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The UFC and MMA in general is a steroid epidemic. They’ve started this really stringent testing and everybody is getting popped. They’re just getting popped left and right. It’s one of the things fighters have been saying for a long time, that everyone is on steroids, a huge percentage. Give a number 50, 60 [percent]. Whatever the fuck it is that are on steroids. The reality is, this whole steroid epidemic, one thing we have to recognize, the use of steroids is less than 100 years old. There’s always been substances that people have taken, but the actual use of anabolic steroids in human beings is relatively recent in human history. I think as time goes on, they’re going to create more powerful and crazier shit and it’s going to get to the point where you’re going to test negative because you’re not on it anymore but your body will forever be changed.
– Joe Rogan on steroids in MMA
About 4 years ago, I finally accepted that I was never going to become a professional fighter. I had toyed with the idea of doing either boxing or MMA in my early 20’s, and continued thinking about it until I hit 29. I trained with some pretty skilled athletes and was able to hold my own, giving me confidence that I could do OK if I took the plunge. A mixture of injuries and other career endeavors always seemed to interfere, but as I neared my 30’s I figured it could be worth getting serious about given athletes are regarded as old once they hit 35. I wasn’t interested in becoming a world champion, I just wanted to see if I had what it took.
However, when a friend of mine who I regularly boxed with started testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), I quickly decided that the fight game was something I wanted nothing to do with. Almost overnight, he became significantly stronger, faster, and better able to take punches. My friend was doing absolutely nothing wrong – he was prescribed it by a doctor, and was competing in amateur tournaments (where in most states, no one gets tested for anything anyway). But the advantage he had over someone not using was alarming. He could train longer and harder that non-users, and could recover faster. If it was that easy to increase his performance with relatively inexpensive synthetic testosterone, then what were the real pros doing? With rapid advances in sports medicine, I dreaded to think what could be going on at the top levels of professional fighting.
Over the past week, the world of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has been rocked to its core by the revelation that Anderson Silva, widely recognized as the greatest Martial Artist in history, had tested positive for Drostanolone and Adrostane metabolites before his fight with Nick Diaz on January 31st this year. Inexplicably, the test was not made public before the fight, and Silva went to battle having failed a test that should have scuppered the bout.
It should be noted that Silva, who is 39 and was coming back from a horrific leg break last year, had never failed a drugs test in his length career. Silva has denied any wrong doing, and an investigation is underway, but it does not look good.
Assuming Silva’s test result is correct, why would an athlete of his stature take such a stupid risk?
While there is obviously a great deal of personal culpability when it comes to the individual athlete, the public and the industries surrounding professional sports are also responsible for the ever increasing pervasiveness of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
The injuries you sustain from training to get to a professional level, particularly in fighting, takes an extreme toll on your body. Not only do you have to learn the technical aspects of the game – which in itself can take decades to master – but you need an elite level of strength and cardio to compete at the highest level. If you’re not up at 5am in the morning doing running, then back in the gym later in the day to do your actual training 5-6 days a week, then you don’t stand a chance of competing seriously. You need to eat properly, go to bed early, refrain from alcohol or recreational drugs and put your body through torture in order to get the best out of it on fight night. At one point in my early 20’s, I was putting in around the same hours as a pro, and my body kept falling apart. I still wince at the pain I remember feeling trying to haul myself out of bed the day after intensive sparring sessions. I’d have swollen joints, tons of nagging muscle pain, torn ligaments, fatigue, and most likely lowered hormone levels due to overtraining. As I got older, I could see why pro athletes would at least consider taking something to make that pain go away, particularly given it was their livelihood on the line.
Professional sports require athletes to perform at their absolute best for as many years as possible. As sports science improves, athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before and the public loves it. We want superhuman feats on demand, and we won’t pay for anything less.
The UFC is the epitome of sports entertainment – two fighter locked in a cage using every fighting technique available to subdue their opponent. Fighters are given bonuses for dramatic knockouts, spectacular submissions, and aggression. The UFC wants fighters to lay it all on the line in order to provide the ultimate spectacle for paying customers. This is all well and good – they’ve built one of the fastest growing sports in the world and have completely revolutionized the Martial Arts. But the flip side is the enormous pressure on the athletes to perform to their maximum capabilities. If you don’t have an aggressive style, lose more than three fights in a row, or start to look bad when performing, the UFC will cut you faster than Usain Bolt leaves his sprinting blocks.
So what do you do as a professional athlete entering your twilight years with numerous nagging injuries, no post fighting career prospects, and a contract to fight an incredibly dangerous opponent? How do you get through the brutality of an 8 week training camp and do what is necessary to perform at an elite level and not get embarrassed in front of millions of paying spectators? If you need to train with broken bones, ruptured muscles and torn ligaments, what options do you have?
I’m not saying I would cheat, but can’t say I wouldn’t be tempted.
The world of professional fighting is in a deep crisis right now, particularly given the more rigorous testing athletes are now being subjected to. We’re seeing evidence of more and more fighters who are taking illegal substances to boost their performances, and it is an absolute certainty that there will be many more to come. Speaking to Ariel Helwani on ‘The MMA Hour’, the recently retired George St Pierre said:
“I’m not surprised so many guys have gotten busted. [There are] going to be other names coming up. If they keep doing the right testing, [there are] going to be other guys coming up [positive]. I believe this is the tip of the iceberg. A lot of fighters are going to be caught.”
St Pierre has refused to come back to the world of professional fighting until there is Olympic style, third party testing of all fighters, and it’s hard to blame him.
“People need to realize that is a weapon and they’re bringing a weapon into the cage and they’re making our sport unsafe,” UFC fighter Ronda Rousey told Yahoo Sports. “The day that a person dies in that Octagon and the person who killed them tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs, we’re going to have our first homicide case. It’s going to destroy the whole sport.”
While proper testing will certainly help clean up the sport, as former steroid distributor and founder of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) lab Victor Conte has asserted on numerous occasions, it is still relatively easy to work around even the most stringent of testing procedures. As the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way – and as long as the public wants to watch extreme athletes every day of the week, performance enhancing drugs in sports are here to stay.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.