The Juice And Nothing But The Juice

25 Apr

      It came as a shock to almost no one who follows mixed martial arts when UFC heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem failed a drug test given by the Nevada State Athletic Commission a few weeks ago (equally unsurprising, to me, was the wishy-washy “punishment” the commission handed down, yesterday).
      Overeem, who once fought as a rangy, moderately successful, 205 pound light heavyweight, suddenly put on nearly fifty pounds of muscle a few years ago and turned into a dominating heavyweight good enough to not just earn a crack at the UFC title, but to win the K-1 World Grand Prix, the most prestigious event in heavyweight kickboxing. Now, with a positive test for too much testosterone in his system (Overeem asserts it was the accidental result of taking medicine prescribed by a doctor) the MMA world is not just once again questioning Overeem’s legitimacy, but the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs in sports speak) across the game.
      Last July, well before this positive drug test, I had the opportunity to ask Overeem in person about the use of PEDs. I was writing a cover story on him for Black Belt Magazine and they had set up a private photo shoot and interview with the fighter in Manhattan. When Black Belt executive editor, Robert Young, had asked me to do the story, the first thing I said to him was that we would have to, somehow, address the rumors of Overeem’s PED use.
      Now this is something no reporter enjoys doing – engaging a subject, who is not necessarily a terrible person, in a discussion over something they may be doing wrong but which they obviously don’t want to talk about. As a journalist, you have the ethical obligation to ask the question, even though you know the interview subject will deny it. Lacking any tangible proof, you’re only choices are to accept the subject’s denial and move on or to basically call them a liar. Given that Overeem is a 250-pound behemoth and one of the most skilled fighters in the world, option two did not seem like a promising idea. Young, ever solicitous of his writers’ safety, suggested I might want to save the PED question for the end of the interview. That way, I would at least have enough material to write the cover story from my hospital bed if Overeem took offense.
      Photographer Peter Leuders and I were scheduled to meet Overeem at a local boxing gym where Peter could take the photos while I could ask my questions and, perhaps, offer some suggestions for interesting technique sequences that might look good in the magazine. The latter part of this plan was quickly scrubbed as one of the first things Overeem said to us when he arrived was “I don’t talk about techniques.” Though most fighters are a bit more open about their training methods, there are a handful that subscribe to the belief you give away nothing. Overeem was clearly from this latter school.
      Overeem is from Holland and the photographer, Peter, was originally from Germany. He tried to loosen up the fighter by speaking a little bit of German, commenting that German and the Dutch language have a lot of similarities, don’t they? Overeem told him not that much and we stuck to English (though interestingly, when Peter’s very attractive female assistant, who is also from Germany, arrived later on, Overeem’s grasp of German became much more fluent as he chatted with her in the language).
      Anyway, with the discussion of techniques off the table, it wasn’t long before I turned the conversation to the PED question feeling it best to just get it out of the way quickly. I asked him about the rumors and he said, flat out, he had never taken a performance enhancing drug and had passed every drug test athletic commissions had ever administered to him. Without calling him a liar, let’s say I still had my reservations. And given that he’d been asked the same question a million times before by a million different reporters, I don’t know if he had any illusions I was totally convinced by his denials. But we were trapped in playing a standard game of mandatory question and answer.
      There was not much I could say to contradict him at the time so I moved on to other, less controversial, topics and found Overeem to be a pleasant and engaging individual. Afterwards, I gave him a ride back to his hotel and we chatted in a friendly fashion. For the most part, I liked him but I still had the obligation to be honest in what I wrote.
      Now Black Belt is not known for a vicious brand of attack journalism. It is, after all, a magazine for martial artists and martial arts fans who want to be inspired, not depressed, and aren’t expecting the kind of aggressive reporting you’d get in the New York Times. And given that I had no evidence, beyond innuendo, regarding Overeem’s PED use, all I could legitimately say was that there had long been questions surrounding him and then print his denial. But I did go a step beyond that in writing that “in a sport where an alarming number of top competitors have been linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs, Overeem’s real sin in the eyes of some fans has simply been not fighting often enough in MMA”. The former part of this statement, that an alarming number of top competitors have been linked to PED use, was later edited out of the version that appeared in the magazine. But I feel the entire statement is an important one and offers a comment on not just Overeem but on the state of the sport – and its fans – as a whole.
      It is no secret among many in the MMA industry that a fair number of competitors take some form of performance enhancing substance, and I don’t mean simple vitamins and protein supplements. Testosterone is often joined by things like steroids, amphetamines and pain killers as an almost normal and accepted part of the sport in some circles. Apologists for MMA, both among promoters, fans and even many journalists, would prefer to bury their heads in the sand and say it’s really a relatively small number of athletes doing this sort of thing. But if you ever attend a major professional event and stand near some of the top fighters so you can observe them up close, it should be clear many of these men (and some women too) are simply carrying an unnatural amount of muscle on their bodies.
      “Experts” will say you cannot tell if someone is taking performance enhancing drugs simply by looking at them. And while, overall, this may be true, there are some things that stand out (greatly enlarged heads come to mind) as a sign of PED abuse. Besides writing for Black Belt and having engaged in athletics most of my life, I’ve covered professional sports for newspapers and written a good deal for magazines like Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health and Muscle and Fitness. I’ve dealt with top conditioning trainers and professional bodybuilders. I used to work out in a gym that was home to Olympic weightlifters. So I would say I’m familiar with what normal athletes’ bodies look like (and what abnormal athletes bodies look like) and I can state that the bodies you see on many of the top MMA fighters are not completely normal. Yes, you might be able to get physiques like some of these athletes display through natural methods if you did nothing but weight train. But when you consider the vast amounts of aerobic exercise that elite MMA fighters have to go through, it simply seems unlikely most of them would be able to keep that level of musculature on their frames by normal means, particularly the ones who have barely any body fat.
      Not everyone in the industry denies this sort of PED use, though. Some choose simply to not care.
      Keep in mind, MMA is a new sport, primarily watched by a new generation. It is not baseball with its rich tradition and its rapidly aging fan base. MMA afficionados are generally young and often not encumbered with the sentimental morality of older generations. I’ve talked with a number of fans and journalists that cover MMA who simply don’t care that fighters may be taking performance enhancing drugs, even if those drugs are illegal. And if the fans and journalists don’t care, certainly the promoters who put on the events and employ the athletes have little incentive to clean up the sport, except for the embarrassment of having one of your top draws like Alistair Overeem test positive and end up having to pull out of a major fight.
      And why should the people who run the UFC, Bellator or any other promotion care if their fighters are juiced to the gills? Having fighters with superhero physiques who can do nearly superhuman things with their bodies is definitively good for business. Flashback 14 years to when Major League Baseball’s popularity was at a nadir following yet another work stoppage that cancelled the World Series back in 1994. What revived interest in the national pastime? The race to break the single season home run record between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both men ended up breaking that seemingly unbreakable record in thrilling fashion, thus renewing interest in the sport… and both men later were directly linked to PED use. Sure, baseball had to suffer through scandal, Congressional hearings and some embarrassment. But there’s no question that the sport’s attendance and viewership got a huge boost from McGwire and Sosa’s drug inflated home run numbers.
      So why should the UFC or other promoters care about drug use in their sport? After all, even the threat of having fighters like Overeem test positive and have to pull out of major bouts in the future may be lessening. Though Overeem lost his upcoming title shot against Junior Dos Santos, the Nevada State Athletic Commission showed their ambivalence on the issue yesterday by leaving the door open for him to again fight in Nevada before the end of the year. And Nevada is frequently lauded as one of the best athletic commissions in the country.
      Most state athletic commissions are simply in financial trouble and don’t have the resources to do the kind of testing necessary to really clean up the sport, in any case. Not that the type of urine-based drug tests these commissions typically issue (often immediately after a fight when competitors may have already flushed all the drugs out of their system) are always that great a deterrent. Blood tests – done on a completely random basis where testers can just show up at your house unannounced – are a surer means of catching PED abusers. But this is even more expensive than the kind of testing that is already in place and unlikely to ever take hold.
      Basically, the only arguments in favor of attempting to clean up the sport are ethical ones: if you take a PED, you are breaking the rules and gaining an unfair advantage over an opponent who chooses not to break the rules. You are a cheat (as a side note, there is a distressing gray area that has sprung up in recent years called “testosterone replacement therapy” or TRT. Essentially, with a note from a doctor, fighters – such as top UFC contender Dan Henderson – have been able to legally boost their testosterone levels through medical treatments. TRT is generally a therapy that is applied to undersized adolescent boys or to elderly males with sexual dysfunctions. For the most part, the only medical use grown men in their 30s and 40s could have for it is to try and turn back the hands of time and continue an athletic career that should have already ended due to age, a rather dubious medical usage for such therapy).
      Certainly, the argument can be made that if the use of performance enhancing drugs is so commonplace in the sport, that it’s not really gaining an unfair advantage since everyone is using it. But what if everyone does not want to use it? This, more than anything else, may be the key argument against PEDs.
      If you have the ability to be an elite fighter – say someone good enough to be ranked in the top five in your weight class in the UFC – and are, more or less, at an equal skill level with the other fighters in the top five, what do you do if, all of a sudden, the other four fighters in the top five suddenly start taking PEDs? If these fighters are able to gain a 10 percent advantage through PED use, how do you ever catch up to them?
      Fighters who do test positive for PEDs often like to play the victim saying how it’s not PEDs that got them to the top but hard work and people are trying to credit the drugs instead of all the hours they put into training. But this is a clearly ludicrous argument seeing as how PEDs, by themselves, do nothing. You don’t just pop a steroid and get muscular. What many of these drugs do is allow you to train longer and harder, to recover more quickly from your workouts and get back in the gym to do additional work. No one is questioning the work ethic of fighters suspected of taking PEDs, just how they are humanly able to do that much work without their bodies breaking down.
      So if you are an elite fighter who doesn’t take PEDs, you can only train for so long in the gym before your body starts to deteriorate from the stress you’re placing on it. But fighters who do take PEDs can simply put in more time in the gym than you are physically capable of. Now you are left with a choice: do you want to do the ethically correct thing by staying clean, knowing you will never be as good as your rivals; or do you take the drugs and maybe become a champion? This is not an easy question to answer since, beyond ego, a good deal of money is at stake here and the difference between a UFC champion and a number 5 contender can be the difference between being financially set for life and having to go back to a blue collar job after a few years of fighting, when maybe you have a bum knee and a bad back.
      Fighters should simply not have to be put into this position, where they have to choose between their conscience (not to mention the possible long term health risks that go with PED use) and the one chance to succeed at their lifelong dream.
      This is certainly not new to sports nor is MMA the only sport where this same story plays out. But unlike MLB, the NFL or other sports which, if they haven’t eliminated PED abuse (and they haven’t) have at least managed to make themselves marginally cleaner, MMA is not under one jurisdiction or governing body. It is the wild west of sports where you can get away with almost anything.
      If a state like Nevada decides to not license a fighter who tests positive for PEDs, that fighter can simply go to another state to get licensed and fight there. Even if other states with athletic commissions decide to honor a ban placed upon a fighter in another state, there are still states that do not have athletic commissions, not to mention Indian reservations which may or may not be well regulated. And should every jurisdiction in the United States decide to ban a fighter, an organization like the UFC could simply put him in an overseas show and circumvent the ban that way. And if the UFC does the right thing by honoring local bans in the U.S., or even goes a step beyond that to institute their own comprehensive policy for PED testing and then cuts any fighter who tests positive from their roster… so what?
      Yes, the UFC is the big dog on the block in MMA and that is where fighters can still make the most money. But if you are cut by the UFC for PED use, there are many smaller promotions willing to take you on. While, right now, this is a pretty severe penalty since no other organization can afford to pay fighters as much as the UFC does, what if the UFC began a comprehensive testing policy and caught a dozen of its top fighters testing positive? If they cut all of them and the majority of those fighters go to the same organization, suddenly you’ve created a significant rival to your promotion. So the UFC’s incentive for catching everyone in their employ who takes PEDs will simply never be that great.
      Unfortunately, there is no real answer to this problem in MMA. There will always be a segment of athletes willing to cheat to gain a competitive advantage. And there will always be the rest of the athletes who then feel pressured to do likewise in order to keep up. And there will never be enough resources – or desire – on the part of the people who run the sport to stop the cheating. It’s a bad situation all around and not likely to ever really get better.

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One Response to “The Juice And Nothing But The Juice”

  1. Roger April 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Things have come along way since I used to fight in the early eighties. In those days we didn’t even wear pads and the only place one could not strike was the throat. Nobody ever checked for PED’s in fact the only thing anyone checked was a cursory glance to see whether the loser was conscious. I stopped fighting in tournaments when I looked around at my friends one day to discover that few had any teeth left and their collective IQ was dropping dangerously lower with every fight. Not being exactly a rocket scientist myself, I dropped out and returned to teaching.

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