The Ultimate Fighting Championship has a drug problem.
If you weren't already aware of this, you are now. 2015 started off with a bang for the promotion, with two consecutive pay-per-view events headlined by appealing fights.
Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier? Sign me up for that one.
The return of both Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz, and they're facing each other? Are you kidding me? I am thankful I was able to see both of those fights in person.
But that's where the gratitude ends.
This is a time where we should be looking back on what transpired—at the opportunity to see the man who might be the best fighter ever and the man who, if he is not already, will likely be the best fighter very soon.
Instead, we are stuck trying to figure out why Jones failed a drug test for cocaine metabolites and then, in a perfect public relations moment, went to rehab to fix his issues for his family and friends and the fans who (do not really) love him.
And we are left wondering why Silva, after failing for not just one but two performance-enhancing drugs, is still in Las Vegas filming another season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil. He has the full-throated support of the promotion and its president, Dana White, who is selective in who he supports and who he casts to the wayside for transgressions both major and minor.
We are left wondering these things because, really, what else are we going to do?
I have stopped trying to figure out what it all means or whether or not the UFC will eventually take a stand and realize there is a major problem with drugs in the industry where it is the unquestioned market leader.
Because it is clear the UFC does not care. The UFC's idea of a solution is relying on increasingly hapless athletic commissions, and that's just not enough.
I had hope there for a while, even though that hope seems so silly in hindsight.
The UFC was going to spearhead a new campaign to drug-test its entire roster randomly year-round. It promised money and power and all of the things needed in order to clean up the sport and to stop cheaters from doing what they invariably do, which is cheat.
But then it started to look like the whole "random testing" thing was a bad idea, at least from the UFC's perspective. According to Steven Marrocco of MMAjunkie.com, 31 percent of UFC fighters subjected to random testing since the program began in December 2013 have failed. Since then, 16 fighters have been subjected to random screenings, and five of them have failed.
If I'm the UFC, I'd take a look at that number and decide that maybe, just maybe, testing the entirety of my roster is a bad idea. At the very least, it would shine a bright light on the usage of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in a fringe sport with a sordid history. And at worst, the UFC would be forced to cancel fights left and right, main events included.
If I'm the UFC, I might decide that maybe drug testing my entire roster isn't worth the risks involved.
And that's exactly what it did.
White told a group of reporters (including me) in December that the UFC was scrapping plans for the out-of-competition program. That bit of news came out of nowhere, sandwiched into a press session designed to hype up Jones vs. Cormier (note: according to Bob Bennett of the NSAC, they informed the UFC of Jon Jones's failed drug test on Dec. 23rd...a week before the UFC announced they were scrapping their comprehensive out-of-competition testing plans).
White said the UFC had no business handling drug testing, which was a little hilarious on the surface when you consider that the UFC handles plenty of drug testing in events it promotes in areas of the world without athletic commissions.
Whatever the reason for the UFC scrapping plans for an out-of-competition drug testing program, it was the wrong decision.
There is one way to clean up a sport that is quickly rolling downhill in terms of reputation: by testing more and living with the results. And if that means that fighters like Silva are pulled from their main events with just a few days' notice, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles.
And I have no doubt it will be painful in the short term, and mixed martial arts fans who just want to see violence, bro, will be so mad about their precious fights being canceled. But unless the UFC wants to forever cater solely to those dedicated fans who make up the hardcore fanbase, it will need to make changes.
Because mixed martial arts already has plenty going against it. It is a brutal sport, and despite what White says, fighting is not in our DNA. If a fight breaks out on the corner, normal people don't stop to watch. Normal people call for help. They call the police. They don't cheer on the people involved in the fight.
And if the UFC wants to continue to appeal solely to the demographic that already supports it, that's fine too. It can keep throwing its hands in the air and pretend like there's nothing it can do to help eliminate the drug problem it has fostered. The UFC can point the blame at the ancient athletic commissions. It can shake its head and profess disappointment when someone fails a test, and maybe it can fine cheaters a few dollars here and there.
That's all fine and good, if the UFC want to stay where it is, which is a niche sport targeted toward a certain subset of sports fandom. But if the UFC wants to grow—and the drastic rate at which it runs events in markets around the world leads me to believe it does, in fact, want to grow—then it must do something about the drug problem in mixed martial arts.
And as the industry's sole reputable promotion of note, the UFC must spearhead the change. It must install drug testing procedures far beyond what even the athletic commissions allow for. It must go out of its way to punish offenders, even if it means harming the bottom line in the interim, and even if it means more than a slap on the wrist for the biggest stars.
Because if the UFC doesn't take a stand now, it will create a reputation that is nearly impossible to recover from. The very nature of mixed martial arts means it already has plenty going against it. There is no need to add a bad reputation as a drug-infused sport on top of the challenges the sport already faces.
There's only one market leader in the sport. There is only one promotion that can make a difference. As the UFC leads, so the sport goes. And unfortunately, right now it's letting the sport spiral down the toilet.
That can change, but the change must come from the top. The UFC must make a stand.