Are PEDs and TRT Giving MMA a Proverbial Black Eye?
There is text going back to antiquity, that suggests men have always tried to work harder or at least suffer less as they were doing so. When the fittest of a nation were selected as athletes or combatants, they were fed diets and given treatments considered beneficial. For instance, Scandinavian mythology says Berserkers could drink a mixture called “butotens”, perhaps prepared from the Amanita muscaria mushroom, to increase their physical power a dozen times at the risk of insanity. In more recent times, the German missionary and doctor Albert Schweitzer wrote of Gabon in the early 19th century: “The people of the country can, having eaten certain leaves or roots, toil vigorously all day without feeling hungry, thirsty or tired and all the time showing a happiness.”
Thomas Hicks, an American born in England on January 7, 1875, won the Olympic Marathon in 1904. He crossed the line behind a fellow American, Fred Lorz, who during the marathon, rode half of the way in a car thereby disqualifying him. However, Hicks was also aided by outside help. His trainer, Charles Lucas, pulled out a hypodermic needle and came to his aid as his runner began to struggle.
“I therefore decided to inject him with a milligram of strychnine and make him drink a large glass brimming with brandy. He set off again as best he could, but he needed another injection four miles from the end to give him a semblance of speed and to get him to the finish.”
The use of strychnine, far from being banned, was thought necessary to survive demanding races, even back then.
As far back as there has been competition, combat, or athletics, there has been performance enhancement in some form. Remedies or concoctions taken by participants to give them even the slightest edge, making them stronger, increasing their endurance or avoiding fatigue.
Of course, in today’s more modern athletics, science and pharmaceuticals have advanced far beyond a strychnine injection and a glass of brandy. But in today’s society, there is a significantly different stigma attached to performance enhancement; moral and ethical responsibility.
In the relatively young sport of Mixed Martial Arts, there has been a recent rash of cases of performance enhancing drugs like never before. Either due to more vigorous or random testing, or increasingly enormous pressure for a fighter to be faster, stronger, or have greater stamina and resilience than their opponent.
For years, MMA has been working to move out from under the dark cloud of being incorrectly labeled as a brutal,”human cock fighting” sport. Is it now facing another black cloud with the perception of a sport filled with cheaters? Is it really “cheating” if everyone is doing it but only a handful are getting caught?
According to UFC Heavyweight fighter Roy Nelson, he estimates that he thinks 60-70% of fighters are using some kind of performance enhancing drugs. UFC Light Heavyweight fighter Krysztof Soszynski estimates even higher, saying the number is closer to 85%. If either of these guys are even remotely accurate with these numbers, there could be a bigger problem in MMA that lies below the surface, than we actually realize.
When it comes to steroids in MMA, the fighters who have tested positive usually test positive for the same three anabolics; Nandrolone, Stanozolol, and/or Boldenone. In recent years, (and some not so recent) Tim Sylvia, Sean Sherk, Kimo Leopold, Josh Barnett (three times), Nate Marquardt, Vitor Belfort, Stephan Bonnar, Phil Baroni, King Mo Lawal, Cris “Cyborg” Santos, have all tested positive. Last year, UFC fighter Thiago Silva was suspended for 1-year after providing a urine sample that, according to NSAC, “was not consistent with human urine.” Silva later admitted he was attempting to mask the use of banned substances. More recently, former Strikeforce champion Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante tested positive for Stanozolol.
Lets be clear, this isn’t a “UFC” problem, it’s happened to fighters across all MMA organizations, big and small. UFC President Dana White has admitted concern with PEDs in MMA, and in January told MMA Weekly that the UFC has announced a rigorous in house drug testing policy for all newly signed incoming fighters. He went on to say TUF fighters are probably the most heavily tested, and there have been no issues. White has not fully committed to random drug testing for fighters already on the roster, saying that is what the commissions are for.
The debate could go on and on, many people think that steroid abuse is the problem, not steroid use. The argument has been made that if steroids are used correctly, they are safe. I’m no doctor or expert, so I’ll leave it up to you to educate yourself and form your own opinion, and decide which side of the fence you stand on.
Long term steroid use (or abuse) can have many long term side effects. One of the most common side effects, is low or decreasing testosterone levels. Which leads to another highly debated subject; the use of TRT or Testosterone Replacement Therapy in MMA. Studies show that steroid users who have a decrease in testosterone levels, will see their levels return to normal after they cycle off, especially with the use of anti-estrogens post-cycle. Long term users or abusers, however, can significantly damage their bodies ability to produce testosterone to a normal level for their age and body type.
Does this mean that all athletes who receive TRT are former heavy steroid users? Of course it doesn’t. Many athletes, or even non-athletes can have a need for testosterone replacement therapy based on medical history or previous conditions. But it all seems a little too convienent recently.
Chael Sonnen and Alistair Overeem are two of the biggest stars in the sport, and were recently suspended by the NSAC and CSAC for elavated testosterone levels. The approved maximum testosterone ratio is already a generous 6:1, and both Sonnen and Overeem had levels that were than twice that, at 16:1 and 14:1 respectively. Sonnen recently returned from his suspension, while Overeem is still serving his out. More and more fighters have come out recently and said the have used some form of TRT in the past, or even present. However, at least in Nevada, the only fighters that have been approved for exemptions for TRT use are Dan Henderson, Todd Duffee, Shane Roller, and more recently, Frank Mir. Sonnen is currently awaiting approval by the commission for TRT use.
So is there a low-testosterone epidemic in MMA? And if there is, what do we attribute it to? Does every fighter have Hypogonadism? As MMA fans, if we all believed that, we’d be insulting our own intelligence. I can almost see an argument for Hendo’s need for TRT, due to him being an aging fighter. But the other guys? It seems Hypogonadism is nothing more than an excuse to gain an advantage in fighting, or during training. There is a distinct possibility that these guys are abusing TRT during their training camps, then gambling that they can get their levels to return to normal come fight time.
I’m not the moral police. I’m just an MMA fan, like all of you, who loves the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, and who still believes in sportsmanship, and a level playing field for all. Whether the playing field is “level” due to everybody being on something, or nobody being on anything, is a debate that will probably go on forever in combat sports. I still believe that hard work, training, an iron heart, technical ability, and a warrior spirit should be the only determining factors in who gets their hand raised inside the cage or ring.
Unfortunately, it isn’t only the MMA fans who’s opinions matter. And therein lies the problem. Legislators who regulate our sport, and ultimately have an impact on it’s growth and advancement, aren’t always so open minded. Mainstream perception both in the media and politically, will always be a determining factor when trying to get the sport more widely regulated and accepted by the mainstream.
It’s getting to the point where Mixed Martial Arts can not afford to only have athletic commissions involved in testing. The sport of MMA and the people involved in it directly, need to take more responsiblity and start regulating itself on a more sophisticated level. If we leave it all up to Athletic Commissions and Legislators, there could be irrevocable damage done to a sport that has come so far, in the face of so many detractors.