Former doping specialist turned anti-doping crusader Victor Conte has a potentially sobering view of mixed martial arts.
During a recent appearance on UFC broadcaster Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Conte said he estimates around half of all current MMA fighters are using some type of performance-enhancing drug.
“From total of all performance-enhancing drugs, it’s in the neighborhood of 50 percent,” Conte told Rogan.
By now, Conte’s checkered past has been well-documented. As the founder and former president of California’s Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), Conte in 2005 was convicted of conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering. Working with chemist Patrick Arnold, Conte and BALCO developed a then-undetectable steroid that provided training benefits for numerous athletes, including Olympic medalists and, allegedly and perhaps most famously, seven-time baseball MVP and all-time home run leader Barry Bonds.
But Conte revealed his company’s operations crossed paths with mixed martial arts very early in its run.
“Here’s what I was told - I don’t want to create more multi-million dollar lawsuits against me, but here’s the story that I was told - [Arnold] sold a whole bunch of [tetrahydrogestrinone, also known as ‘The Clear’], like a gallon, to Bob Sapp, K-1 fighter,” Conte said. “My understanding is this stuff was all over the NFL. I guess during this time he was out of the NFL, and there was a period of time when he played in the Canadian (Football) League before he went to Japan to do the K-1 fighting, but the point is this stuff was very widely distributed, was my understanding.”
But Conte didn’t take a direct involvement in MMA until recent times, when he began to work with a few notable combat-sports athletes, including eight-time UFC veteran Kyle Kingsbury.
With his history of prescribing and monitoring illegal doping, Conte understands some athletes are hesitant to receive his counsel. But Conte insists he’s now doing everything by the book.
“There are other top UFC fighters that do come to me and that I have tested and provided consultation for,” Conte said. “And some of these choose to keep it on the down-low.
“Some are very open and forgiving, and I greatly appreciate that opportunity. Others are just afraid of the downside, of the stigma that they’re going to think they’re on steroids. In reality, the guys that come to me and the guys that work with me are probably some of the cleanest guys out there.”
Conte said he bases his current programs on extensive testing and monitoring that he uses to “achieve an optimal balance” with his clients. Conte said he tests his athletes’ blood and uses a high-tech “memory belt” to monitor things like caloric expenditure, VO2 max, ventilation and training load.
From there, Conte said he develops a customized program for each of his clients.
“It’s not about mega-doses of anything,” Conte said. “It’s just about correcting weak links or depletions and deficiencies.”
So if the athletes he sees are clean, what makes Conte think as many as half of the sport’s athletes aren’t? Conte’s June speech at the Association of Ringside Physicians’ 2012 Annual Medical Seminar may provide an answer.
“I talk to a lot of athletes out there about who’s doing what,” Conte said in June. “They’re frank with me, partly because it’s a two-way street. Give an example: One of the top MMA training centers in Northern California that has a number of UFC fighters, and I asked the owner of the facility and the head trainer what percentage of his athletes - the 16 UFC athletes that he had - were using drugs because he was asking me to help some of his athletes, and I said, ‘Well, I can’t help athletes that are using drugs.’
“He wrote a list out. Long story short, eight out of the 16 were using performance-enhancing drugs. So, I think this is a small sample size, but I think these are all some of the top fighters in the UFC, so I think it is rampant.”
Conte did not specifically name the camp he was describing.
Conte’s speech, which was given in conjunction with Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency President Dr. Margaret Goodman, was issued as part of a series of educational seminars. While Conte is quick to point out he is not officially associated with the non-profit organization VADA, he does openly and frequently endorse the company’s programs rather than suggesting combat sports such as MMA to rely solely on the overseeing athletic commissions.
“You need a certain standardization,” Conte said. “The level of testing [the commissions] provide is an absolute joke.”
Conte, who has in recent months taken to Twitter to encourage MMA fighters such as B.J. Penn, Rory MacDonald, Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson to work with VADA and enlist in additional, voluntary pre-fight drug testing, believes the solution to catching cheaters involves the testing of both blood and urine, as well as the hormone Erythropoietin (EPO).
“State commissions don’t test for [EPO],” Conte said. “That’s my big argument about what these state commissions are doing is that they don’t test for EPO. They don’t test for growth hormone. They don’t test for synthetic testosterone. When you say, ‘Wow, these guys are getting busted all the time,’ could you imagine if they had effective testing what would be going on?”
Conte also believes carbon isotope ratio testing should be implemented, which allows a laboratory to determine whether testosterone in the body has been naturally produced or is synthetic. Of course, the cost for testing a single athlete with the full battery of Conte-recommended screens would hover around $1,000 - or nearly 10 times that of the panel currently utilized by most commissions.
And unfortunately, that often means moral and ethical arguments are ultimately decided by available dollars and cents. Conte said that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
“The only way that’s going to happen is if the people that make the majority of the money from sport - whether that be baseball, football, UFC, Olympics, whoever it is - when they develop a genuine interest, then they can implement a reasonably effective testing program,” Conte said. “They’re not doing that.”
Whether or not Conte’s estimate is realistic is anybody’s guess. Hard data obviously doesn’t exist on the complete spectrum of PED-use in MMA, and the number of fighters caught cheating certainly falls well below his 50 percent estimate. Additionally, some critics have pointed out that Conte’s seemingly accusatory approach to increased regulation does little to encourage trust in the athletes he hopes to see volunteer for additional testing.
However, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, and those who have hoped to this point that the sport would be able to simply avoid broaching the subject are quickly realizing that isn’t likely to happen.
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