Voluntary drug testing elicits varied responses from fighters
The more B.J. Penn thought about it, the stronger he felt he needed to take matters into his own hands. In June, Penn accepted an invitation to join a pre-fight drug-testing program through the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), a non-profit organization launched in January that offers extensive urine and blood testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in boxing and mixed martial arts.
"Steroids are in all sports, but we're not hitting a ball over a fence," said Penn, a former two-division UFC champion who's been vocal about PED use in the past. "[Steroids in MMA] is like bringing a bat to a fight. When you're talking about hurting someone, I really believe you're talking about assault."
On Oct. 13, Penn and opponent Rory MacDonald began VADA's eight-week unannounced drug-testing program in advance of their welterweight bout on Dec. 8 in Seattle, the fifth card airing on Fox.
Penn-MacDonald would become the first MMA pair to complete a VADA program; female fighters Rosi Sexton and Sheila Gaff began testing with VADA in late August until their Oct. 27 fight was cancelled in mid-October. VADA president Margaret Goodman said Sexton and Gaff were tested twice, in England and Germany, prior to the bout's cancellation. Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight champion Ben Askren was the first mixed martial artist to enroll in the VADA program last April. He is awaiting his next fight against tournament winner Karl Amoussou, in early 2013, before beginning his testing.
Goodman, a ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission from 1994 to 2005 and chairman of its medical advisory board from 2005 until 2007, said she founded VADA after she realized last year that the drug-testing system in combat sports was "behind the times" and didn't provide much of a deterrent for offenders.
State athletic commissions and other regulatory bodies currently oversee drug testing for combat sports promoted in its jurisdictions, though the frequency and scope of testing varies based on budgetary resources. Some regulatory bodies test combatants on a regular basis prior to and/or after events (The NSAC also does random, out-of-competition drug testing); others test athletes sporadically and some don't test at all.
Urinalysis sampling is currently the most popular means of testing for its cost-effectiveness (The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board is the sole North American athletic regulatory body to also use selective blood testing), and the busier commissions catch dozens of offenders in MMA and boxing each year. Still, athletes with the means are increasingly looking outside these state-run organizations for what they feel is more comprehensive testing.
In professional boxing, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a non-governmental entity currently charged with the country's Olympic program, has tested notables like Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Shane Mosley prior to big-money boxing fights for the last few years. This additional testing, which can reportedly cost into the high five-figures, is usually initiated and paid for by the athletes.
Goodman, a private-practice neurologist in Las Vegas, said VADA offers yet another option for fighters who "deserve to have clean opponents and be clean themselves" -- something that appealed to Penn.
"We need something to protect the guy's who aren't cheating," said the 33-year-old Penn, who's training in his native Hawaii for his bout against MacDonald. "Fine if you believe in your head that you have to be on steroids because your opponent's on steroids, but not everyone's on them. I'm not on steroids."
Since January, VADA has tested six professional boxers. Two of them, Andre Berto and Lamont Peterson, had results return positive for banned substances consistent with anabolic steroids; the promoters canceled their bouts. In July, four-division champion Nonito Donaire committed to random voluntary testing for an entire year, regardless of his fight schedule or opponent's participation in the program. Now Goodman wants to extend VADA's services into mixed martial arts.
One of VADA's initial challenges with MMA testing will be funding, as a majority of fighters don't clear the six- and seven-figure paydays some of their boxing counterparts earn.
Goodman was hesitant to identify the average fees for testing, but stated that it could cost as little as a few thousand dollars per athlete. In VADA's invitation letter to an MMA fighter procured by SI.com, Goodman listed testing expenses for a previously completed seven-week program between boxers Saul Alvarez and Shane Mosley as between $5,000 and $10,000 for each athlete.
Goodman said VADA is absorbing some of the costs of Penn-MacDonald testing themselves, with donations covering the rest. She said this was a pro-active step to open the program to MMA, and that in the future, promotions and fighters would be asked to pay for the collection and testing fees.
Goodman would not approximate how many times Penn and MacDonald, who both reside outside the continental United States, would be tested during their eight-week program.
On a testing day, Penn and MacDonald would be given no more than an hour's notification that a collection agent is on the way to collect a urine and/or blood sample; the fighters had previously submitted a whereabouts form with their home and gym addresses, as well as any deviations from their regular schedules. Goodman said the testing will be coordinated as succinctly as possible so that both fighters give their samples at approximately the same time of day.
The drug profiles of each screening can change from collection to collection, but the fighters will be tested for identical agents each time. VADA participants have no say in what tests will be conducted, even in the case they wanted to request a specific test of their opponent. Samples will be processed by the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, which is accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency and has overseen Olympic drug testing in the past.
If a fighter misses a test date, it could result in their removal from the program, said Goodman. A participant will be dropped from VADA's program at any time if he or she doesn't challenge or contest a positive test result or if the testing of the athlete's B-sample confirms the A-sample's findings.
In Penn and MacDonald's case, test results will be released to UFC promoters Zuffa LLC, the Association of Boxing Commissions (and its state-accessed database), and the Washington Department of Licensing's Professional Athletics Program, which oversees the Dec. 8 bout. Goodman said test results will not be released to the public unless the athlete requests it. Neither Penn nor MacDonald have made this request, she said.
VADA will have no oversight past the delivery of test results; it will be the choice of each regulatory body as to how it wishes to acknowledge, process or act upon any positive pre-fight results sent to it.
With the upcoming Penn-MacDonald bout, the Washington Professional Athletics Program said it would review any results sent by VADA.
"If we did receive information that might prevent an applicant from getting a license, that's something we would review and our actions could range from denying them to fight here or requiring additional testing from a third party that we choose," said WDL spokesperson Christine Anthony.
Anthony said it's the Professional Athletics Program's protocol to randomly select three to four bouts for testing after each event, which means there's a possibility that Penn and MacDonald might not get tested at all if not for their VADA participation.
Goodman researched athlete drug testing for close to a year before launching VADA, which is overseen by an eight-member board of physicians and other medical professionals. She consulted with experts, including Dick Pound, founding president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, UCLA Olympic lab founder Don Catlin, M.D. and former BALCO ringleader Victor Conte, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to steroid distribution (allegedly to a slew of professional athletes) and now advocates doping education. Goodman said Catlin is the only one who has a current relationship with the organization, serving as a "VADA expert."
VADA is also a proponent of upfront Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) testing, which determines if an athlete's testosterone is natural or synthetic. CIR tests are often conducted as a secondary step in professional sports after an athlete's testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratios register out of the allowable ranges during the first (and second) round of tests. However, some experts contend that T/E ratios can be manipulated by athletes with "micro-dosing" and by other methods, which makes CIR tests much more conclusive. CIR testing is far more expensive than the standard T/E ratio tests and something regulatory bodies generally can't afford.
To sustain itself, VADA will have to be an athlete-driven endeavor and not all fighters feel as strongly about additional testing as Penn does.
Penn's opponent, MacDonald, said he agreed to VADA testing only because Penn propositioned him publicly on Twitter.
"If I'd denied [doing] it, it would have made me look like I had something to hide," the 23-year-old MacDonald said. "It really is a pain in the a-- because the UFC and the commissions already have their drug testing. I didn't think there was a problem with it. It's a nuisance and a waste of my time getting pulled away from my training. It's not really something I'm happy to be doing, but I'll do it."
Two weeks ago, former UFC interim champion Shane Carwin declined a VADA invitation for eight-week testing prior to his bout with Roy Nelson at
Carwin and his manager, Jason Genet, voiced concerns about VADA's neutrality when the organization posted a third-party editorial in July that alleged Carwin was a PED user.
Carwin's past has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. In a 2010 federal court case, Carwin was named among 22 athletes who obtained steroids from Applied Pharmacy Services, which was convicted of drug trafficking to 17 U.S. doctors between 2004 and '06. Genet said Carwin has declined to comment about being identified in the case per Zuffa's request. He added that none of the athletes named were investigated further or sanctioned in any way.
Goodman said July's defamatory story was removed from VADA's website once she realized it had been posted by an intern without her knowledge or consent. Genet said Carwin never received an apology, nor did VADA post a retraction. In addition, Carwin's manager said he grew more skeptical of VADA's competency when Nelson and his reps notified the press of the proposed testing (and some even reported Carwin's participation) before Carwin had even received an official invitation from the organization.
Goodman said VADA had no part in Nelson's public overtures and that the organization remains "independent of any athletes, managers, promoters, trainers or nutrionalists."
"It's a shame because Shane and myself had talked about independent testing before and this was a part of our strategy," said Genet. "We know there is still that question mark with Shane."
Genet said Goodman has educated him about the testing process in follow-up correspondence, and that he reached out to Nelson's camp about alternate testing elsewhere. Genet didn't rule out VADA participation in the future.
Nelson, who still plans to complete the VADA program himself, said last Tuesday that he'd inquired with USADA, who'd given a preliminary estimate between $25,000 and $35,000 to test both fighters. Nelson said he was trying to line up sponsorship for the costs, and wouldn't contact Carwin's reps until he had that in place.
As Genet suggested with Carwin, VADA could offer past offenders -- or those perceived as one -- a way to alter public perception.
Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, who recently served a nine-month suspension for a positive steroid test in Nevada (Lawal claims he unknowingly ingested the banned substance through an over-the-counter supplement), said he'd be open to participating in a VADA program if the costs to the fighter were lower. Lawal said that VADA's $20,000 high-end quote to test both athletes wouldn't be feasible for most fighters.
"If VADA or USADA or any organization was conducting testing regularly of larger groups of fighters, the cost could be thousands of dollars less," wrote Goodman in a follow-up email. " Goodman estimated costs could fall to $5,000 and lower per fighter.
In addition to drug testing, VADA also offers "comprehensive health and safety blood screening," should a test reveal something pertinent to the athlete's health, along with free consultations. Goodman said VADA has recently partnered with The National Center for Drug Free Sport's Resource Exchange Center, an online resource where fighters get anonymous access to experts regarding PEDs and supplements. VADA also plans to offer private counseling and educational services to athletes that request it.
"The whole point of putting VADA together wasn't just to test the fighters," said Goodman. "It's to open the topic and talk about it more. It enables athletes to do something about it themselves."
Penn is one fighter who saw value in that.
"Maybe it'll change the sport. Maybe it won't," he said. "But at the end of the day, I'm doing this to protect my own a--. I'm doing this to make sure I don't end up in the hospital because someone on steroids kicked my a--. That's why I'm doing it."