Making wild generalizations isn't really my thing. Never has been, and never will be.
And that isn't just because I'm a journalist, either. Sure, that plays some part in it, because it would be incredibly irresponsible on my part. My job, both here at Bleacher Report and for the Houston Chronicle, is to present my viewpoint on various subjects in mixed martial arts while hopefully remaining measured and fair.
Sometimes I hit the mark, and sometimes I do not. Sometimes I miss it in terrible fashion. But I always try to remain cognizant of the fact that I have a responsibility, both to the public and to the objective of delivering my thoughts on mixed martial arts to the public.
It's with all of the above in mind that I make this statement, and I think many of you will agree with me: the sport of mixed martial arts has a very serious drug problem.
We've seen plenty of drug test failures in the sport, for steroids or marijuana or diuretics or whatever else it is that fighters inject into their body in order to gain an advantage on their opponents. But this isn't something new to the American public, is it?
I'm a lifelong baseball fan. A Houston Astros fan to be specific. And please hold your Astros jokes until I'm finished, because I realize we're terrible. Rebuilding is a pain in the ass, you know.
I grew up as a baseball fan because I had a close personal family connection to Nolan Ryan and his family. I grew up in Alvin, Ryan's hometown, and I lived roughly two miles from his house. My grandfather was friends with Nolan's parents, and he watched as Nolan grew from a skinny high school pitcher—with a power pitching game that was so terrifying that opposing batters actually sometimes refused to face him—into one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game.
I spent plenty of summers in Kissimmee, Florida, at Astros spring training. I would loaf around the grounds and play catch with Nolan's sons, Reid and Reese. I'd take batting practice from Astros pitchers like Larry Anderson and Mike Scott. We would go to dinner with Nolan and his lovely wife, Ruth, and eat tons of shrimp and talk about baseball.
It was the good life, and I loved baseball dearly.
I remained a baseball fan throughout the 1990's. I played the game, too, up through the high school level, and I was a pretty decent pitcher. I went to as many Astros games as I possibly could, and I remained obsessed with baseball cards and statistics.
But then came the Steroid Era. I loved baseball for its purity and for its pace, and the news that many players who I had previously seen as greats of the game were cheating to win came as a shock to me. I didn't pay attention to steroids, and I didn't notice when Barry Bonds grew from a svelte stallion of an athlete into a massive bodybuilder with a giant head.
The steroid scandals impacted me greatly. They rocked me down to my core, where baseball took root in me as a child and never let go. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I lost interest in baseball and in the players that played the game. They were cheating, and that wasn't fair. That wasn't what I loved about baseball.
I've never really recovered from that shock. I still watch plenty of games and remain an unabashed Astros fan even through these lean years where I can barely recognize two of the players in the starting lineup on any given night. But I'm not the fan I used to be, and that's because baseball took a hit in my heart when players started cheating the game. It just wasn't the same, and I don't think it ever will be.
I say all of this because mixed martial arts is in the very same position that baseball was back before the sport was nearly obliterated by a drug scandal. It's at a crossroads of sorts, and choices made in the next few years could determine if the sport is taken seriously or if it is cast aside and viewed as another sideshow filled with dirty athletes.
We've seen fighters fail drug tests, so that doesn't surprise us any more. But what is troubling are the rumors you hear about all of the guys who haven't been caught. When I lived in Vegas, I was fairly attached to the mixed martial arts scene, and it was impossible to go even a week without hearing about this fighter or that fighter who currently used tons of performance enhancing drugs, but knew enough to complete their cycle before they were tested on fight night.
I talked to people who trained with these fighters. I talked to other people associated with these fighters. I even talked to a few guys who were well known for being the "go-to" source if you wanted a little something extra to help get you through training. And all of them said the same thing: steroids in mixed martial arts are much more prevalent than anyone really knows. In fact, most of them estimated that at least 60%, and possibly more, of fighters in the sport were on some type of performance enhancing drug.
I don't know if any of it is true. I tend to believe it is, but I can't verify it. I can't get anyone to go on the record about it. But that doesn't mean it isn't happening, and that doesn't mean I believe there isn't a problem. Because there is assuredly a problem, and there is only one company that can do something about it: the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Dana White will tell you until he's blue in the face that they're the most regulated sport in the world. That isn't true, of course. The drug testing standards in combat sports pale in comparison to, say, the Olympics. They don't even measure up to baseball, which is now testing for Human Growth Hormone.
White will also tell you that it's not his job to police the fighters. They're regulated by the government, he says, as if that wraps up every question with a neat little bow. It doesn't. It's a non-answer to a difficult question, but it's a question that needs addressing, and White and the rest of the UFC brass need to be the ones that address it.
Why am I putting this responsibility on their shoulders? Because they're the biggest promotion in the world. For all intents and purposes, they are the only game in town, at least when it comes to attracting casual fans to the sport. Bellator could institute random drug testing tomorrow morning and it wouldn't have a single effect on the sport. But if the UFC institutes random drug testing?
At that point, you have every single fighter in the world, including the ones who aren't under contract to the UFC but hope to make it there someday, completely re-evaluating their decision to inject themselves with performance enhancing drugs. They would be a little slower to pick up the needle. They might even switch weight classes, dropping down to their natural size instead of adding tons of muscle on their frames. And fighters currently under UFC contracts would be incredibly stupid to cheat with the weight of a potential drug test, one that could happen at any time, hanging over their heads.
In the past, White has also told media and fans that the commissions fine and suspend the fighters who fail drug tests, and this is true. But it's not enough. The UFC should institute their own fines, suspensions and firings for failed drug tests, on top of the punishments already levied by the commissions. If I'm a fighter and I knew that I would potentially lose all of my purse—or even my job, if I'm a serial offender—then I would have second thoughts about cheating.
This is why White and the UFC can lead the way. With one signature on a document that institutes random drug testing, White can change the sport for the better. He can give his company and the entire sport a better hope for the future. And he can change the image that's developing of mixed martial art—an image of a sport filled with cheaters—on a permanent basis.
The UFC will never be the biggest sport in the world. They'll never come close to approaching the NFL or the NBA or even baseball in North America. The sport is too violent and the men fight in a cage. It's just not everyone's cup of tea, and that's okay.
But if the drug problem in mixed martial arts is allowed to run rampant, it could quickly lose popularity. Sponsors could abandon ship. Fox might decide to cut their losses and disassociate themselves with a tainted company and sport. Once that happens, the UFC could find itself right back on the fringes of society, and that's obviously not where they want to be. That's not where I want them to be.
It doesn't have to be that way. The UFC doesn't have to go through a decade-long process of rebuilding their image like baseball. They can nip all of that in the bud right now, before it gets so out of hand that they never recover.
And they can do it by instituting random drug testing and by putting the fear of God into their fighters.
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