however, is the complete and utter lack of any sort of standard when it comes to who gets released after failing a drug test and who gets to stick around.
I mean, I suppose there is a standard, of sorts. It goes a little something like this:
- If you are a star of any note, and you can help draw money for the company, you likely won't be fired.
- If you are a superstar, then you certainly won't be fired. In fact, you might even get a title shot when you return, even if you lost your last fight.
- If you are a cast member of one of the early seasons of The Ultimate Fighter and have developed a reputation for putting on exciting fights even though you lose far more than you win, you likely won't be fired.
- If you are neither a star or a cast member from the early seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, you will likely be fired. The chances of you being fired escalate greatly if you are a boring fighter.
Sound about right? It's not an exact science, but it'll do for now.
Johnson lost his last two fights to Stefan Struve and Brendan Schaub, but he had beaten Joey Beltran and Pat Barry prior to those losses. Also, I'd consider all of his fights—except for the Schaub loss, which was one of the more boring fights in recent memory—to be at least a little bit exciting.
And sure, Johnson is far from being considered a good heavyweight; he's got stunning power in his hands, but he's also the owner of one of the worst ground games across the entire MMA heavyweight spectrum. That's saying something when you consider just how bad a lot of heavyweights are in the grappling department.
I say all of this because, once again, I have no problem with Johnson being cut. He had a limited future in the UFC and was going to struggle mightily against just about any heavyweight he faced from this point forward. He wasn't a great heavyweight; he'd lost two in a row and looked fairly terrible while doing so. And then he took performance-enhancing drugs in an effort to cheat his opponent out of a win.
The point is that it's long past time for the UFC to start applying the same rules to everyone, no matter how popular the fighter is or how much he can draw on pay-per-view or how indebted the UFC may feel for the fighter's help during the early years of The Ultimate Fighter.
Chris Leben has failed post-fight drug tests two separate times in his UFC career. He's lost three of his last four fights. And yet, he's in no danger of losing his job, and I suspect that he'd be given at least one more chance even if he failed a third drug test. Because Leben was a big part of the success of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter—his grudge match with Josh Koscheck averaged 2.2 million viewers and helped put the reality show, and the UFC itself, over the top—he'll be afforded more opportunities than just about anyone else on the roster.
Nick Diaz famously failed a drug test after losing to Carlos Condit last year, but received a title shot upon his return. Why? All you need to answer that question is a quick look at the rumored pay-per-view buyrate for UFC 158, where Diaz lost to Georges St-Pierre; the show allegedly did in the realm of 800,000 viewers.
That's big money, and that's why Diaz gets special treatment. But there's no special treatment available for Matt Riddle, because the UFC doesn't like his style of fighting. He's boring, and so he becomes instantly expendable the very second a reason becomes available.
And there are still others who have failed drug tests for marijuana and, instead of being cut, were instead sent to company-mandated rehab. They get to keep their jobs as long as they attend a few classes about the evils of marijuana and learn why smoking pot will make you listless, lazy and a danger to society.
Just ask Dave Herman; the heavyweight has lost three fights in a row and failed for marijuana two times, but he's still employed because he's not boring.
The point of all of this, I suppose, is that I'm tired of double and triple and quadruple standards. If an offense is serious enough to cut a fighter, it should be serious enough to cut any fighter who commits the infraction. There should be no second chances for pay-per-view stars or "company guys" or "guys who go out and bang."
And I think this is important because if the UFC wants to be taken seriously as a major sporting organization, it needs to look to other major sporting organizations and figure out how they handle these kinds of offenses.
Commissioner Roger Goodell handles suspensions and fines in the NFL with an even hand. Superstars and backup players are treated equally. And David Stern—though a terrible commissioner for the NBA—is also level across the board in his treatment of rule-breakers.
That's where Dana White wants to be. He wants to be considered a major sport, on part with the NFL and the NBA and MLB. He wants that respectability and those blue chip sponsors and the accolades, and he wants those viewers.
But he'll never get there if he has different ways of dealing with people based on their star power, their loyalty to him and whether or not he considers them to be thrilling fighters. Just like the fighter code of conduct White installed last year, it's time to set concrete rules in place that detail exactly what will happen if you fail a drug test.
And until it does this one simple thing, the UFC will have a very tough time penetrating the world's sports landscape.
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