Nick Diaz and Anderson Silva capped an impressive month for the Ultimate Fighting Championship on January 31, headlining a card in front of more than 13,000 fans at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Silva, the former middleweight champion and arguably the best fighter in the sport's short history, won a unanimous decision in his first fight since a gruesome 2013 leg break.
After a lackluster 2014 campaign, things finally looked to be back on track. While it stopped short of being a classic, Diaz and Silva delivered a memorable fight, most notable for Diaz's early bout shenanigans and Silva's post-fight tears.
The sport, it seemed, was poised for a comeback. Silva was back where he belonged, Conor McGregor was developing as a star and Ronda Rousey was in the wings, still waiting for her turn to shine.
And then the drug test results trickled in and reminded everyone, yet again, that mixed martial arts is one of the dirtiest sports on Earth. Not only did Diaz test positive for marijuana metabolites post-fight, the great Silva, a vocal anti-steroid voice in the sport, failed a pre-fight drug test for the body building drugs Drostanolone and androstane. Per UFC.com:
On February 3, 2015, the UFC organization was notified by the Nevada State Athletic Commission that Anderson Silva tested positive for Drostanolone metabolites on his Jan. 9 out of competition drug test. UFC's understanding is that further testing will be conducted by the Commission to confirm these preliminary results.
Anderson Silva has been an amazing champion and a true ambassador of the sport of mixed martial arts and the UFC, in Brazil as well as around the world. UFC is disappointed to learn of these initial results.
The UFC has a strict, consistent policy against the use of any illegal and/or performance enhancing drugs, stimulants or masking agents by its athletes.
Though Diaz has been in trouble before, Silva's test failure is a grim reminder that no one in mixed martial arts is above suspicion. From foundational figures like Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie, both of whom tested positive for steroids once those tests were de rigueur, to modern icons such as Chael Sonnen, it's become clear over the years that MMA doesn't have isolated drug test failures. It has a drug culture.
The mixed martial arts community is predictably in the middle of a by-now-comfortable outrage cycle over the Silva news. But the fury is just a mask. The truth, according to Deadspin editor Tim Marchman, is that despite all the bloviating and phony anger, drugs have permeated cage fighting to the point of no return.
No one can truly be surprised by this news. It's happened too often to have much shock value. MMA has a lot in common with cycling and other notorious sports, where drugs are part of the equation.
"Ultimately I think fighters define fighting, and they've made it pretty clear by their actions that this is part of the game," Marchman said. "I respect the hell out of the guys who have been vocal about this and have talked about it as a serious problem. But they're in the minority and that's just how it is."
In 2013, UFC President Dana White vowed to "test the s--t" out of his fighters. Owner Lorenzo Fertitta added his voice to the mix, and the promotion's Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner, pledged the company's support to a growing anti-PED crusade.
"I think that this year-round testing and out of competition is very important," Ratner told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani. "Unlike baseball if you're taking a performance enhancing drug and you hit the ball further, that’s a big advantage, but in fighting, whether it’s boxing or in MMA—and you're chemically stronger and you win a fight that you may not have and hurt somebody...So I'm all for out-of-competition testing. I want an even playing field and I believe in it with all my heart."
Within the insular mixed martial arts community, these bold claims to test out of competition raised eyebrows. Former UFC fighter Krzysztof Soszynski, after all, had estimated that up to 95 percent of all fighters were using some form of performance enhancer.
Only the predictability of the fight-night test allowed these fighters to pass drug screenings. Even with how easy these tests are to beat, a laundry list of the sport's legends fell victim to the dreaded urinalysis, Shamrock, Gracie and Vitor Belfort among them.
|A Partial History of MMA Drug Test Failures|
|Josh Barnett||4/22/02||Boldenone, Nandrolone+Fluoxymesterone|
|Chael Sonnen||6/5/14||HGH, EPO, and hCG|
In an out-of-competition test? Without fight night as the drop-dead date to end steroid cycles? Many in the sport expected chaos. And that is exactly what we've seen in 2015 so far. In addition to Silva and Diaz, UFC 182 headliner Jon Jones tested positive for cocaine metabolites, making it seem continued non-competition testing by the Nevada Athletic Commission will either finally start cleaning the sport up or burn it to the ground.
Promoters have, rhetoric aside, turned a blind eye to the drug problems that permeate the sport, or, worse, aided and abetted abusers. In 2003, UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia tested positive for steroids. He returned to an immediate title shot. In 2007, history repeated itself with lightweight champion Sean Sherk.
Their punishments may have well included a wink along with the slap on the wrist. There is no real penalty for failure, outside of what's handed out by the offended athletic commission. Fighters, Marchman contends, see a very clear message in the UFC's behavior after drug test failures—and act accordingly.
"The UFC talks a big game, implements testing, and all that. But Vitor Belfort has had how many title shots?" Marchman asked. "They were letting the guy only fight in non-tested environments, and build toward a title shot on those wins! Fighters aren't dumb; they see that. It's like in baseball, where owners were moaning and writing out nine-figure checks to obvious juicers."
There are no obvious answers to the PED conundrum. In the past they've been permissible, so long as fighters could clear it out of their system before a fight-night drug test. The Silva result makes it clear those days are numbered. Whether that's good for the sport—or for the fighters—remains to be seen.
MMA is a brutal sport, both in the cage and in the weeks leading up to a contest. Fighters who want to continue to perform at a high level often need a boost to get them through training camp. That boost won't be there anymore, at least without significant risk.
It's a new day in MMA. The sins of the past are being washed away. Will they take the entire sport with them in a tidal wave of recrimination? Will fighters be the scapegoats for the PED culture run amok?
Combat sports face many difficult questions in the weeks ahead. But two thing are certain—no one is above suspicion and no one, even the greatest of all-time, is above the law.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.