“Steroids” have become a catch-all term for a lot of different infractions in professional sports as of late. Whether the term itself is used correctly or incorrectly, there is an overall common theme that it is associated with – athletes giving themselves an unfair advantage over their competitors.
MMA and steroids have been synonymous with one another since near inception of the sport. I look at MMA and I look at other professional sports, and in no other sport have I seen so many of the elite caught using banned substances, from the lowest fighter to the sport’s elite there have been many who have seen their star fall (sometimes before it had a chance to rise): Royce Gracie, Alistair Overeem, Nate Marquardt, Vitor Belfot, Chael Sonnen, the list goes on and on.
The steroid debate in the UFC specifically was re-ignited more recently when UFC 153 headliners, Stephan Bonnar and Dave Herman both tested positive for banned substances. Bonnar tested positive for anabolic steroids, whereas Herman tested positive traces of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) in his urine. In my personal opinion Bonnar was the more detrimental offender in this case, as he actually had the mens rea that he was going to cheat. There have not been any cases to-date where it has been proven that marijuana improves a fighters performance (Herman lost his fight, Nick Diaz who was also recently busted for the same infraction lost his fight as well) – someone just liked to party a little too much!
Why so many of MMA’s elite have fallen? Is it because, MMA fighters use steroids more than other athletes in other professional sports? The answer is an unequivocal: no.
The reason that so many MMA fighters are caught is that, unlike most other professional sports, the UFC (and other professional fight organizations) test their fighter for banned substances both before fights and after their fight. The testing rigour that professional fighters are put through is above beyond what most other athletes face. It’s one of the reasons that I can respect professional fighters and the talent and endurance that they have relative to other sports.
Since the fall-out of the steroids controversy in baseball, most specifically related to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, many fans of sport have had a hard time believing that any record that is being set today is based on true athletic ability. Is it fair to compare what Barry Bonds did versus Hank Aaron? In MMA we have a true control cell in which to a compare fighter of yore versus those of today. Because of the sports relative infancy a lot of more modern approaches to screening for banned substances have been in place a lot longer. Many of the fighters in the early day of MMA/UFC were caught for using banned substances (e.g. Josh Barnnett, Tim Sylvia, Kimo Leopoldo), in line with those of today.
What are the implications of consistent banned substance testing across MMA’s history? We know that those fighters today who are truly great, are so because of their physical talent, and not necessarily because they are using substances that were in place in years past. I look at Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones and I can tell that these fighters have a level of talent that just didn’t exist years ago. They are such dominant fighters, not because they are enhancing their physical performance, but because they look for different and innovative ways of beating their opponents. Each of the aforementioned fighters is unique in the manner in which the fight – there is a certain bravado that they have that others don’t.
Some might argue, that today’s fighters are just better at hiding their infraction, and everyone is using (a la Lance Armstrong). I am sure there are some who slip through the cracks, but I think those are few and far between than one might think.
Other professional sports could take an example from the UFC. I am not saying that every baseball player should be tested before every game – but, monthly testing isn’t necessarily something that could be completely out of the question. Until other sports organizations start to take a page out of the UFC’s, with more regular testing, we will have to continue to wonder if those we are watching are truly spectacularly talented examples of men or just another Lance Armstrong.