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Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones have been engaging in a war of words for the better part of a decade, so it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise when “DC” re-engaged his archrival this week. It’s easy to imagine them arguing about UFC 214 over a couple cups of pea soup in the year 2060. The topic this time was Jones’ eligibility for the status of Greatest of All-Time. Cormier’s argument wasn’t that Jones is or isn’t at that level but rather that the fact he has failed drug tests in the past means he simply shouldn’t be considered in the discussion.
While Cormier certainly has reasons to be viewed as something less than a completely impartial actor in the conversation, the argument he makes is not unique to him. In fact, it’s an argument that has been made in different sports over the years. In MMA, the names that most often have come up in the GOAT conversation over the years are Jones, Fedor Emelianenko, Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva. Cormier and Demetrious Johnson also will come up in the discussion, and more recently, Khabib Nurmagomedov has been added to the mix. Before Jones, some argued Silva shouldn’t be in the discussion because of his drug test failures in 2015.
Before this line of discussion came up in MMA, it was a topic in baseball. Baseball writers, conflicted about the records broken by the likes of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, responded by refusing to consider those proven to have used steroids for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Of course, most of those players were caught because of heightened scrutiny surrounding them as the biggest stars and best players in the game. Meanwhile, lesser players who showed all the same signs of steroid usage—expanding arms, expanding heads, expanding stat lines—made the hall of fame, benefitting from the fact they weren’t under the same scrutiny because they weren’t as good as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
Baseball writers’ disqualification of players for PED use stemmed largely from something that doesn’t apply to MMA: baseball’s status as a sport of statistics. Baseball’s hallowed records are such a major part of the sport’s history, something that ties together all the eras of the game. When players used PEDs and broke records, to many of the keepers of the game, it ruined those stats. Those players’ punishment was less a principled stand on cheating—plenty of spitball pitchers were let in, after all—and more a punitive measure directed at the players who ruined the game’s sacred numbers.
MMA doesn’t have the same reliance on records and numbers as baseball. It’s much more subjective. We evaluate the best based on a subjective evaluation of the level of competition they fought and a subjective measure of how impressive their victories were. There’s no neat way to differentiate numerically, like WAR or PER. Thus, when comparing fighters, we are naturally going to take into account information like the fact someone was caught using PEDs or certainly appeared to be using PEDs. It’s hard to imagine anyone finding that irrelevant; the question is simply how much it is weighed compared to the fighter’s other strengths and negatives.
When you have neat stat lines to compare, the notion of throwing someone out of a comparison for having an unfair advantage becomes more tempting. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem fair to compare the raw numbers. In MMA, raw numbers aren’t being compared in the first place. Thus, a strong case needs to be made in order to justify not simply taking into account drug test failures but instead concluding one factor is so crucial that all other considerations should be thrown out the window. That cut-or-dry approach doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons.
Centrally, drug usage in MMA is a messy, unclear realm. Different fighters from different generations have played under wildly disparate rules. Pride Fighting Championships not only allowed but in some ways subtly encouraged drug use. We know that many Pride fighters were much bigger in Pride than they were when they fought elsewhere. Other fighters were likely clean and disadvantaged when they competed against the users. It’s unfair to punish fighters that came along later and used less and to give a pass to fighters that came along earlier and may well have used much more.
Beyond the no drug test era, there was also the pre- and post-USADA periods in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Beforehand, UFC fighters were tested through the state athletic commissions, but they knew when the tests were coming, so it was much easier to use banned substances. USADA’s year-round drug testing made it much harder, and there were a number of examples of fighters whose performances greatly declined once USADA testing was implemented. A fighter who failed a test pre-USADA, a fighter who failed a test post-USADA, a fighter who never failed a test fighting pre-USADA and a fighter who never failed a test post-USADA are in four distinct positions and are best evaluated individually rather than put in one of two boxes.
The notion of an unfair advantage in fighting is also not as clean of a distinction as it might seem. For example, some fighters historically have been known for pawing at opponents with their open hands and then capitalizing on incidental eye pokes to secure technical knockouts. In Japan, referees would give some fighters longer leashes than others when it came to stoppages and would give star fighters advance notice about opponents before then calling the opponents on short notice. There was the TRT era where fighters were allowed to take testosterone within the rules.
Testing has also gotten more ambiguous over time. As drug tests are able to capture smaller and smaller amounts of prohibited substances, it becomes less clear when someone might have intentionally taken that substance. We’ve seen USADA incorporate that ambiguity into their handling of failures over time. In the future, we might see an all-time great fail a test based on a miniscule trace amount of a substance where it’s exceedingly difficult to know if it was knowingly taken or not. In that instance, it seems fairer to incorporate that information into a holistic evaluation rather than disqualifying that fighter from consideration for GOAT status.
Cormier’s position comes from an understandable place. It has to be maddening to feel that your greatest rival might have beaten you only because he had an unfair advantage. That doesn’t make his conclusion the correct one. By all means, take into account any failed drug tests in considering who best merits being called the GOAT. It should not, however, be an unforgiving disqualifying factor.
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