Get caught by a state athletic commission and out come the appeals, the tainted workout supplements, the earnest testimony from a family doctor who was only trying to help when he mixed that testosterone in with the fighter’s corn flakes. But let the UFC be the one to catch a fighter with his hand in the steroid cookie jar and the admissions of guilt get quietly posted to the UFC website. So, too, do the promises of punishment and declarations of a strict anti-drug policy. Kind of makes you wonder why the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
Let’s just admit here what we all already know: the sport of mixed martial arts has a drug problem. Look around. You can separate fighters into four basic categories at this point: (1) Fighters who have been busted for illegal use of a performance-enhancing substance; (2) fighters who have somehow received permission (!!!) to use a performance-enhancing substance, occasionally even after being busted for using the same substance illegally; (3) fighters who have been busted for non-performance-enhancing drugs (marijuana, basically); and (4) fighters who haven’t been busted for anything (at least not yet).
Maybe it’s the fighters in category No. 3 we should feel the most at ease about. The one thing we know about them is that they aren’t very good at concealing their own drug use. At least with them, we know what they’re up to, and it’s mostly harmless (to their opponents, anyway). Of course, we also know what the fighters in category No. 2 are up to, though I doubt their opponents feel as safe knowing that they’re injecting powerful hormones rather than smoking mood-altering plants.
The point is, MMA has such a problem with drugs it can’t even decide which ones to focus on, or which regulatory body should do the focusing. The UFC doesn’t really want to do it unless it happens to be in a country or city where no other entity cares what fighters put into their bodies, in which case fine, it will collect samples and send them off to be tested. Even then, it’s hard not to get the sense that the UFC is doing it more out of obligation than genuine concern (see also: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s therapeutic-use exemption for testosterone at UFC 144 in Japan). Seems like the UFC also would really prefer it if fighters could just test clean and not thrust the whole system under the microscope, which is not exactly the stance you’d hope for from your PED watchdog.
Unfortunately, even that was more than Bonnar could handle when he got called to step in against Anderson Silva in Rio de Janeiro. This is the second positive steroid test in Bonnar’s career - the same career that the UFC was busy blowing all kinds of hot air into during the UFC 153 broadcast. Get popped once, and maybe we’ll believe you made a bad decision. Get popped twice, and that’s when we question whether you ever competed clean. The question now is, what is the UFC going to do about it?
It’s a tricky question, and one that will tell us a lot about how interested the world’s biggest MMA organization really is in addressing drug use. Bonnar’s already said he’s retired, so a suspension is meaningless. Will the UFC continue to give him work as an analyst on its pre- and post-fight shows after this? It was fine having him on when we only knew him as a one-time steroid cheat - and why not, when the job required him to sit next to Chael Sonnen, who once fought for the UFC middleweight title with four times the normal amount of testosterone in his system. How about now, when there’s a cloud of Drostanolone and Boldenone hanging over everything he ever did?
This is important, because it tells us something about the UFC’s comfort level with drug cheats. At the moment, we’re far from zero tolerance. The way it works is you pay your fine, do your stint in timeout, then you come back and everything’s cool. So why shouldn’t you use performance-enhancing drugs? If you’re smart enough to read a calendar, you probably won’t get caught. And if you do get caught - perhaps by the type of random test that exposed Alistair Overeem - you’ll only get yelled at by the boss for a brief time until you get to come back and pick up more or less where you left off. It almost makes doping seem like some minor infraction that goes along with the fight game, not so different from grabbing the fence to avoid a takedown. Even if you get caught and get punished, which might take a while, the risks will still be outweighed by the rewards.
This is why we’re not making much headway in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs in MMA. The incentives are still too great and the punishments nowhere near severe enough. It’s a crisis of philosophy, and not just the practical concerns about the when and how and what of drug testing.
As long as you can ignore concerns like integrity and self-respect, why not cheat and take your chances? Better yet, just take your lumps out in the open and get a prescription for testosterone. The way they’re being approved by the very people who are supposed to be making sure that the playing field is level to begin with - the way PEDs in one form or another are almost accepted in the MMA culture - how could you possibly take drug policy in this sport seriously? How can any of us?