RYAN PIKE: DRUG TALK CASTING A SHADOW OVER UFC GRUDGE MATCH
by Ryan Pike
This weekend's long-awaited grudge match between UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and his former friend and teammate Rashad Evans should be a bigger deal than it seems to be right now. Both guys are at the top of their games – Jones fought (and won) four times in 2011, while Evans is on a four-fight win streak since losing his title in 2009. But during the gap between major UFC events, instead of the sport's media clamoring for the upcoming super-fight, all they seemed to talk about was drugs and drug testing.
In the past few months, there's been a few high-profile occurrences that have increased talk about drugs in mixed martial arts. Nick Diaz failed a post-fight drug test for marijuana metabolites and is awaiting his appeal. Cristiane Santos lost her appeal for a December 2011 failure of a post-fight test for synthetic testosterone. Alistair Overeem is currently awaiting an appeal for an out-of-competition failure for a high testosterone level, following a great deal of confusion regarding pre-fight testing in the winter.
In short – all the talk has been about drugs, drug suspensions and drug appeals. With all of these failures, mostly circulating around suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use, one may reach two conclusions: there's a drug problem in mixed martial arts, and the current testing regime isn't tackling it.
It's impossible to answer the first question without answering the second one first. Is the current testing regime adequate? Well, compare it to the so-called “Big Four” of major North American sports.
· National Football League: The NFL has been testing for performance-enhancing drugs since 1987. At present, they administer 14,000 tests per year spread across 2,500 players (for an average of almost six tests a season per player). They also do the same number of tests for drugs of abuse. In addition, the NFL does random off-season testing and blanket testing of every single player at training camp. There are regular announcements of drug test failures of almost every kind, ranging from no-name rookies getting caught to big-time stars.
· Major League Baseball: MLB has been testing since 2003 under the current performance-enhancing drug policy. They test everybody at training camp and then conduct an additional 1,200 random tests throughout the year (both in-season and off-season). Most players will be tested an average of three times a year, with additional testing generally reserved for those who have failed in the past. While failures in the majors are less likely than those in the minors – there were 55 minor league failures last year, compared to 3 in the big leagues – names both big and small can get caught, notably Manny Ramirez last season. (ManRam retired rather than take his 100-game penalty for his second PED failure.)
· National Basketball Association: The NBA is currently transitioning into its new drug-testing regime, which will begin next season, but has been testing since 1999. Under the new scheme, players will be able to be randomly tested up to twice in the season and twice in the off-season, for a potential of four random tests per player per year. The old system had less frequent testing (off-season testing is an entirely new wrinkle) but did produce some interesting suspensions. O.J. Mayo was the only NBA player suspended for PED use last year, getting 10 games.
· National Hockey League: The NHL began testing for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2005-06 season. The system tests every player at training camp, then splits the teams into three groups for the remainder of the season. One-third of the league is tested once per year, one-third twice per year and the rest three times per year. The testing has produced only one failure since the system began – journeyman Sean Hill, who was suspended in 2007 and missed 20 games.
Right now, UFC fighters get tested when they get licensed. After that, it depends on a few factors. Did they win? What state are they fighting in? Are they in a high-profile fight? If they're in a country that doesn't have its own commission, the UFC itself acts as the governing body and tests every single fighter. If they're in Nevada, main event fighters get tested a few weeks out, then again the winners get tested at the event (along with main eventers). And therein lies the difficulty. Different fighters get tested different amounts, depending on their position on the card, where they fight and how often they fight.
That said, compared to the other big sports leagues, the drug “problems” experienced by the UFC aren't anything new or really anything that serious. Baseball and football have many, many more times the drug failures than witnessed in mixed martial arts – and their penalties aren't generally as stiff as commissions booting fighters out of competition for a calendar year. The issue is that it's difficult to judge if drug use in mixed martial arts is “under control” if testing isn't regularized enough to provide a proper gauge.
In short: irregular testing is as effective as no testing at all. Until the various commissions can coordinate and come up with a better plan for combating performance-enhancing drug use in combat sports, occasional failures will be as meaningful as static noise.