Ken Shamrock, Kimbo Slice, Frank Mir, Lyoto Machida, Viscardi Andrade, and Islam Makhachev have all made headlines after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in recent months (and in the case of Machida, Mir, Andrade, and Makhachev, in recent month) and one cannot help but wonder what the short and long-term implications of these failures (and those of the future, which will certainly be plentiful) are in regards to the sport of MMA as a whole, as well as its fighters and its fans, both casual and hardcore.
It’s no secret that performance-enhancing drugs have been a big part of MMA for quite a while. Drug tests have been failed in the past, numerous fighters have said it, split-second glances of certain physiques clearly hint at PED use, and the logical extension of being tossed into a cage with another highly skilled athlete looking to take one’s head off is that an edge of some sort, if available, would be very appealing to many competitors. Also, the universally ridiculed TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) policies of the (not-so-distant) past, which invited fighters with “low” testosterone levels to receive synthetic injections legally and while competing, further demonstrated the prominence of performance enhancers in MMA.
But now, as TRT is completely illegal and the UFC (and to a lesser extent, Bellator and the World Series of Fighting) has been cracking down on athletes with a plethora of random drug tests, the sport is in a bit of a chaotic period.
There’s no doubt that the new drug-testing policies are benefitting clean athletes and discouraging would-be drugs users from breaking the rules (or more directly, risking their livelihood). It goes without saying that there’s enough on the line for PED-free athletes as it is, without the worrying idea that the opponent who will try and punch, kick, and knee him or her into unconsciousness is juiced-up on some sort of illegal drug.
A clean sport greatly benefits the fighters.
And for hardcore fans, most of whom believe that performance-enhancing drugs have no place in MMA at all, these tests are likely appreciated as well (unless their favorite fighter(s) tests positive, which is a distinct possibility today).
But the effects of the sport’s transparency in the eyes of casual fans are much less clear. Certainly, some individuals who enjoy MMA only semi-regularly will appreciate the enhanced efforts of the UFC and other promotions in maintaining a clean sport. For the majority of casual fans, though—those who tune-in to only the biggest MMA fights when there’s nothing else to do or an interested friend suggests that they watch—recent headlines likely demonstrate that the sport is plagued by PED use as opposed to becoming cleaner.
This point, in coordination with the fact that these athletes are constantly being re-booked not long after their drug-test failures, certainly resonates with casual fans even more. For instance, Anderson Silva’s positive drug test following UFC 183 certainly caught the attention of some casual fans, and when these same fans saw him competing again not long after this development (and all of its subsequent headlines), there’s no doubt that they believed that he received a slap on the wrist.
And in many ways, they are correct; testing for illegal drugs is great, but if the athletes who fail a test are able to return to action not long after this failure, without any serious repercussions at the time of their next contest, what’s the point?
For instance, Kimbo Slice, who tested positive for anabolic steroids after defeating Dada 5000 at Bellator 149, has now been booked to rematch James Thompson at Bellator 158 in London. The promotion’s objective is clear: to entertain UK fans with an anticipated rematch between the big-name Slice and one of the UK’s most popular heavyweights. And while the Texas Athletic Commission’s ultra-short suspension isn’t typical (compared to the too-short, but still longer, suspensions issued by other commissions), the broader idea to take away is that Bellator must be more vigilant in appropriately responding to failures like this; this is a moral issue, not one that needs to be determined by an athletic commission.
The same can be said for the UFC, in many ways, based upon their quick reinstatement of Yoel Romero (amongst others). After his “tainted supplement” defense satisfied the USADA, Romero was issued an essentially useless six-month suspension. The man looks like an action figure at thirty-eight years of age, and most anyone can tell that his physique wasn’t achieved without some “special” assistance (this drug-test failure was proof of the point, despite the defense).
But still, he’ll re-enter the cage in just a short while.
It’s up to the UFC and Bellator to enforce not just suspensions issued by the all-powerful athletic commissions, but actual punishments for their fighters who fail drug tests, regardless of what any governing body says. Once again, the issue comes down to morality, and for as important as the recent drug tests have been, they don’t mean much if there isn’t anything to back them up; more pressingly, they damage the sport in the eyes of the general public, when a man or woman who was busted for taking an illegal supplement or drug steps back into the cage not long after the failure to try and pummel another opponent.
It’s time for the leading promotions to understand that, in addition to protecting clean fighters, they would be protecting their brand and the sport as a whole by cutting athletes who fail drug tests entirely. Right now, a very mixed message is being relayed.
This means that Kimbo Slice shouldn’t receive a co-main event slot after knocking another man out (more or less) and testing positive for an anabolic steroid, but should receive his walking papers. Yoel Romero shouldn’t be re-booked in a big fight as he will inevitably be after failing a drug test, but should be cut. Vitor Belfort shouldn’t be given a title shot after knocking out several fighters while undoubtedly hopped up on testosterone, but should be cut loose.
It’s once again great that MMA is now home to more drug tests than ever before. But if there’s little substance behind punishments issued for failed tests, the reality is that they do more harm than good—in the eyes of fans especially. It’s time for the leading promotions to step-up and starts cutting fighters entirely for failed tests, or at the very least, not booking them into high-profile fights right after they return to action.
The short-term financial implications of such actions may sting, but in the long-term, they will allow the sport to be regarded as one which doesn’t tolerate PED use, not one that simply tests for it.
To answer this piece’s headlining question: yes. Recent drug-test failures have harmed MMA’s reputation because the leading promotions are overly focused on short-term profits and divisional workings as opposed to substantial repercussions for PED use.