(Cheech’s submissions may be legendary, but his cardio is highly suspect)
by Ben Fowlkes
With UFC 84 less than a month away, the issue of drug use among MMA fighters has taken center stage. It’s understandable, at least to a degree. Sean Sherk’s positive steroid test after his title defense last summer put a giant bull’s-eye on his back, even as he continues to proclaim his innocence to anyone who will listen. Both he and Penn came up clean in preliminary tests for their upcoming title fight, but it doesn’t mean the issue has gone away.
A recent MSNBC report would have us believe that this isn’t just an isolated incident or a reflection of the pro sports zeitgeist. Instead, David Avila asks the question, does MMA have a drug culture?
One nameless boxer-turned-MMA fighter claims yes, and it’s not just steroids:
“Oh, the MMA fighters train just as hard as boxers,” said a fighter now working out of Las Vegas who wished to remain anonymous. “But after they train, they party. I mean they drink, they go out. It’s crazy what they do.”
There’s nothing quite like a sweeping generalization to bolster your point, and that’s aside from the fact that training in Las Vegas may be different than training in, say, Minnesota (where Sherk trains) or in the secluded mountains of Big Bear, California (where Tito Ortiz, “Rampage” Jackson, and a host of others go to prepare).
But the UFC’s Marc Ratner – formerly of the Nevada State Athletic Commission – seems to agree:
“I don’t know what to make of it,” said Ratner regarding the large number of MMA fighters failing drug tests compared to boxers. “It’s a different culture.”
The article goes on to quote an MMA writer who suggests that the middle-class background of many MMA fighters may explain the difference in positive tests between boxers and MMA fighters. Boxers are typically poor, he argues, and thus view their shot at a career as “do-or-die”, whereas middle-class MMA fighters are more likely to slack off and use drugs.
This is a strange logic. Are MMA fighters more likely to use recreational drugs because they don’t take their careers as seriously as boxers? If so, how does that fit into the steroid argument?
Consider the case of Hermes Franca. When he tested positive following his bout with Sherk, he immediately copped to it and tried to garner some sympathy by explaining that he did it to help him get over an injury suffered in training. The UFC wouldn’t postpone the bout, he said, and he needed the payday just to keep his family financially afloat. Doesn’t that sound like a guy in a “do-or-die” situation?
This isn’t meant as an excuse for steroid-users in MMA, but it does suggest that the issue might be more complex than Avila and MSNBC are making it out to be.
Suggesting that MMA fighters are more prone to be drug users because of their background or some culture within the sport is something of a harmful generalization, and it’s one that ignores what’s going on in the rest of the sporting world.
From pro baseball to the Olympics, performance-enhancing drugs are an issue. In the NFL, Shawn Merriman tests positive for steroids, and he’s back after a few games. It hardly even gets mentioned any more.
In the UFC, Sean Sherk tests positive and it’s somehow a sign that MMA is full of slackers and juicers who just want an easy path to success.
That conclusion is questionable at best. Steroids may be a problem, but it’s a problem for more sports than just MMA.