The 3 Steps to Ending PEDs in MMA (and Why They Won't Be Taken)

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistMarch 25, 2013

The 3 Steps to Ending PEDs in MMA (and Why They Won't Be Taken)

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    Stephan Bonnar. Royce Gracie. Hermes Franca. Mo Lawal. Chris Leben. Dave Herman. Nate Marquardt. Forrest Griffin. Josh Barnett. Sean Sherk.

    These are just a few of the fighters hit with suspensions while fighting for the UFC, PRIDE or Strikeforce for using a banned substance. Dozens more are not listed.

    Use of banned substances—especially those considered to be performance-enhancing—is a major problem in any sport, and various sources seem to indicate that fighters are easily getting away with using these pills, creams and patches that give them an unfair advantage at the expense of their long-term health. It is a problem that will, some day, inevitably lead to tragedy.

    It does not need to be this way, however.

    There are a few simple steps that would effectively force fighters into completely giving up PEDs, and would force cheaters out of the sport. Unfortunately, there is a serious push against these steps against the unsatisfactory status quo MMA currently maintains.

    So what can promotions, fighters, athletic commissions and companies do to stop this problem? Why won't they? Find out right here.

True, Random Drug Testing

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    Joe Rogan's interview with Victor Conte (founder of BALCO) is an absolute must-watch for anyone interested in PED use in any given sport.

    Fans already know the problems with the existing drug testing system. Fighters are often told or can easily anticipate when they are going to be tested, which allows them to either purge any PEDs from their body or outright falsify their samples. This allows users to easily avoid failing tests while still using whatever potentially banned substance they want.

    The way to fix this, naturally, is to make it so fighters are not able to anticipate when that fateful knock on their door will occur. If fighters are unable to predict when they will be tested for PEDs, it makes it substantially more difficult to use PEDs without fear of repercussions.

    Naturally, even this is not foolproof. There will always be new PEDs that are undetectable by the current testing methods. That said, it would still make huge strides in stopping PED use. Testing, in fact, could be almost instantly implemented (given how fighters are not unionized, unlike most major sports).

Why It Won't Happen

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    There are two reasons this has not really happened.

    First and foremost is the cost. State Athletic Commissions simply do not want to foot the bill for such endeavors (and oftentimes, they simply cannot). Promotions, similarly, do not want to pony up when, in truth, they gain very little from effective testing of athletes.

    Second, and perhaps far worse, is that fighters and promotions really, really do not want effective testing. While the most common, but very flimsy, reaction to this is that “oh, clearly this is because all fighters are on something,” the reality is very different. Fighters just want to fight, and they do not want anything to interrupt this.

    BJ Penn, one of MMA's staunchest, most vocal opponents of PEDs underwent voluntary drug tests alongside his UFC on Fox 5 opponent, Rory MacDonald. Penn, though, took great issue with the VADA's methods. The reason? If MacDonald came up dirty, the fight would be scrapped.

    Penn would have preferred entering the Octagon against a steroid-fueled opponent over a free Saturday night.

    This says a great deal about where fighters' priorities lie between competitive fairness and income potential, and also how much of an edge they think PEDs really give.

    As for the role of the UFC, the video on the previous slide discusses the role of promotions in implementing testing, in that the UFC could easily employ additional testing. The downside discussed is the political aspect, where the UFC would essentially be declaring the NSAC to be terrible at their jobs...but really, has a card gone by without Dana White savagely ripping on a referee, judge or athletic commission official?

    In this way, the bill for a clean sport is sitting on the table...but nobody wants to take out their credit card.

An Athletic Commission-Approved Supplement List

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    One of the most common claims after a failed drug test is that they were taking an over-the-counter supplement that just so happened to contain an illegal substance.

    Mo Lawal, who tested positive for drostanolone, claimed this. The same goes for Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, who tested positive for steroids in 2003 (the news did not break, however, until 2009).

    Could Lawal and Ortiz be lying? Sure. The thing is, there is plenty of evidence to suggest they're telling the truth, too.

    The best way to stop this? State Athletic Commissions developing an approved supplement list.

    Following the news breaking of Lawal failing a drug test, he had a lengthy, incredibly interesting interview with ESPN's Josh Gross. He listed off a dozen different supplements he takes and what they do. He admits to not knowing what is in those supplements and states he did not know which could have led to the positive test.

    Many mixed martial artists make nowhere near enough to have their supplements tested in any scientific way (Lawal said he had some of his friends search for answers via Google). The NSAC testing something like Dymatize's Elite Recoup Amino for banned substances, and giving it a seal of approval, would make it substantially easier for fighters to avoid this sort of mess.

Why It Won't Happen

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    There are a lot of supplements out there. Like...a whole lot. Just go into Amazon, type “athletic supplement” in the “Health and Personal Care” section and it yields over 2,000 results. Again, that is just what's available on Amazon in America. Imagine how many pills, creams and patches there are in Brazil, Canada, Japan, the Dominican Republic, China, Europe and South Africa?

    Testing any number of these would be an enormous undertaking, and a colossal expense.

    If State Athletic Commissions went down the path of the ESRB (the American rating board behind video games, who ask for up to $10,000 to assign a K-A, T or M rating), it would be a huge expense for the manufacturers to have their entire catalog tested.

    And as with the last issue, this is basically asking these companies to pay money to potentially take the financial hit of having their products denied. Development, production and marketing of these products is not cheap.

    To top it all off, companies like Force Factor, MusclePharm and BSN are major players when it comes to sponsoring events and fighters. Promotions and commissions both reap the benefits from the prominence of supplement manufacturers and because of that, there is little incentive in calling their products out in a negative way.

Promotions Testing Fighters Between Fights

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    Fighters get tested in the weeks before a bout. Any other time? They can do whatever they want.

    That, obviously, is a huge problem.

    The athletic commissions, really, have no sway over fighters when they're not fighting. Even if they did, their arm would only reach as far as the borders of their state, which would do little to stop fighters in Brazil, Canada, Korea, etc.

    Basically, that puts the burden entirely on promotions. Smaller promotions don't necessarily have exclusive contracts, and most fighters are on very short-term deals anyway, so this would basically be exclusively applicable to the likes of Zuffa and Bellator. When it comes to cleaning up sports, though, it's always an affair that starts at the top.

Why It Won't Happen

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    The UFC may be a billion dollar company at this point, but that doesn't mean it wants to throw millions of dollars around on something that makes it harder to put on shows.

    A single Carbon Isotope test, according to the UFC's Marc Ratner (who arranged for one for Lavar Johnson) costs $700. While you may be quick to say “well, the UFC executives' housekeepers find that much in the lint catcher after a half-load of whites,” think about how many fighters the UFC has, and how many times a year they would need to effectively test them.

    Let's do some math for that.

    There are, right now, 377 fighters on the UFC's roster (according to Wikipedia). Let's say the UFC was going to test them monthly. $700 a pop? That would work out to over $3.1 million. How about a more realistic four times a year? That still works out to over $1 million.

    Once again, that would be the UFC dropping a million bucks to put on weaker cards, make less money and have more headaches. Why would it want to do that?

    Cleaning up the sport is a noble endeavor, sure, but MMA isn't at the point now Major League Baseball found itself in during the late 1990s where PED abuse is driving away fans en masse. Unfortunately, it's going to take an enormous shake-up before the UFC sees steroids as a detractor from its bottom line.

    That's the real first step in ending PEDs in MMA.