UFC 175 Debacle Shows Surprise Testing Is Still Best Weapon in War Against PEDs

Chad DundasMMA Lead WriterJune 23, 2014

USA Today

Last week’s Nevada State Athletic Commission meeting didn’t quite turn out to be the star-studded circus we all expected.

Unfortunately, even this card was subject to change.

At one point, it was thought that Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva might all appear—forced to face the music for a variety of drug-related infractions. In the end, Belfort got bumped, Sonnen attended briefly via phone and only Silva showed up in person to take his medicine (pun fully intended).

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Officials issued Sonnen a temporary suspension and put Silva off until later, and so the most anticipated local committee meeting in MMA history fizzled—just like the idea that any combination of this terrible trio might actually fight at UFC 175 next month.

Still, the NSAC didn’t let the occasion slip by without delivering a message.

“I think it’s been well known that this commission has made an effort to eradicate unarmed combat of any illegal drugs or unauthorized drugs...” chairman Francisco Aguilar told Silva near the end of the meeting. “This (random testing) is going to be part of the norm.”

Aguilar’s comments didn’t elicit a standing ovation from those in attendance—the meeting was already more than an hour-and-a-half old—but they were certainly applause-worthy.

If there is one takeaway from the comedy of errors that has befallen the UFC 175 card, it’s that the NSAC’s newly aggressive surprise drug-testing program really works. In fact, without comprehensive, industry-wide Olympic-style testing on the horizon, it may be the best weapon MMA has in its war against performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s long been theorized that the traditional testing conducted by many state athletic commissions merely turns the screening process into a cat-and-mouse game for drug cheats. When users know exactly when and where they’re going to be tested, they can cycle off their drug regimens in time to pass.

The NSAC has taken things to the next level, turning up unannounced on fighters’ doorsteps and at their gyms to test them when they least expect it. As a result, a few of them are actually getting caught—sometimes in hilarious fashion.

This much was clear from testimony given last Tuesday by the NSAC sample collector who was sent to test Silva in Las Vegas in May. In painstaking, blow-by-blow detail he recounted for the commission how Silva and his wife both submitted incorrect cellphone numbers and—when he did finally get hold of them—tried in vain to reschedule the test.

As if they didn’t understand that the surprise nature of it was sort of the point.

Ultimately, Silva snuck out the back door of his gym to get away and in result has taken the brunt of the public humiliation during recent weeks, though his tactics weren’t that different from those employed by Belfort or Sonnen.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

When Belfort was caught by a drug test back in February, his lawyer declared the results “irrelevant,” per Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com, and the fighter refused to release them until his hand was forced months later. Once Sonnen knew the jig was up, he abruptly retired and handled the aftermath of his positive test as if it all was just confusing bureaucratic red tape.

No amount of legal wrangling or public relations squirming, however, can totally eradicate the cold hard facts: All three of these guys failed, tripped up by the NSAC’s new surprise testing regimen.

Sonnen popped positive for two banned substances he said were meant to aid his transition off testosterone replacement therapy. Belfort had sky-high levels of testosterone when testers tracked him down as he prepared to attend the World MMA Awards. Silva said he was taking diuretics for a wrist injury, but we’ll never know for sure, and his non-compliance makes him just as guilty as the other two.

Andre Penner/Associated Press

Perhaps the saddest and most telling aspect in all of this is that Silva and Sonnen both claimed this was the first time in their combined 92 bouts and 35 years of experience that they’d ever been subjected to unannounced drug tests. As for Belfort? Dana White told the media that the UFC was “testing the s--t” out of the embattled middleweight, but the first time he was given an out-of-the-blue third-party drug screening, he flunked.

Silva’s lawyer, Ross Goodman, told the NSAC his client was “surprised” by the random test and added: “It was the first time in his career where something like this (happened), out of competition, somebody showed up at his gym (to test him).”

Sonnen’s lament was similar.

“This was out of competition testing,” he told broadcast partner Kenny Florian during the live version of his retirement announcement on UFC Tonight (even though the test he failed was of the solidly in-competition variety). “This has never happened before to me.”

And thus, progress.

Had they merely been subjected to regularly scheduled fight-week testing, Silva, Sonnen and Belfort might all have gotten away with it. They might’ve cruised into UFC 175, fought, collected their various financial bonuses and cruised out, the public none the wiser that they were gaming the system.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Instead, each man now faces an uncertain future. We don’t yet know exactly what sort of suspensions will be leveled against them—and in Sonnen’s case, it may not matter anymore—but at least now there will be some consequences. At least now fans know what they were up to when they thought no one was looking.

It’s a shame that most state athletic commissions lack the funding and the resources to follow the NSAC’s lead. So long as the UFC continues to do a fair number of shows at home in Nevada, though, at least we know fighters like Silva, Sonnen and Belfort will be subjected to increased scrutiny.

These guys don’t like surprises.

It’s good to see the NSAC doing a better job of keeping them on their toes.