So, About Those Steroids…

By Jake Rossen Jul 24, 2007
Tumultuous times for the barely-potty-trained sport of MMA: in a first of its kind, two UFC main event fighters have tested positive for unpronounceable pharmaceuticals. Weeks ago, a living legend with the physique of Mahatma Gandhi was caught with the needle.

And just like that, cozy personality profiles and event results have been replaced with lurid headlines and defamatory comments, the community so self-loathing that it's been reduced to volleys of name-calling and finger-pointing.

I debated not adding to the pile, but to neglect the issue consuming the industry seems a little disingenuous. (That and the cable bill won't pay itself.)

The problem has been so often displayed on news sites that I don't want to bore you with regurgitated details. The Cliff's Notes version: athletes are doing drugs to perform better at their job and feed their families.

Shocking, I know.

Anabolic steroids have an utterly demonic origin: German scientists picked up on research that was initiated in the 1930s, synthesizing natural hormones and injecting concentration camp unfortunates to prevent muscle wasting. If you believe William Taylor, author of Macho Medicine, Adolf Hitler demanded his physician supply him with anabolics to perpetuate that whole superiority thing.

Hitler's eventual defeat did little to stifle the continuing promise that these lab-manufactured hormones promised, and by the 1970s, bodybuilding physiques resembled Marvel characters. By the 1980s, the Olympics were infested. And by the 1990s, we had a full-bore epidemic on our hands.

The "e" word has inevitable negative connotations, but proponents of steroid use ("not abuse," they chime) believe a responsible intake coupled with other drugs to offset some of the more unpleasant side effects should be no one's business but their own.

Even if athletes are free to ignore the physical repercussions of turning into a walking chemical plant, athletic commissions are interested in providing a level playing field. Artificial assistance is, as the Germans might say, verboten.

Never mind the fact that the playing field will never be level, that highly-paid fighters can afford expensive training camps and partners, the latest and greatest in barely-legal supplements, and the best doctors and chiropractors money can buy.

Never mind the fact that those aforementioned legal supplements can, in the right schematic, produce physical superiority, conceivably one that trumps your opponent's.

Never mind the fact that fighters who take diuretics (that'd be a drug) to shed 20 pounds of water weight before a fight and wind up clobbering their outsized foes with all the grace of the Hulk on uppers routinely ascend up the ladder.

"Fair" is a wildly subjective term, and in many cases, a brutally naïve goal.

Steroids, like all assists that come in pill or injectable form, cannot teach you technique. They cannot teach you strategy. They cannot teach you intestinal fortitude.

What they can do is allow the human body to withstand the unfathomable punishment incurred on a daily basis in the gym. A mixed-style athlete spends hours every day running, lifting weights, sparring, and making tenderloin out of his ligaments. If it takes any one of these guys less than ten minutes to climb out of bed in the morning, they must have one ugly wife.

How hypocritical it is, then, to demand these fighters become multi-hyphenated warriors while simultaneously condemning their methodology. Steroids do not win fights: steroids, at their most effective, allow fighters to train at an elevated level. And that training is what wins fights.

Strength, that famously common result of drug consumption, is ridiculously overvalued. I'm fairly certain Tony Fryklund (Pictures) - who I am in no way labeling as a below-board athlete - can bench press several hundred pounds more than Duane Ludwig (Pictures).

It didn't matter when they met in the cage: Ludwig smashed him. Nick Diaz (Pictures) routinely negates strength advantages in the ring. And there was that Gracie guy.

But because steroids have a scarlet letter sewn to them by the press, and because Chris Benoit will forever color perceptions of drug use in this country, it's unlikely that commissions and fans will ever accept that steroids hardly contaminate contests as much as the hysterical public thinks they do.

So the question remains what to do about them.

The current system, while admirable in its intentions, is obviously not working. Despite a rash of positive results, suspensions, and fines, athletes are still routinely melting urine sample cups.

Looking to the UFC for guidance ignores the clear conflict of interest there exists in a promotion trusted to police itself, when punishment to its talent will result in financial damage to its own bottom line. At best, the company could supplement sentences handed down by the state commissions, canceling contracts on second offenses or giving the user's purse to his opponent.

As it stands, there exists no sufficient incentive for an athlete to consider not using. Some feel they must use in order to maintain the physical demands set by their profession. A fine (in Royce Gracie (Pictures)'s case, a laughable sub-1% of his prize purse) or suspension doesn't seem to deter them. You can use steroids, hope you don't get caught, or you can not use steroids and hope the other guy does.

The only real, no-bullshit answer is a federal commission, one able to cross state lines and follow athletes into their gyms. If a fighter knows that a random test is truly random, that it could happen tomorrow or next week or next month, there would be no opportunity to perform any kind of off-cycle or chemical smokescreen.

And if the punishment were truly substantial, involving purses being withheld, revocation of wins, and multi-year suspensions for repeat offenses, you would slowly see athletes take their chances with competing clean and knowing even a loser's pay stub is better than none at all.

I don't doubt that some athletes have been wrongfully accused, either because of rigorous training efforts or contaminated legal supplements. Raising the acceptable bar for levels of substances like Nandrolone -- for which Sherk tested an unimpressive 12 ng/mL -- might eliminate any innocent parties from walking the plank.

But if a fighter tests positive prior to a marquee bout, and a suspension were handed down, pay-per-view revenues would be crippled. We wouldn't have seen the Sherk/Franca bout, or Shamrock/Baroni, or Gracie/Sakuraba. Promoters would be livid.

The message remains: we're doing everything we can to deter steroid use, but not when it'll cost us real money.

Is government mediation really necessary? It may not be hip to think so, but when an institution cannot reliably police itself, the only solution is independent regulation. (And while they're at it, they may want to tell the boxing industry to stop letting their athletes get punched in the head after a 10-count.) The sporting world is being ravaged by corruption and deceptive practices, from NBA officials shaving points off of games to golfers being accused of having track marks. It's getting Biblical.

At the guarantee of inviting criticism, I don't much care if fighters use steroids. Once the sport of MMA reached a certain level of sophistication, I couldn't point to an instance where anyone could say, "Wow, that fighter obviously won because of his Deca cycle."

If they choose to risk long-term health deterioration in exchange for harder training sessions and an ad-campaign friendly six-pack, punish them or ignore them, but don't think for a second that it makes much of a difference.

Greatness will never be sold in a bottle.

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