Opinion: Pedestals and PEDs

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

I’m past the point of being surprised by PED busts in MMA. At this point, it seems that most of the sport’s heroes have at the very least dabbled with performance enhancers, and with the newly implemented random United States Anti-Doping Agency drug tests, I’d bet that only the staunchest clean-sport advocates have abstained; or to quote Nate Diaz: “They’re all on steroids.”

The problem is that random tests and stiffer penalties are not always effective deterrents. To those fighters who were on the fence about PEDs, perhaps they were dissuaded. However, the fighters who had built -- or at least felt they had built -- successful careers on a foundation of extralegal assistance, such impositions are only motivations to become smarter about cheating, including taking smarter legal precautions when necessary. If behavior management were as simple as “punish more and punish harder,” school classrooms and city streets would be a whole lot different.

On the one hand, commissions need a sacrificial lamb, a decaying corpse of a career to execute and put on display in front of the crowds to scare the rest of the townsfolk straight. On the other hand, efforts to find such examples have been elusive at best and counterproductive at worst. Nick Diaz was supposed to be the poster child for the Nevada Athletic Commission’s “this is your fight career on drugs” commercial, but he ended up becoming a martyr and cult hero. Indeed, bringing the hammer down always runs the risk of painting the nail as an object of sympathy while vilifying the hammer. Then there are situations like Yoel Romero’s. His positive drug test elicited more rolled eyes than agape mouths, yet he successfully whittled down his sentence from two years to six months after an investigation concluded that he ingested tainted supplements.

The lessons to be learned from these situations do not include “do not take drugs.” Rather, they are blueprints for saving face if you ever get caught. When in doubt, make the commission hearing a complete joke, and sooner than later people will forget about it as they tune in for your next fight. Whether it’s tainted supplements or mystery male enhancement, there always seems to be a reason.

Tainted supplements, by the way, are an unfortunately legitimate alibi -- unfortunate in the sense that there are athletes unknowingly consuming legacy-tainting products but also unfortunate because it gives guilty parties an easy out. In the words of Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance: “You can literally have 99 bottles of a supplement that are good to go and would have in it what it says on the label, but that [100th] bottle is tainted or contaminated with something.”

Longtime Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight and former titleholder Frank Mir is the latest to have his world thrown into upheaval as the result of a positive drug test. Although he had an exemption for Testosterone Replacement Therapy when it was allowed, he had never failed a drug test in his 15-year UFC career until now. Mir took to his podcast to explain his side of the story. While you have to respect his willingness to put all his dirty laundry in open air -- from training camp injuries to body image self-esteem issues -- it was painful to hear his befuddled theorizing and empty explanations which essentially boiled down to a shoulder shrug. He did not take the Anderson Silva approach or the tainted supplement angle, instead offering a complete lack of any viable way the metabolite ended up in his body. As anyone who has ever tried to get away with something understands, the “I don’t know” defense never holds up.

The problem: By offering zero explanation as to the source of the metabolites, except for “maybe it was kangaroo or crocodile meat,” he sounds utterly unconvincing. Most of the 65-minute podcast was spent going through mental gymnastics as to why it simply didn’t make sense for him to take PEDs.

First, he used the calendar as his defense, claiming that a simple Google search would tell him that the metabolite in his body is from a PED that lasts in your system for six weeks; and since he had a clean test in February, the window to take it and get away with it was so narrow that he couldn’t possibly have taken it and expected to get away with it.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate. That narrow window justification doesn’t help his case, since he did, in fact, test positive, which debunks the entire scenario; it’s absolutely right that, if the substance was out of his system in six weeks, he wouldn’t have popped -- but he did, so what’s the point? Not only that, this assumes that he wouldn’t have tried to flush it out of his system or use some sort of masking agent to hide it. Perhaps he was just unsuccessful or he incorrectly calculated how much time he had.

His response on the podcast was more or less, “Surely I’m not that stupid to try and get away with it,” to which the good skeptic would simply reply, “Clearly you are, since you didn’t get away with it.”

He then noted that there was no financial reason to do it, since his fight purse is a flat rate without any win bonus. I guess that makes sense, if we are to assume the implicit admission that Mir does not have a competitive drive to win. Aside from that, his argument is also hurting because he tested positive for a substance that, although it has yet to be officially announced, was said on the podcast to improve, among other things, recovery. At 36 years of age, with nearly 30 fights and a decade and a half of professional competition under his belt, Mir is no spring chicken, so his ability to cash in on his athletic career is an ever-shrinking opportunity. It is clever rhetoric to focus on the individual fight to discredit any possible motives, but the macro picture of his career offers plenty of reason to artificially enhance performance.

Yet in spite of his obviously weak defenses, hearing Mir tear up when he talked about how he had to inform his father of the positive test was genuinely moving. Either he is a truly diabolical actor trying to deceive listeners or he is earnestly and honestly frustrated and confused by this entire situation. Maybe I’m a sentimental sap, but I’ leaning towards the latter.

That brings us back to square one. If Diaz is right and everyone is on steroids, what do we make of these positive flags? In a society where accusations effectively amount to guilt, how do we un-blur the very thin line separating the cheaters from the cheated? Having watched Mir get trounced in 181 seconds in the fight in which he allegedly enhanced his performance, does it even matter, or is it simply the principle of it? If so, what’s the distinction between legal supplements that enhance performance and banned PEDs?

I’m all for cleaning up the sport in the name of fighter safety, but the efforts to do so are not without casualties. It is tempting to paint every fighter in black and white, cheater or not-cheater terms, but as is always the case, reality is more colorful and nuanced. Especially for a guy like Mir, who has overcome harrowing life situations and fought for the same promotion since forever -- a tenure that was not terribly lucrative at first -- it is important to remember the sacrifices these athletes make for our entertainment. In that light, it’s not so easy to discredit an entire career and yell, “Cheater!”

Maybe the more USADA tightens its fists, the more sand will slip through its fingers. Or maybe, people should just lay off the kangaroo meat.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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