One of the first things I read every Sunday when I sit down in my office is The Sunday Junkie, MMAjunkie.com's weekly mailbag segment. For my money, it's the best in the business, and the pieces that are selected for the segment are always pretty solid.
Yesterday's "winning entry" (they give away a subscription to Fighter's Only magazine to the best letter of the week) was intriguing enough to inspire me to write this piece. Here's what Joe Ranieri of Huntingdon Valley, Pa. had to say:
DOES A HIGH T/E LEVEL REALLY MATTER TO FANS? What happened this week was inevitable. Alistair Overeem under the UFC banner was bound to get caught with a high T/E ratio at some point. Anyone who has compared his picture from the PRIDE days to his look today knows that humans cannot grow the way he did without a little help. The real question, though, is do the fans really care? Do the fans care if he needs to use a needle every now and then so he can deliver a kick so devastating it brings a beast like Brock Lesnar into retirement? Does it matter if in order for Alistair to deliver jaw-dropping fights in the cage, he has to have a Machiavellian mindset? Everyone will have their own opinion, but as a fan, I like to see the beast in Overeem perform at his fullest potential.
This letter, and the fact that there have been scads of "Who cares?!" commentaries floating around the internet since news of Alistair Overeem's freakishly elevated testosterone levels broke on Wednesday makes me shake my head, and wonder about the future of this sport.
I can only speak for myself, but I care.
I'm not going to get all preachy or philosophical about the subject of performance-enhancing drugs in MMA (or sports in general), but I want to come out and say on the record that I'm all for eradicating the sport of cheaters, even if it means casting aside some of the biggest names in the business if and when they get caught.
For me, watching MMA isn't about seeing artificially enhanced athletes pummel one another; it's about watching the purest form of competition available: two men or women, one cage or ring, and may the best person win. Not "may the person who did whatever they felt necessary prior to competing to give themselves an advantage win. Call me old fashioned, but I want to see the person who works hardest, formulates the best game plan, and executes best inside the cage have their hand raised.
The ironic thing about the closing sentence for the comment above is that Overeem isn't performing at his full potential - his full potential left town a long time ago, replaced by the fullest potential money can buy. Overeem's fullest potential was on display before he "hulked up" and became a heavyweight, and it wasn't all that great: he was 27-years-old with a 24-10 record before his transformation started, with only a handful of quality wins under his belt. It's no coincidence that his success rate skyrocketed as his physique continued to explode.
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As for why fans should care, the first thing I'll say is that bullshit like this wouldn't happen.
If the sport gets cleaned up, we won't have to be waiting on the April 24 Nevada State Athletic Commission meeting to find out Overeem's fate and learn who will be fighting Junior dos Santos in the UFC 146 main event. Main events wouldn't get scuttled two months out because one half of the equation had the testosterone levels of 14 men combined.
No fight that gets made moving forward is going to be as intriguing or potentially as entertaining as Overeem vs. dos Santos. This was a fantastic fight on paper, one that a ton of people had already started counting down the days to, and now it's gonzo.
So too is the scheduled UFC Primetime on the fight that would have pulled in solid ratings and advertising dollars for the UFC's partners at FOX. Zuffa aren't big fans of losing money, and with the number of high profile positive tests they've had in the last six months - and their ever-growing schedule - they should damn sure be taking a serious look at cleaning up their roster from the inside, unless they want this type of thing to keep happening.
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I refuse to go the "drugs are bad, m'kay" route in defending my position against PED use in MMA (and sports in general) - this isn't high school, I'm not anyone's parent, and if you like your athletes with a little injected assistance, so be it.
What I will say is this: if you think a sport like mixed martial arts that already has a shaky reputation at best with some people isn't going to come under heavy scrutiny as more and more athletes keep delivering mind-blowing T/E ratios, and getting popped for steroids with little to nothing being done to curb the problem, you're mistaken.
D'you know all those biased politicians, medical professionals, and regular everyday folk who hate this sport? This kind of crap is just more ammunition for their assault on the sport. When other fighters are running around saying anywhere from 60-80% of the athletes in the sport are using PEDs and guys like Overeem are delivering 14:1 T/E ratios on random drug tests, it's going to get noticed.
If politicians were able to get the sport sent into the dark ages because it was too violent, you can be sure they'll try to do the same by combining the inherent violence involved in mixed martial arts with the rampant PED abuse that seemingly plagues the sport right now. They had goddamn congressional hearings about guys using steroids to hit a little white ball over a fence; you think they're not going to be interested in guys using steroids and then punching each other in the face?
You may say, "I don't care if these guys use steroids or whatever; I just want to see some crazy fights!" but you'll care if PEDs become a serious impediment to the growth, development, and continuation of the sport.
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The other part in this for me - and this is where some people are undoubtedly going to call me naive - is that this rampant use of PEDs is a kick in the face to athletes who choose to compete clean.
Yes, I still believe there are athletes who are clean, both in MMA and every other sport. Until someone can prove me wrong, I'm going to hold on to that belief.
I don't want this sport - or sports in general - to come down to a choice between cheating or never being a champion. I still believe in hard work, ethics, and integrity. I'm against anything that tilts the scales in one direction, and forces people to either abandon their approach or get left behind. (Note: this is why I despise quick stand-ups and splitting guys apart on the cage too.)
I know I'm not alone in feeling this way; I just hope we're not in the minority, though I'm afraid we might be.
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