The Savage Truth: The PED Plague

By Greg Savage Jul 1, 2014
Chael Sonnen was shown the door by the UFC and Fox. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

Sometimes it can be fun to say, “I told you so.” This is not one of those instances.

With news Saturday that Chael Sonnen failed yet another unannounced pre-fight drug test administered by the Nevada Athletic Commission -- this one on June 5 -- it is more than apparent that doping is still a huge issue in the sport of mixed martial arts.

Even before Dennis Hallman took to the HDNet airwaves to claim that more than 50 percent of MMA fighters were using performance-enhancing drugs -- a statement he later recanted -- there were people in the know who were targeting a much higher number. I have been pretty vocal in the past that it is my belief that the number hovers much closer to 75 percent or more.

That does not necessarily mean fighters are all heading to the arena with I.V. drips and their veins coursing with PEDs, but if you add up all the guys who have at least dabbled at one point or another, the figure climbs pretty quickly.

I have had more than a few frank conversations with numerous fighters and trainers who have either admitted their use or knowledge of usage by friends and teammates. Most of the time, the doping has been explained as something they did to help heal or to allow them to continue to train through injury.

I am not sure if it is a coping mechanism or just a means of lying to themselves, but I still haven’t heard anybody admit they are just trying to gain an advantage. The closest I have heard is the excuse that they know their opponents are all using, so they use to keep the playing field level.

We have seen a number of drugs turn up in athletic commission- and Ultimate Fighting Championship-administered tests over the years, but when Sonnen was flagged for human growth hormone and erythropoietin, it was the first documented positive test for either in MMA. These are a couple of the big boys when it comes to effective PEDs. EPO, for instance, was one of the drugs at the center of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.

It may seem like some of us in the media have been beating a dead horse when it comes to PEDs, but Saturday’s news should be an eye opener for those who continue to deny the issue’s relevancy. We’ve heard time and again how these guys are the most tested athletes in the world and that because “the government” tests them everything should be copacetic.

Again, there has been a vocal minority who have questioned the efficacy of athletic commission testing because it just was not up to par. Even now, with the introduction of unannounced drug tests, it still is not near the level it needs to be at if the sport is going to be as clean as possible.

Sonnen, Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva were all subject to unannounced tests in Nevada, and all either reportedly failed or admittedly ducked out because they knew they would fail. Those are three of the more recognizable fighters on the UFC roster, and they were all apparently using or abusing banned substances.

I have been pretty hard on athletic commissions for their stance -- or lack thereof -- on PEDs, so it is only fair to give a little recognition when it is due. The NAC deserves credit for implementing the unannounced testing program under Keith Kizer and now continuing it under new executive director Bob Bennett. The results speak for themselves.

What they also speak to is the rampant nature of drugs in MMA and the idea that there is so much more that needs to be done. I have spoken to a couple other commission heads, and I think the success Nevada has had will be a spur that kicks some of these other jurisdictions into motion. That would be a welcomed start.

Another positive move would be to see the UFC continue to say the right things when it comes to PED usage and testing and start to do more in the way of its own testing. After listening to UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner at the UFC Fight Night “Swanson vs. Stephens” post-fight press conference -- this according to quotes attributed to him by and -- I think we may just see that.

“What concerns me is everything, all fighters,” Ratner said. “I think we’re going to do more testing. We want to clean up the sport.

“I think that all these kind of positive drug tests, really, it’s gotta scare all these fighters,” he added. “They’ve gotta learn to make the sport clean, and that’s our goal, is to have a level playing field. That’s certainly my goal.”

The UFC could go a long way in showing it is interested in “cleaning up the sport” with how it handles the Sonnen, Silva and Belfort situations.

Sonnen needs to -- and has said he plans to -- cooperate with the commission and answer any and all pertinent questions regarding his usage of banned substances. He was shown the door by Fox and the UFC on Monday, just as he should have been.

As for Silva, if UFC President Dana White’s remarks regarding the fallen legend are any kind of bellwether, we are probably not going to be seeing him in the Octagon again any time soon.

Things get tricky with Belfort. Would the company promote him in another jurisdiction or country before he goes before the Nevada commission to explain his positive test in February for elevated testosterone levels? Not if the promotion is serious about “cleaning up the sport.” Belfort absolutely deserves the right to explain himself to the commission, but that needs to happen before he makes his way back into competition.

It is not an enviable position to be in as a promoter, but it is time we all got serious about what it means to “clean up the sport” and to have its best interests in mind.

Greg Savage is the Executive Editor of and can be reached via @TheSavageTruth on Twitter.


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