The gym is as quiet as the grave. In the changing room the lime-scale encrusted shower head trickles and drizzles like an open wound that won’t heal. The fighter peels down his shorts to expose the upper, outer quarter of his quartz hard flank. He torques his aching upper body to ensure that he can see what he's doing. The hypodermic needle in his hand is charged with Nubain. A little something he got off the web to take away the pain of that injury. Prior to readying for the injection, he has already downed a couple of Tamoxifen tablets, such is the pick 'n' mix nature of this self-mandated, self-prescribed self-medication culture that runs rife through a certain type of gym. Ordinarily prescribed to patients with breast cancer, today the Tamoxifen has been tipped into the body of a perfectly healthy athlete. It’s being used to prevent gynecomastia, just one of the unwelcome side effects of anabolic steroid use. 'Bitch Tits' as it is otherwise known is a malady that also sometimes afflicts paedophiles and sex offenders as they are pumped full of hormones whilst they undergo chemical castration. But we digress.., on then he goes, after the tablets he gets to the injection. The prick of the needle doesn't register, as it cleaves apart the dermal cells that wrap the fat, bone and muscles belonging to this particular athlete; for he knows the jagged spike of pain. With the flex of his thumb the plunger plunges, driving the fluid down the barrel, along the fine steel lance and into the waiting network of blood vessels. With its bounty delivered the needle is wrapped in a bloodied tissue and tossed into a bin. Welcome to the world of MMA fighters and performance enhancing drugs….
"I would definitely say somewhere in the percentage of 85% of guys are definitely using, especially the guys who can afford it are definitely using. I would even go as high as 95 to 96% of the top level athletes that are definitely using it. You can clearly see it…"
Krzysztof Soszynski, Former MMA Fighter
Since he first discovered the mind altering qualities of various plants, seeds and herbs, 'man' has had a tumultuous relationship with what we now refer to as ‘drugs’. In a time long ago, the psychoactive alkaloids running rich through the pink flowered peyote cacti allowed Native American Indians to walk through the psychedelic doorways in their minds, into multi-coloured parallel dimensions. Elsewhere in the world the opium eaters lost themselves in heroin hazes so deliciously deep and warm that the next luxuriating dose could not come soon enough. Not content with just 'tuning in' or 'dropping out', Scandinavian mythology is alive with the blood spattered tales of frenzied Berserkers, intoxicated on herbal potions, who fired up with the strength of a dozen men would then hoist aloft their bone crusted battle axes and scream wildly as they raged into mortal combat...
Then there were the truly body altering substances. In the late 1800’s Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, a renowned but eccentric Parisian physiologist attempted to bolster his sexual prowess, and lengthen his life, by injecting himself with a cocktail distilled from the essence of monkeys' testes, dogs semen and blood. Low and behold this experimentation with these greasy and slimy body extracts actually yielded results. It gave way to the science of endocrinology and as a result the world would come to worship the mystical powers of the substances known to the world as 'hormones'. In competitive sports today, all else are but pharmalogical Hors d'oeuvres compared to the sumptuous and physiologically invigorating main course that is testosterone. Emanating from the testes and adrenal glands in men, and the ovaries in women, it is the rocket fuel that powers the development of muscle mass, bone density and aggression. But beware.. Too much testosterone in your body however, and there are some unwelcome and well flagged risks to wrestle with; you are more likely to drink too much, to acquire a sexually transmitted disease, to be involved in criminal activity, display dominance traits, make rash decisions and remain single. Oh, and before we forget, if you are a man your body converts the excess into oestrogen (the primary female sex hormone). As a result of this your testicles will wither, your sperm count drop off a cliff, and then slowly, gradually and delicately a you may start to morph into a female of the species. Then come the mood swings, irritability, fluid retention, heart damage and of course the breasts. Until, finally the ‘man’ is no more. Germain Greer was perhaps being prescient, or just deliciously ironic, when she said, "I think that testosterone is a rare poison…."
The value of the illicit market was estimated to be between $300 million to $400 million by the U.S. General Accounting
The term 'Anabolic Steroids' is the name given to the group of drugs that are manufactured to mimic the effects of testosterone. Like the real thing they increase protein synthesis within cells, which results in the build-up of cellular tissue, something that is revealed in the immense, gnarled musculature on display in some gyms and dojos. To illustrate their power you only need look at the results of a 1996 study which showed men who used steroids for a ten week cycle gained 13 pounds of muscle and could bench press an additional 48 pounds. You can't continue to talk about steroids without also mentioning that they also bestow a set of much prized virilising properties upon the user. These include the development and maintenance of uber-masculine characteristics such as deeply resonating vocal chords, and of course the physical formation of the much exalted male totems; the penis and its partner in crime, the scrotum with its priceless bounty nestled within; a big, beefy and bouncing pair of fully functioning testicles. Then there is the sprouting of a lush, oily thatch of body hair that garnishes these powerful appendages (notwithstanding the proviso that you don't overdo it, see the excess reserves of testosterone converted to oestrogen, and witness those prized assets atrophy and get sexually decommissioned as a result).
Steroids, in this much sought after man-made form, were first formulated and manufactured in the 1930s. They are now used therapeutically in medical settings to treat a host of chronic wasting conditions that ravage the bodies of cancer and A.I.D.S patients. So they 'build you up', 'bulk you out' and 'boost' the recipients 'performance' on a variety of very primal levels. Such gains have to be a very appealing prospect for any professional sports practitioner (in the main we are of course talking about sportsmen here; for sure there are women who 'juice up' to get such gains, but for the most part we are talking about men. Males are, after all, the most competitive manifestation of the species by biological default - for good or ill). For fight athletes it's the chance to gain an 'edge' in a sport that celebrates aggression and power.
The quest for that 'edge' is highly visible, and the price being paid in it's name is there for all to see. The search term ‘anabolic steroids for sale’ brings back ¾ million results in 1/5th of a second. Like sweets in an exotic candy store a veritable cornucopia of performance enhancing substances are available. They trip off the tongue like such sweet testosterone flows through the veins of a raging bull on full sexual heat… bolasterone; boldenone; boldione danazol, drostanolone; ethylestrenol, mestanolone; mesterolone; metenolone; norboletone; norclostebol; norethandrolone; oxabolone; oxandrolone; oxymesterone; prostanozol and stanozolol. Injected and ingested they then course and surge around the body, breaking down and building up key cellular architecture; like a roman army rampaging through conquered countries and building an empire. The magnetic pull for an MMA fighter is undeniable. To date those who have been tested and returned positive results reads like a who’s who of MMA marquee names from across a variety of promotions; Josh Barnett,Mo Lawal, Stephan Bonnar, Ken Shamrock, Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos and Alistair Overeem. And those are only the ones who have been called to account. To further confuse the issue, officially mandated Testosterone Replacement Therapy is now also in widespread use (it's prescribed for various medical conditions where natural levels of testosterone are low) and it's legitimate use is bleeding into the illicit use with fighters getting caught up in overdosing scandals. Furthermore the rest of the sporting world, including athletics, weightlifting, cycling and the NFL, have all pioneered various 'cheats' which fighters can choose from; the use of EPO, the practice of blood doping, the injection of 'Human Growth Hormone' and latterly 'Gene Doping'. What is happening to the sport? What lies in store for it next?
1,084,000 Americans admitted to using anabolic steroids – US Dept of Justice
The best predictor of future events is past history... On that basis if MMA is the fresh faced virgin in the sports locker room with the dewy blush of innocence still on her cheeks, then professional wrestling is the 300lb scar-tissue laden journeyman tossing his testosterone-drenched jockstrap into the communal linen basket as he deposits an industrial-sized gobbet of phlegm on the tiled floor. Pro wrestling is an industry that has thrived on size, power and athleticism for years, and has greedily guzzled at the teat of performance enhancing elixirs for as long as it can remember. It has seen giants stand tall and fight, and it has also seen many of its heroes flounder, fall and even die on the wastelands that are littered with the discarded blister packs, vials and syringes that once housed drugs; recreational as well as performance enhancing. Whether it be hypertrophied hearts saturated with growth hormone that have grown too big to continue beating, or the violent waves of aggression and paranoia that have led to suicide and homicide, athletes are actually dying. Wrestling royalty such as ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and Road Warrior Hawk have all spoken publicly about the heady cocktail of commercial pressure, training demands, career threatening injuries and isolation that have tipped some of the biggest names in the sport over into using pain killers, stimulants, alcohol and steroids as a means of coping with the pressures. (Ironically Road Warrior Hawk, real name Michael James Hegstrand died at the age of 46 due to a heart attack). Comments by such athletes shine a light on the reality of what’s really happening. It’s not as simple as a desire for bigger muscles. The reality is not a case of ‘to bulk, or not to bulk…". It’s probably closer to the truth to say "I need something to take away my doubt, anxiety, fear and pain. I need something to give me strength, stamina, energy and a chance to become a 'someone'…".
November 2005 saw the death of 38-year-old wrestling star Eddie Guerrero, which pressured Vince McMahon and the W.W.E wrestling authority, such that it was, to do something. When critical stories in the press drew attention to the deaths almost 60 wrestlers who failed to reach the age of 50 the clamour reached fever pitch. Whilst the causes of death ranged from murder to suicide, from drug overdose to heart attack Vince McMahon instituted a "wellness policy". Within the next 12 months, 40% of the contracted wrestlers tested positive for banned drugs, with 22 wrestlers testing positive for steroids alone. Eliminating steroids from such a hyper-masculine culture is a big ask despite the fact there are such obvious consequences to their use. USA TODAY reported that wrestlers were 12 times more likely to die from heart disease than other Americans and 20 times more likely to die before the age of 45 than pro football players. Then Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son before killing himself. A brutal and heart rending tragedy. The autopsy revealed he had Xanax, hydrocodone, and an elevated level of testosterone in his bloodstream. Other factors implicated included the marital stress arising from his high-pressure lifestyle as well as brain damage arising from wrestling injuries. A salutary lesson if ever there was one on the risks arising from a sport, which like MMA, takes its athletes to the very edge of the spiritual, emotional and physical precipice.
MMA is a sport governed by the fight promotions. For sure, in the U.S. the Athletics Commissions run testing regimes, but these don't extend all the way across to Europe or run down into the depths of the amateur game. There is no all-powerful world governing body in place to serve the ever growing population of young MMA fighters coming through its ranks. The deal that promoters strike with these fighters is complex one, and requires a delicate balance to be struck. On one hand they will be telling their young assets that they must fight, and fight hard to succeed and make a mark on the sport,. But on the other hand they will be asking them not to go to the steroid saturated extremes to deliver on that expectation, or to edge out the competition. What is beyond doubt is that in this equation the fight promotions have a huge challenge before them. They have a mountain to climb if they are going to factor in human nature and protect the integrity of their sport. Any bureaucratic pronouncements which are issued, calling for a clean sport don’t take into account the vanity, pride, ambition and aggression that are an integral part of the human condition, especially that of a driven, competitive performer; of a fighter. A fighter who by their very nature has to overcome obstacles to win. It’s like telling people not to steal, lie or cheat. These 'short-cuts' to our goals are what we as a species are built to do. Taking them, and taking risks got us where we are today. The 'fair play' rules that get printed out and handed down are just artificial codes draped over a real-world problem that are no more likely to be successful than a restraining order that's been issued to a rabid pit-bull. Sometimes it's the 'carrot', but in this instance the only language a fighter may understand is the 'stick; in the form of a nightstick across the kneecaps. To dissuade fighters from taking a chance, the promoters must make them face what they fear the most; the end of their fight careers ..
37.5% of the drugs tested by researchers contained different pharmacological compounds from those that were on the label
As a growing sport, MMA is now facing up to the growing reality of performance enhancing drugs. Undoubtedly some of the biggest promotions in the game, such as the UFC, have been very robust, flexed a lot of muscle and run a bunch of transgressors out of fight town. But the truth is they operate on a level of organisation and sophistication that most can only dream of. They can afford to dump fighters for stepping out of line, as legions of others are queuing up around the block to join the ranks of the world’s most prestigious fight organisation. Not everyone has that power however, and of course there is still the sneaky, sly and devious side of human nature to contend with. You have to work very hard to find 'drugs cheats' in any sport, as people tend to be adept at deceiving, so powerful is their craving to 'be' someone, or at least feel like they are. Witness Lance Armstrong's career long ability to hide in plain sight. Whatever strategy is finally agreed upon needs to run bottom up, and not operate only at the highest level. From the first time they step in the competitive cage fighters must know what they stand to lose. Before bad habits start to form...
So the claxon has sounded and the fight to stamp out drugs is under way, and it's not going to be a walkover. As long as fans require the kick and rush of alcohol coursing through their veins to heighten the ecstasy of the fight spectacle, and as long as the high rollers crave the bitter kick of the cocaine crystals which tumble along the length of those crisply rolled bank notes, then fighters will want to be bigger, faster, stronger, more aggressive and quicker to return from injury. They will need to cope with the unbelievable demands that putting your life on the line imposes. As long as man seeks the thrill of the fight, the euphoria of triumph or the pursuit of emotional or spiritual actualisation, drugs will always exist, be craved and be consumed..
Thomas de Quincey, once said of his vice in the 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater', "Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages... Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket; such portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle…". That's how easy it is. You can reach out and, as ex-fighter Krzysztof Soszynski and latterly Georges St Pierre have intimated, you can lay your hands on them without breaking sweat. The lid is now undeniably off of this particular pharmaceutical pint bottle, call it Pandora's if you will. And the lid won’t easily close. Just ban these drugs and they will lurk in the shadows; less than scrupulous quasi-chemists will mix them with all manner of available compounds. Pseudo-doctors will continue to prescribe all manner of untried and untested substances, some of which unbelievably are destined for the bodies of sexually deficient bullocks and stallions, but which end up in the bodies of fighters. Furtively supplied substances will also nestle, along with hepatitis 'C' and other pathogens in dirty delivery paraphernalia. These will all be supplied to end users who won’t receive any professional medical screening for contra-indications or risk factors. All because there is a desire to win, and there is money to be made. As a result the needy and the greedy will work out elaborate ways to mask drugs, design them outside of the legal framework and find products whose physiological yield lies outside of the testing regimen.. With the battle lines drawn, the fight will continue to rage.
… As the fighter walks through the gym he contemplates winning. Winning at all costs. With the sport's popularity growing exponentially there is competition for the professional contracts, there is pressure to fight, to recover from injury and to deliver the sorts of performances that fight fans crave. Until performance enhancing drugs are regulated or controlled effectively they will continue to be used. Until the realities of the demands that are placed on fighters are discussed they will continue to take their toll. It’s time to at talk about them. Talk about them in a grown up way, and not just make religious-like pronouncements on the evils and wrongs of drug use from those lofty pulpits of a utopian Stepford-like suburbia where no one ever transgresses or succumbs to very human urges. The sport, and the bodies of a legion of athletes who provide its engine are too important for that. It’s time for an honest appraisal, to leave the emotions to one side, otherwise it can only end in blood, sweat and tears...