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UFC 184 was the first mixed martial arts card in the history of California where every fighter’s blood and urine was drug tested. While Zuffa is busy making the right kind of history, Anderson Silva is not. Silva’s recent failed drug tests with the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) have set up the former middleweight champ to be made an example of in order to scare other fighters straight on doping.
A lot has changed in the last calendar year. The Nevada commission no longer allows testosterone replacement therapy. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has publicly come out against TRT and is supporting a two-year suspension for any fighter testing performance-enhancing drugs. Faced with a doping crisis in the very sport they dominate, UFC decided to jump ahead of the curve and spend a lot of money to set the right kind of example.
This is not only about cleaning up the sport from a health and safety standpoint. This is about UFC’s bottom line and preserving the credibility of the fights they promote to the masses. It’s also an issue of addressing liability concerns. The NFL has been rocked by concussion-related lawsuits from former players; UFC can’t afford to have major lawsuits from fighters attempting to link PED usage to any sort of brain trauma suffered in the cage.
UFC’s current position on cleaning up doping in MMA is far stronger than their previous positions when it comes to governmental and regulatory concerns. UFC 184 was truly the first sign of a new reality, one to which fighters had better adjust in a hurry. The days of proclaiming a therapeutic need for steroids is over. In the court of public opinion, TRT was a loser. Pressure from fans, fighters and politicians changed the industry’s direction for the better.
Once TRT was banned and out-of-competition drug testing was instituted, more and more high-profile fighters got caught. The genie was out of the bottle. Promoters could no longer run away from advanced drug testing. UFC understands this message.
Unfortunately, the greatest fighter in UFC history has boxed himself into a troubling corner. It is highly doubtful that the NAC will accept arguments from Silva’s representatives as to why the 39-year-old tested positive for multiple drugs. Given UFC’s recent embrace of a 2-year suspension for fighters who test positive, the NAC could use Silva as a test case to see how hard they can drop the hammer on a fighter for doping. It will be sad to watch, but the outcome may send a necessary message to the rest of the fighters: Times have changed when it comes to tolerance levels for doping in a legally classified ultrahazardous sport.
We’re used to athletes being steps ahead of the drug testers when it comes to doping. Advanced and out-of-competition drug testing of MMA fighters will catch more cheaters and reduce the amount of cheating. Paradoxically, it will also push cheaters to step up their doping regimens to stay ahead of the curve. It’s fair to say that a lot of the fighters who have been busted for cheating have been rather sloppy and reckless. The advancing testing protocols utilized so far have worked. Naming and shaming has also worked. Fighters shamelessly proclaiming a need for testosterone due to hypogonadism is no longer a sympathetic or politically safe position to take.
As painful and as disgraceful as the TRT era was in MMA, it led to the changes that we are witnessing today. You have to hit rock bottom before you can rise back up. Doping has become such a problem for UFC that it has unfortunately become synonymous with the sport itself. UFC had no choice but to embrace more stringent drug testing, even if they are, fairly or unfairly, paying a steep financial price while other promoters skate on taking their share of responsibility. It’s better to be seen by television networks, sponsors and business partners as part of the solution rather than as a roadblock.
Undoubtedly, there will be a price to be paid for chasing the cheaters with enhanced drug testing. There will be more canceled fights. There will be more fighters taking time off and fighting less because the temptation to use PEDs to speed up injury recovery has been reduced. Additionally, UFC faces some real legal hurdles in updating their standard contracts with fighters to include language that allows for tougher sanctions against doping. Those sanctions may very well conflict with punishments administered by various state athletic commissions. It will also create a climate where certain fighters may challenge UFC’s contracts in courts as being too one-sided and adhesive in nature.
UFC is attempting to clean up the sport from doping and help maintain some semblance of credibility. Whatever the drawbacks from that may be, the organization had no choice but to step its game up. It’s impossible to expect things to change completely on a hard deadline like July 1 -- when the new UFC drug-testing policy will take effect -- but change is inevitable, and it’s simply the right thing to embrace in 2015.
Zach Arnold is the founder of FightOpinion.com and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com. Read his entire archive here.