Time To Take A Stand Against PEDS

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There is something very wrong with our sport.

We’ve all known it for a while but by and large we’ve taken each failed PED test as an isolated incident, shaken our heads about cheats and tried not to think too hard about it.

We can’t do that anymore. With Jon Fitch, Hector Lombard and most shockingly of all… Anderson Silva, the Greatest of All Time failing drug tests, it’s clear that cheating is endemic in MMA and the sport as a whole has to do something drastic about it now, or else risk it’s very future.

It’s clear that we can’t rely on all the promotions to do it because drug testing is expensive and can cost you your star attraction, both of which can sink a lesser company. We can’t rely on the many governing bodies to do it, because as we’ve seen so often, they are directly beholden to the promotions for their funding and you don’t bite the hand that feeds.

So, is an international governing body the answer?

No. For one thing, such a body would be almost impossible to create in a meaningful fashion. For another, it’s been shown that international governing bodies tend to be far from corruption and bias free (yes FIFA and the IOC, I’m looking at you.)

In a sport which is dominated by one brand, it falls to the UFC to put their money where their mouth is and take a stand. They need to institute a broad ranging, transparent, out-of-competition testing regime, probably using one of the major independent anti-doping organisations like VADA or WADA where their fighters can be tested at any time.

These test results would be released to UFC officials and the public simultaneously, with set punishments for each drug infraction. A failure for PEDS should result in a ban of no less than a year and immediate stripping of any titles, while a failure for other drugs like painkillers or recreational drugs should receive a lesser, if still considerable penalty which includes mandatory rehabilitation treatment.

If the UFC – as the highest paying, most prestigious organization in the world – makes a stand against cheating, that you will be caught and your career will suffer considerable harm, then the use of performance enhancing drugs in the sport will diminish and at the very least, the sport will be seen to at least be trying to self police and keep itself clean.

Fighters with aspirations of UFC careers will be discouraged from juicing and promotion seeking to emulate the banner-brand’s sheen of respectability will follow suit insofar as they can.

If the UFC’s announcement today is anything less than something this far reaching, then the prospects for the sport as a whole are not pleasant.

MMA needs to be seen to be a clean, fair sport in order to maintain (let alone increase) it’s tenuous hold on mainstream acceptance. Any shirking from the contest ahead, against the sport’s inner demons could spell the end for MMA as a legitimate sport.

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Drugs – Zero Tolerance

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I’ve been hammering away on this subject all week, but I think this needs saying. I feel that as sport and as a community, mixed martial arts needs to adopt a proactive, zero tolerance approach towards drugs. All drugs. Performance enhancers and recreational drugs together. Testing must be made more watertight (random, out of competition) and punishments must be standardised.

The notion that recreational drugs shouldn’t be punished as they are not performance enhancing is wrong headed, but so is the concept that performance enhancers are OK so long as you’ve got a doctors note and/or compete somewhere that the oversight isn’t as testing.

Every time someone gets banned for testing positive for weed, I see a million campaigners filling up the forums and Twitter bemoaning that marijuana shouldn’t be illegal anyway, isn’t a performance enhancer and that it’s just unfair that one of them gets punished for having a fly smoke.

I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall when I say this, but whatever medicinal effects weed has, it also has negative effects which are more observable in the bulk of users.

Oh, yeah and it’s mostly illegal all over the western world. Small detail, but pertinent.

(Edit due to fair point in comments.)

As a sport which struggles with its public relations image all the time, mixed martial arts cannot be seen to endorse or accept any forms of deviant drug use. In order to validate its position as a positive sport and healthy lifestyle it needs to distance itself from controversial and illegal practises.

This includes smoking dope. It doesn’t matter that ‘everyone does it’, or ‘it’s maybe a cure for cancer’, ‘I’ve got a doctors line for it to keep me chilled out’ or that ‘hemp is a wonder textile with many many uses’ – its still a habit forming, psychologically harmful substance, frowned upon by mainstream society that (thanks to current trends in government regulation) tends to fund organised crime.

Yeah, the UFC need to be more accepting of that…

At the same time, the TRT issue needs addressed. Allowing fighters to inject steroids isn’t cool. It’s just not right. The argument basically boils down to ‘I need steroids because my testosterone is low’ which in effect handicaps ‘clean’ fighters who have to live with their inbuilt reserves of testosterone and don’t benefit from the muscle growth and recovery time advantages of TRT.

Given that there is a strong suggestion that reduced testosterone that GETS you a TRT exemption can be caused by prior illegal steroid use that didn’t come with a doctor’s note and the idea of rewarding cheats and effectively punishing fighters who do it right gains ever more weight.

The bottom line is this – MMA needs to be clean. It needs to be about skills and training facing off in the cage. It needs to be about heart. It needs to be a beacon for martial arts as a positive, healthy lifestyle. Being in any way permissive of recreational or sports advantage drugs isn’t going to move the sport forward, and that’s what we all really want, right?

The Dope Show

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I wake up today to news that yet another UFC fighter (Pat Healy) has failed a test for marijuana use, had a big win reduced to a no contest and lost over $130’000 in win bonuses.

That’s really sad, but also a little dumbfounding that a professional athlete would indulge in a substance which is a) specifically banned under the rules of the sport and b) has well established negative effects.

What’s even sadder is the inevitable blowing up of my Twitter feed with folks saying that dope shouldn’t be banned, it’s not a performance enhancer and advocating all sorts of things, such as the idea cannabis is actually good for you etc.

Now, I’m no starch collared conservative regarding drugs – I’m very much of the belief that all drugs should be legalised for personal use and the net benefit to society of reducing the power of organised crime, increasing the tax base and putting one tenth the resources into education and treatment that we currently put into the ‘war on drugs’, would be significant.

However, it remains that as a currently, largely illegal drug – marijuana IS banned in MMA and fighters will risk bans, having results overturned and fines if they get caught having used it.

Why a pro fighter would use marijuana eludes me – its not like your average stoner is the fittest, most focused individual on the planet. If nothing else, can you imagine being stoned while sparring? Getting the munches during a weight cut? Sounds like great fun to me.

Checking up on the many effects of marijunan – I notice a few interesting facts, which back up things I’ve noticed in friends who are heavy stoners (I play guitar in rock bands, this stuff isn’t exactly alien to me.)

Firstly, the psychological effects of addiction (and marijuana IS psychologically addictive) include paranoia, aggression, anxiety and other things which can surely not be good for someone who’s daily routine involves getting beaten up.

Dope causes laxity, a tendency to procrastinate and prioritise towards getting your dope and having your smoke, over all other things. Have you ever gotten between a stoner and his dope, questioned their need to spend their rent money on a bag of herb? The reaction is often very aggressive.

See Nick Diaz and Matt Riddle. Aren’t they just the LOVELIEST boys?

Secondly is a little footnote that says “Heavy marijuana use lowers men’s testosterone levels and sperm count and quality. Pot could decrease libido and fertility in some heavy-smoking men.”

Hmn, a ‘recreational’ drug that lowers testosterone. In a climate where steroid use and TRT is increasingly becoming a huge issue in MMA, the fact that top level professionals are being found to be partaking of a drug that could hide the effects of such, more intensely banned substances is… interesting.
The bottom line is this. I believe you should be legally allowed to take whatever you like, it’s your body after all. However if your profession states that a certain substance, or practise is banned then its pretty incumbent on you to NOT DO IT.

Furthermore, please don’t be sidetracked by the chorus of folks telling you that dope is good for you, has no harmful side effects etc. Chances are, every single one of them is a heavy stoner who is looking for a justification for their habit.

To his eternal credit, Pat Healy has come out with quite possibly the best fighter statement I’ve ever heard in such a situation.

“I would like to start off by apologizing to the UFC, Jim Miller, the MMA community, its fans, my family, teammates and coaches for my positive testing for marijuana after my UFC 159 fight with Jim Miller,” he stated. “I was fully aware of the UFC and state commission’s drug policies and made poor life choices.

“I stand behind the UFC and state commission’s disciplinary actions. I support efforts to make MMA (and sports) a clean, safe and fair place to compete.

“I made a very poor choice to socially use marijuana and now I must face the consequences of that choice. I can assure you that I will do everything the UFC and state commission asks of me and beyond. I will make a conscious effort to be a better role model within the MMA community.”

He takes responsibility, admits to having done wrong and makes no excuses, no weak assertions that dope isn’t a PED or he needs it to regulate his temper. He broke the rules, he apologised and will take his lumps.

Well done Pat, for responding like an adult and a man, you’ve actually gone up in my estimation. Lets hope the apologists take note.

TRT: A Tale of Cheats, and Growing Old

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It’s a bewildering alphabet soup of technical terms, from TRT (Testosterone Replacement Therapy) to TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) to NSAC (Nevada State Athletic Comission) and the UFC’s (do I really need to explain that one) attitude to either, but it’s one of the biggest issues in modern MMA.

Lets break it down to what it means to almost everyone outside the goldfish bowl of MMA and its bizarrely fractured set of authorities and moral standards.

Steroids.

That’s right, call it what you like but TRT basically amounts to the same thing athletes have been illegally imbibing to increase muscle mass and speed recovery for the longest time.

Of course, it’s not quite as clear cut as that, because in order to get a therapeutic use exemption for TRT, you need to be diagnosed as suffering from low testosterone – which occurs naturally as you age, but is of exceptional disadvantage to athletes who’s strength, ability to train harder, for longer and recover from injury or tiredness quicker – all things that’s testosterone helps you with – is paramount.

Surely then, it’s fair enough for fighters who have been diagnosed as having low testosterone to be allowed to bring those levels back up to a level equal with younger athletes?

Well, no… for a few reasons.

For one thing, a reason that you might have low testosterone is because you abused performance enhancing drugs in the past. When you look at many of the fighters who take TRT, the proportion of them who have either been busted for drug use or spent a significant part of their career competing in an area with notoriously spotty drugs tests (Japan) is rather high.

Is it right that someone who has cheated in the past, diminishing their natural ability to produce testosterone, then gets a pass to artificially keep their levels at around (or above) those of clean athletes?

For another thing, testosterone declines naturally with age, just like almost all of a fighter’s other physical gifts. As you get older, your strength, cardio, speed, reactions, flexibility etc. all fall away.

Professional sport is almost never a lengthy career. Football and rugby players who compete at the top level into their late thirties or beyond are exceedingly rare, and they invariably have younger teammates to do their running while they bring their experience to the team.

MMA lacks that safety valve of a younger pair of legs to take the ball while you get your breath back. A fighter comes into the ring as a whole package of physical and mental gifts. That is one of the things that makes MMA special. Two competitors enter, as whole and complete packages with no substitutions and only the most tangential influence from their corner. Having one guy enter with an asterisk next to his name, indicating that he has been allowed to use a substance that the other man would receive a ban for using is just plain WRONG.

With that in mind, is it right that a fighter who’s abilities are on the wane should be able to extend their career by gaining an artificial chemical advantage/parity with their younger opponents?

My answer to both questions is… No.

Cheats shouldn’t prosper and older fighters may well be best advised that if they can’t keep up, then maybe it’s time to embrace their future as a coach or explore other career avenues. The retirement age for MMA is NOT in your 60s… (We’ll come back to this thought over the next wee while…)

For all that I can sympathise with those athletes who genuinely want to use TRT to stay on a level playing field due to illness, it’s become a gray area, a loophole by which the true quality of MMA fighters is being distorted by the widespread and excessive use of drugs which are blankety prohibited across most of sport.

The cost is too high.

I implore all MMA promoters and governing bodies throughout the world, please ban TRT for fighters and implement random drug tests. Clean the sport up, and keep it special.

I Don’t Like The Drugs

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I woke up this morning to the news that Matthew Riddle had failed another drugs test and had been cut from the UFC. This was followed by the usual tirade from stoner apologists that he had a pass for weed, that marijuana isn’t a performance enhancer etc. and a mass pointing out that fighters are allowed TRT (which IS undoubtedly performance enhancing) with a doctor’s line and the likes of Alistair Overeem and Thiago Silva have survived failed steroid tests without being cut.

There seems to be a double standard here.

First up, let me state my personal belief that all illegal drugs should be legalised as what you put in your own body is your own damn lookout, never mind that prohibition doesn’t work, adds a serious burden onto the state and a cash flow to organised crime.

Legalising pot, speed, whatever and taxing it, in the same way we tax booze and cigarettes would create a serious revenue stream for the state, standardise what you’re getting (no more kids dying from taking washing up powder, sold to them as a pep pill etc.) and generally minimise the negative social and economic impact of drugs if done in step with better education and healthcare, devoid of criminalised stigma.

That’s just my view.

However, it remains true that what is OK for private citizen Smith, is not necessarily cool for a professional athlete, who’s professional life is bound by a code of conduct designed to encourage fair play, safety and avoid embarrassing public relations nightmares for the sport/promotion.

Marijuana is banned in MMA, not because its a performance enhancer, but because going into the cage baked would jeopardise YOUR safety and also because a criminal conviction for possession would be damaging to the sport’s wider profile. Them’s the rules, deal with it.

I have to say, I get really annoyed when I read about cannabis being touted as a miracle cure for things, having no adverse health effects and generally being useful in making fuel, bags, cooking oil etc. The cure thing may be true, the no bad side effects is a damn lie and the other stuff definitely is true, but I’d have a lot more respect for stoners who just admitted they want to get baked rather than trying to make their 4:20 into something morally righteous.

So, I only have passing sympathy for Matt Riddle here, based more in the fact that other, bigger name fighters have failed similar tests and not been cut – look at Nick Diaz, who failed the same test, was suspended for a year and walks back into a title shot… – than anything else.

Likewise, while pot is banned for your own safety and the good of the sport, there are other drugs out there which are performance enhancing and a danger to both fighter’s safety and the name of the sport. What’s worse, is that their use is often prescribed by doctors and allowed by such governing bodies as exist.
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Yep, I’m talking about TRT.

Now, I’m no medical professional but from my understanding TRT is used by ageing athletes to restore testosterone levels which fall naturally over time, to their peak levels.

That in itself is a little worrying as a forty year old athlete with all the zip and go of a twenty year old athlete, just isn’t natural and surely has further implications for the older athlete – such as exacerbating heart or liver trouble.

When you consider that testosterone can be depleted by the illegal use of steroids in younger years, then it’s more than a tad hypocritical that fighters who may have been cheating their way to success through their twenties and thirties are allowed to offset the long term cost of that (to their careers at least) by taking what amounts to legal steroids when they are older. How is that fair?

The fact that TRT can and according to the prevailing wisdom IS being used in excess as a performance enhancer – allowing athletes to recover faster from injuries, to train harder and longer etc. – before being cycled down in time to narrowly pass fight weekend drugs screenings is very concerning for the credibility of the sport.

In my view, drugs have no place in professional sport. Contests should be won and lost on your natural gifts, mental strength and the quality of your training, rather than the ingenuousness of your doctor.

In an ideal world, I’d see every MMA fighter registered with a gym and each gym gets randomly hit with drugs screenings on a regular basis. This might require a proper world governing body, but then maybe that is what MMA needs.

I don’t like the drugs. I don’t like the idea that fights are in any way influenced by such things. Much as I might sympathise with Matt Riddle and his being cut (albeit for a second successive failed test) for a drug which is not a performance enhancer, the rules need to be respected and enforced. That needs to count exponentially more for those substances which are in all likelihood being abused in the name of cheating. It also needs to count for bankable stars like Overeem, Sonnen and Diaz as much as it does for undercard fighters.

If that makes Matt’s cut for a chilling toke the thin end of a very thick wedge, then so be it.

I like my sport clean, and fair and believe that MMA as a whole should have a zero tolerance policy towards drugs.