Anderson Silva's fighting career—at least as we know it—may already be over.
Details of Silva's second failed drug test emerged this week, casting his future into peril. The former UFC middleweight champion faces a possible four-year ban after turning up positive for synthetic testosterone and a banned diuretic in a sample collected in October 2017.
His reps are apparently asking for a lighter sentence, arguing that Silva's first test failures—for a pair of steroids in January 2015—didn't fall under the auspices of the UFC's current anti-doping policy and therefore shouldn't count against him, according to Combate (h/t MMA Fighting's Marc Raimondi). Silva, who initially denied knowingly taking performance enhancers, remained mum this week.
Even before this latest drug scandal, things had gotten pretty bleak for a guy once regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Just 1-4-1 dating back to the loss of his title to Chris Weidman at UFC 162 in July 2013, Silva's positive test knocked him out of a proposed fight against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Fight Night 122. Not only was that bout scheduled to air exclusively on the UFC's digital subscription service instead of pay-per-view, but the once-mighty Silva was a slight underdog to the up-and-coming Gastelum, per BookMaker.
Already 42 years old, any sort of significant suspension would likely be a death sentence for The Spider as an active fighter, at least in America. If this truly is the end of the road for one of the UFC's greatest champions, how will the sport ultimately look upon his legacy?
Here, Bleacher Report lead MMA writers Chad Dundas (that's me) and Jonathan Snowden try to sort it out.
Chad: Very few people seem to be able to find it in their hearts to offer a charitable view of Silva's career at the moment, Jonathan. Former middleweight champion Michael Bisping—who beat Silva by unanimous decision in February 2016 and then replaced him in the fight against Gastelum in late 2017—said his drug test failures "completely destroy his legacy" during a media conference call prior to UFN 122.
Meanwhile, MMA Fighting's Dave Doyle wrote Saturday that Silva had "disqualified himself" from consideration as greatest of all time and former foe Weidman told Raimondi that a second failed test "definitely tarnishes his legacy" and that his "whole career is in question."
Former UFC color commentator and middleweight contender Brian Stann was slightly more bullish during a recent appearance with RJ Clifford and Ricky Bones on SiriusXM's Fight Club.
"He's still one of the best to ever do it," Stann said. "In my eyes, there was a clear steroid era of this sport, and he was the best at it during that time. ... I wish he would have retired sooner."
Personally, I'm a bit torn. Silva ruled the 185-pound division with an iron fist from 2006-2013, amassing 10 successful title defenses while three times traveling up to light heavyweight to make mincemeat of larger competitors like James Irvin, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar.
Frankly, we've never seen anybody match that for sheer dominance.
His drug test failures came during the twilight of his 20-year MMA career, after he was into his late 30s/early 40s and had suffered a potentially career-ending leg injury against Weidman in their rematch at UFC 168.
So, if you told me that Silva turned to performance-enhancing drugs only as a beleaguered elder statesman, just trying to keep his battered body going and stay on pace with a new generation of fighters, I might believe it.
But part of me also agrees with guys like Stann and Weidman, in that multiple failed tests is enough for me to suspect Silva's entire amazing body of work was built while operating outside the rules. Even if the bulk of that run took place during Stann's so-called "steroid era," for me it adds a mental asterisk. I can't bring myself to consider him on par with other all-timers who haven't tested positive for PEDs.
What say you?
Jonathan: This is a very complicated issue, one that inspires strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum.
Part of me agrees with cynics who believe all athletes seek advantages over their competitors and robust drug testing merely turns athletics into a chemical arms race. Why not, the argument goes, allow controlled use of performance-enhancing drugs, under a doctor's care, and improve the capabilities of fighters across the board? After all, isn't enhanced performance a good thing? If Silva was able to kick Vitor Belfort in the head because of drug use, well, he needs to share a little of the good stuff with others. He was the most dynamic fighter in the sport, a walking advertisement for PEDs if that's what made it all possible.
Then again, PEDs can have serious consequences to long-term health, some of which may be unknown while the athlete is actively using them. And lines, even in a free-for-all, have to be drawn somewhere. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, athletes will make poor decisions about what to put in their bodies. We need regulation, and knowing that, why not play it safe and prohibit all substances that are potentially harmful to the human body? Better, this argument goes, safe than sorry (NSFW language in tweet).
Stann is right and wrong about the "steroid era." UFC fighters have been subject to testing since 2002, when Nevada became the first state to do a post-fight screening (and also became the first state to catch a champion, when new heavyweight kingpin Josh Barnett popped hot that very night). For years, the UFC and state regulators met in the middle, testing only on the night of the fight. This eliminated the most egregious abuses while leaving months for a fighter to serve as a petri dish, building muscle and increasing recovery time in between fights. This seemed to work pretty well for everyone—at least everyone willing to cut corners when the hall monitor wasn't watching.
This is the environment Silva came up in. He was subject to drug testing at each of his UFC fights. While we can't say for certain he wasn't abusing PEDs in his prime, we can say for sure he was never caught.
Testing under USADA is much more robust. While it's still possible to get away with using drugs, especially expensive ones that clear your system quickly, it's also much easier to get caught red-handed. Silva, clearly, is regularly reaching into the cookie jar. This is likely going to be the case for many fighters who came up in his era. As we learned during the testosterone replacement era of MMA, once you start using exogenous testosterone, it's very difficult to stop.
The truth is, many of our heroes have been busted for PED use of various kinds. From Royce Gracie to Jon Jones, there is no MMA history if we erase the names of all the abusers from the books. Insert an asterisk if you must—but I say the man's accomplishments stand.
Is my heart too soft to give him the scolding he may very well deserve? Am I going too easy on him, Chad?
Chad: No, that all seems reasonable to me. I also suspect that as more time passes and the memories of Silva's test failures aren't so fresh, it will be easier to look back on his many talents and enjoy their pure artistry.
Legacy-wise, you can't merely write the guy out of the history books. He was too good and too important for too long—and as you pointed out, if you eliminate PED users from the story of MMA, there won't be much of a story left to tell.
Instead, I favor a warts-and-all approach to honoring Silva's accomplishments. We can marvel at the win streak, the skills and the terror he inspired in the opposition while still noting that he tested positive twice late in his career. We can still note that, like so many others, he likely overstayed his welcome.
Even though the implementation of the UFC's revamped anti-doping policy hasn't been perfect, I remain convinced we need aggressive, state-of-the-art drug testing in this sport. You mentioned the athlete health and safety concerns that must dominate nearly any discussion in combat sports. Any other approach wouldn't be fair to fighters who want to do it cleanly while still competing at the highest level of the sport.
I shudder at the notion of MMA with no PED regulation. For me, it brings up dystopian visions where doping doctors are just as important and influential as top coaches and where the divide between haves and have-nots is even wider than it is today.
But I digress.
For Silva, I think it will be important to recognize his great abilities inside the cage while also noting his very human flaws. That's about all you can ask of any athlete in the modern era.
One thing I wonder about is where he goes from here. While I support the UFC's testing efforts, I also balk at the notion that the company can essentially impose a lifetime ban on an independent contractor who might still need to make a living.
If Silva is handed a lengthy ban in America and instead of calling it quits, he turns up in Japan, I'm not sure how I'll feel.
On one hand, more power to the guy for still being able to make a buck. On the other hand, as he forges toward his mid-40s, it'll be tough to watch a reduced version of him continue to risk his future health for short-term gain.
It's an uneasy feeling I'm growing scarily accustomed to as an MMA fan in 2018.