2012: The Year in Drugs

2012 taught us a lot more than most of us ever wanted to know about drugs in MMA. From the hair splitting nuances separating a marijuana test failure from one for "marijuana metabolites" to the relevance of testosterone to epitestosterone levels it was often a chore to wade through the semantic details necessary to keep up with the news. Don't even get me started on the odious phrase "therapeutic use exemption." Yeesh. Isn't following MMA supposed to be fun?

In a perfect world fighters wouldn't keep using drugs and writers could devote more time to telling entertaining stories about Bob Sapp going over the top on Mark Hunt in a Japanese arm wrestling tournament or whatever bizarre flight of fancy Anderson Silva happens to be on at the moment. Unfortunately that's not the world we live in. If we take it as a given that one of the primary functions of journalism is to provide the public with the news of the day, then stories on drugs aren't likely to go away anytime soon no matter how much of a downer they may be.

However, when we talk about drugs in MMA it's important to first define our terms. Are we talking about performance enhancing drugs or are we talking about drugs of abuse? Because there's a big difference between the two when it comes to combat sports.

PEDs are bad enough in sports like baseball where the main thing at risk is the integrity of the sport. However, someone who uses a PED in order to gain an advantage heading into a fight is not only a cheater, he's also putting his opponent's safety at serious risk. Anabolic steroids - and that includes testosterone - enable fighters to dish out more severe punishment over a greater duration of time, which is a concern that simply isn't there in, say, the Tour de France.

For a case in point, look no further than the first high profile drug test suspension of 2012: Strikeforce women's featherweight champion Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos. Cyborg tested positive for stanozolol following her shellacking of Hiroko Yamanaka on December 17th, 2011. For years rumors of doping swirled around the heavily muscled Santos as she brutalized her opponents in one-sided muggings. While it's impossible to know for certain whether or not steroids were in part responsible for any of Cyborg's other victories, we do know for certain she had male hormones inside her when she brutalized Yamanaka with repeated shots to the head.

Of course to hear Santos tell it she's a clean fighter who made a mistake and took a dietary supplement laced with stanozolol. It must just be a coincidence she happened to take a supplement containing an anabolic steroid commonly used by female athletes looking to reduce the masculinizing side effects common with most steroids.

The tainted supplement defense would also be the first line of defense for two more high profile steroid test failures in 2012: Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal and UFC heavyweight number one contender Alistair Overeem. According to Lawal the over the counter supplement "S-Mass Lean Gainer" led to him getting flagged for drostanolone following
a January 7th win over Lorenz Larkin. While it's next to impossible to buy Lawal's story that he unwittingly put drostanolone in his body, it's hard not to feel for him somewhat when you consider he went into the Larkin fight with a torn ACL and was likely looking for some pharmacological assistance to make it through the fight.

Similarly, it's easy to see where Stephan Bonnar was coming from when he too took drostanolone - commonly used to assist with weight cutting - leading into a last minute fight with Anderson Silva at UFC 153. It was the fight of the lifetime for the semi-retired Bonnar, and evidently he was willing to do whatever it took to reach the 205 pound light heavyweight limit with just a couple weeks to prepare. Unfortunately the test failure cast a shadow on what was otherwise a memorable last moment in the spotlight for the likeable journeyman.

There's absolutely no excuse for Alistair Overeem's April 4th failure for elevated levels of testosterone however. Well, there might if you buy his utterly incredulous story that he was administered an anti-inflammatory shot laced with testosterone by one Hector Molina MD of the, ahem, Men's Performance Enhancement Clinic, but luckily's Dr. Johnny Benjamin debunked that whopper when he wrote, "Testosterone is never included in [anti-inflammatory] injections for any legitimate purpose." (Italics his)

If the implications of Overeem's failure weren't so serious, it would be rather amusing to see him popped for testosterone his first time back in Nevada after a 2011 fiasco that saw him fail to submit a proper urine sample to the Nevada State Athletic Commission and subsequently be granted a conditional license that stipulated two random drug tests a year. It takes a special combination of arrogance and foolhardiness to fail a random drug test that could hardly be more predictable if the NSAC sent out invitations for it.

Perhaps the best excuse for a PED failure this year just might have to go to Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. He tested positive for stanozolol in May after making quick work of opponent Mike Kyle. His excuse was truly a thing of inept beauty: his legal council claimed he urinated inside a used cup - one previously used by Cavalcante himself mind you - which meant his sample could have become contaminated. Because as we all know, there are nefarious stanozlol particles just floating in the air waiting to jump into plastic cups full of clean urine. Needless to say, this hail Mary attempt to get out of a suspension failed and Cavalcante was suspended for a year.

On the other side of the drug suspension coin in 2012 we have fighters suspended for drugs of abuse, primarily marijuana. Unlike PEDs, recreational drugs are primarily a "victimless crime" when it comes to MMA competition. While you obviously don't want someone walking to a cage fight higher than a giraffe's mane, it really doesn't harm anyone if he or she relaxes after practice with a bowl or two. When it comes to hard drugs like cocaine or prescription pain killers then suspensions and rehab seem like appropriate measures, but a year on the shelf in the prime of one's career for something as innocuous as smoking a joint hardly seems fair (And for the record let me state I'm about the farthest thing imaginable from a pot smoker).

Yet we saw at least two UFC fighters sent to rehab after failing a test for pot in 2012: Dave Herman and Thiago Silva. To be fair the failure was Herman's second for marijuana and Silva's came just a little under a year after he returned from a prior suspension for PED use so perhaps something more stringent than a 90 day suspension was in order for these two repeat offenders.

Nick Diaz's February positive test result for - ugh - "marijuana metabolites" was also his second offense. While it's certainly easy to laugh at the unintentional comedy provided by Diaz's subsequent feud with the NSAC, something about his one year suspension for smoking marijuana out of competition is hard to square away with Alistair Overeem's nine month suspension for failing a PED screening.

It also begs the question: just what is the purpose of drug testing in MMA? To attempt to clean up the sport and help ensure a level playing field for all athletes who pursue a career in it? Or is it to arbitrarily punish drug users beyond the purview of the criminal justice system? If it's the former, then perhaps somebody needs to figure out a way to make random, out of competition PED screening a reality. As it is, it's hard to take an athletic commission seriously when it grants Alistair Overem a reduced sentence after the fiasco surrounding his pre-UFC 141 screening but then throws the book at Nick Diaz for toking up a few days before a fight.

Then again, these are the rules every fighter implicitly agrees to when he or she decides to become a professional mixed martial artist. Like it or not we're bound to see more fighters attempting to skirt these rules and getting caught red handed in 2013. When they inevitably do, I just wonder if the punishment will always fit the crime?


List of UFC and Strikeforce Fighters Issued Drug Suspensions in 2012 (With TUE's For TRT included in italics)

  1. Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos suspended one year following a positive test result for the steroid stanozolol following a December 17th, 2011 win over Hiroko Yamanaka at "Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal." (Test result announced 1/6/12)
  2. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal suspended one year following a positive test result for the steroid drostanolone following a January 7th win over Lorenz Larkin at Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine." (Test result announced 1/17/12)
  3. Nick Diaz suspended one year following a positive test result for marijuana following a February 4th loss to Carlos Condit at UFC 143. (Test result announced 2/9/12)
  4. Quinton Rampage Jackson issued a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy prior to his UFC 144 loss to Ryan Bader on February 26th.
  5. Alistair Overeem suspended for nine months after failing a random pre-fight PED screening with an elevated testosterone to epitestosterone ratio of 14 to 1 after a press conference for his scheduled UFC 146 main event with heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. (Test result announced 4/4/12)
  6. Frank Mir granted a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy prior to his May 26th loss to Junior dos Santos at UFC 146.
  7. Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante suspended one year following a positive test result for the steroid stanozolol following his May 19th win over Mike Kyle at the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Finale. (Test result announced 6/18/12)
  8. Forrest Griffin granted a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy prior to his July 7th win over Tito Ortiz at UFC 148.
  9. Chael Sonnen granted a therapeutic use exemption for testosterone replacement therapy prior to his July 7th loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 148.
  10. Jake Shields is suspended six months after testing positive for an undisclosed banned substance following his August 11th win over Ed Herman at UFC 150. (Test result announced 10/12/12)
  11. Matt Riddle is suspended 90 days after testing positive for marijuana after his July 21st victory over Chris Clements at UFC 149. (Test result announced 10/18/12)
  12. Francisco Rivera is suspended 90 days after testing positive for an unidentified over the counter stimulant following his July 21st victory over Roland Delorme at UFC 149. (Test result announced 10/18/12)
  13. Stephan Bonnar is suspended one year following a positive test result for the anabolic steroid drostanolone following his October 13th loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 153. (Test result announced 11/2/12)
  14. Dave Herman is suspended six months following his his October 13th loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 153. (Test result announced 11/2/12)
  15. Thiago Silva is suspended six months following his November 10th victory over Stanislav Nedkov at UFC on FUEL TV 6. (Test result announced 11/21/12)

Look for more year in review columns from me over the next few days.

Follow me on Twitter @BorchardtMMA

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