UFC's new drug-testing policy is solid step, but problems remain
The UFC might have no way of entirely ridding its roster of steroid users, but it's at least going to try to make it tougher for them to get in.
On Tuesday, just hours after news broke that former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Mo Lawal had tested positive for steroids following his recent TKO win over Lorenz Larkin -- and about a week after it was revealed that Strikeforce women's 145-pound champ "Cyborg" Santos had tested positive for a different steroid -- Zuffa, parent company to both the UFC and Strikeforce, sent out a news release announcing that, as of Jan. 1, all incoming fighters would be prescreened for performance-enhancing drugs before being signed to either organization.
"We're committed to the health and safety of our athletes and we take it very seriously," UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said in the release. "We already work closely with athletic commissions to protect our athletes and now we're taking it one step further. We're going to test any potential UFC or STRIKEFORCE fighter before finalizing their contract. This shows that we don't want performance-enhancing drugs in our sport."
Sure it does. Or at least it shows that Zuffa wants to make sure fighters are smart enough to pass at least one drug test before it signs them to represent -- and potentially tarnish -- one of its organizations.
Not that it's a bad move, regardless of the motivations or the timing. When it comes to cleaning up the sport, the more drug tests the better. Of course, if Zuffa wanted to get really serious about stamping out PED use it would institute random out-of-competition testing, which is something that no athletic commission or sanctioning body has effectively and consistently pursued in MMA.
Testing fighters as part of a general Zuffa entrance exam, though? That's not a bad start. Just don't expect it to make too much of a difference.
You know that old cliché about how drug tests are really IQ tests? Like most clichés, it sticks around because it's anchored in truth. Any time an athlete can look at the calendar and know when the contents of his urine will suddenly become very important, he has options. That's why testing fighters only when they show up to fight fails to address the issue. Testing them before they sign the contract is a good start, but it's not like an offer from the UFC comes out of nowhere. One can easily imagine an agent telling his fighter that talks with the UFC are progressing nicely, so he might want to make sure he doesn't have anything in his system that he wouldn't want his new employers to know about.
Random testing -- the truly random, you-have-24-hours-to-submit-a-sample variety -- is the only way to keep fighters guessing. It's also expensive, which is one reason state athletic commissions can't make it happen. Another reason is that, judging from recent events, state athletic commissions just aren't very good at getting tough and staying that way in the face of even moderate pressure.
For example, take what happened when the Nevada State Athletic Commission tried to get a testable urine sample from UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem more than a month out from his bout against Brock Lesnar at UFC 141. Overeem's camp was contacted in mid-November and told that the fighter needed to submit a sample by the end of the business the following day. He didn't. In fact, he didn't even respond to the NSAC's request for several days. Then, when he finally got tested, it was the wrong test.
This led to another delay, which led to another unusable test, which led to an NSAC hearing on the matter. Even then the NSAC still granted Overeem a conditional license to fight, despite the fact that -- whether intentionally or not -- he had managed to delay his drug test several weeks, thus defeating the entire purpose of a random test. If that's how the NSAC is going to do it, why bother?
The irony is, when the UFC is forced to act as its own commission -- when it holds events in places like the UK or Brazil, where there are no sanctioning bodies to oversee things -- it actually does a pretty good job. It not only conducts its own drug tests even when it doesn't have to, but also publicizes positive test results. UFC middleweight Chris Leben has been nabbed twice by the UFC's own drug testing, but never by an athletic commission. And when the UFC hands down suspensions and fines as punishment for positive tests, fighters seem far less eager to make a public spectacle out of indignant proclamations of innocence.
It makes you wonder: why isn't the UFC doing this all the time? Why isn't it constantly conducting its own random testing, if only so that the threat of it will keep fighters honest? Fighters might be wary of state commissions, but they're downright terrified of the UFC, and for good reason. Unlike sometimes bumbling government agencies, the UFC has a reputation for swift, decisive retribution against cheaters and malcontents alike. Why not use that power for good?
One explanation is money. All that drug testing isn't cheap, and the UFC might be reluctant to spend money doing something that commissions will eventually get around to doing anyway, even if they do it poorly. Another explanation is that acting as your own watchdog can be a tricky business. Once you start, you can't stop. And if it doesn't go well, it's the organization rather than some inept state agency that gets the blame.
Zuffa's latest move toward increased self-regulation is a step in the right direction, but it can't be the last one. It has the power to do much more in terms of testing and punishment of PED users, both of which would have a greater impact on drug use in MMA than anything the state athletic commissions are doing. It's just a question of if it really wants to address PED use to that degree.
In a sport where so much is riding on each fight, you may never convince every fighter that it's not worth the risk to seek a little artificial help at times. But with increased testing, Zuffa can at least make them think twice about the chances of getting caught. For some people, a healthy fear of consequences is still the best motivator.