Golfing legend Casper, who passed away last week, was credited with the classic quip after he had beaten Arnold Palmer in a dramatic playoff to win the 1966 U.S.Open. A news organization had nominated him for “Athlete of the Year.” The Hall of Famer, as many peers weren’t in that era, considered svelte. Yet his rapid wit and putting prowess made him, along with Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus a popular figure on the links and ushered in the era of respect from the masses that golf has today.
Fans of these men came to appreciate the skill and strategy required even if they weren’t golfers themselves; they knew it was a, well, sport. Golfers were athletes. Yes, before the MMA generation was a gleam in their parents’ eye golf was a fringe thing, country club skill level affair. NASCAR had a similar breakthrough a couple of decades later zooming finally past the stereotype of a bunch of Southern boys making left turns. Finally an awareness of how much athleticism is needed to endure driving hundreds of miles at high speeds.
MMA is still the new kid on the big boy sports block, with a little over a decade of firmly established, reputable fights. While it began in the 1990’s in the US, it took over ten years to show it was more than glorified contests. The UFC under Zuffa led the way, leading to the national TV deal they and a few others have now. However MMA has never strayed far enough away from that distant cousin, pro wrestling. A sport or entertainment? Does the show go on at any cost?
Which leads to the series of pre-fight drug testing results that are hanging out there without much pressure to do anything soon. Just report it, hope for some perfunctory press release and let it go until someone actually wants to say something.
It is embarrassing to MMA that the failing of pre-fight tests is becoming the norm; that it is acceptable, even that a star or main event fighter might have tested positive and everyone will find out after the fight…sometime. That superstars are involved in this latest string along with very recognizable fighters and still no uproar is even more alarming.
Anderson Silva had steroids in his system and Nick Diaz exceeded the generous limit of marijuana before their fight. UFC champ Jon Jones defended his title against Daniel Cormier in December and tests showed he had cocaine metabolites in his system prior to the fight, but it was the incredulously out of competition period so nothing was said of the champ’s test until afterwards. Veteran Jon Fitch tested positive for elevated testosterone prior to his World Series of Fight showdown with Rousimar Palhares in December but the results weren’t known until last week.
So why even have the pre-fight tests? If so, why not pay extra to have the findings before the fight? Whether it’s a performance enhancer or a street drug, how many other major sports wouldn’t penalize the athlete before the big game if it is known?
The skeptic could easily ask “Could it be no one really wants the answer beforehand?” That might cause the main event to be canceled and a loss in PPV or TV money with a headliner lost.
“The show must always go on no matter what and it can be dealt with later” is not the way to move forward for any growth beyond the diehard base.
Still it is tricky the separation of sport and entertainment in MMA. The most powerful cable sports company in the world enlists a fighter, who failed multiple drug tests in his career, to be the analyst. Bravo for him, reasonable people don’t want anyone unemployed. But, but and but. Why hasn’t this network hired former baseball players, even though they weren’t tested (because MLB didn’t at the time) and only speculation hangs over them? Because the baseball media would rip the network and the ex-jock anytime drug issues came up, as they should.
Pre or post or somewhere in the middle the tests are becoming laughable with too many failings. It was announced days ago that Hector Lombard tested for steroids after his UFC 182 win over Josh Burkman and subsequently his fight with Rory MacDonald is off for now.
Reading the test results is as much a part of MMA now as the rankings, because they affect the scale. Can Silva get another shot at the title? Is Lombard dropping deep in the pecking order of his weight class? Will third time offender Diaz even get another match?
Speaking on agreement of confidentiality a former boxer said, ” You know why you don’t see boxers failing tests so much like MMA guys? Because they don’t juice up, they have their camps but they are surrounded by support groups of friends, family. I think MMA guys are a more isolated group, it comes from wrestling backgrounds. They are more on their own, they feel they can sneak it by. And there aren’t so many reporters that would jump on them like in boxing with big names.”
The last of the statement is interesting. Because this sport has grown primarily with web coverage, there aren’t as many pundits, columnists, reporters taking a look at the big picture. Not to imply there aren’t some top notch journalists covering MMA, but more are reliant on the organizations, they report on and almost report to. A challenging exposé might mean loss of credentials, threats from a fighter’s manager that he will never talk to you again, or being ostracized by your fellow followers.
Overstating? Consider any other sport where the best athlete tested positive for a street drug, checked in then out of rehab and there wasn’t an uproar from the press to have a public conference, answer real questions, demand that his handlers or organization make it happen.
The benign statements and routine fines from athletic commissions aren’t scrutinized as much as what a Kardashian might do next. Ok, the commission said (fill in the blank); the organization said (something like we hate this happened and have talked to fighter X) and there will be a fine of (fill in the blank).
It has to be more. This is not to advocate any fighter losing their job, ending their career. But there has to be a reckoning and managers, gyms, all involved with that fighter are included. These pre-tests? Either they matter or not and at the moment they don’t. Fighter safety? A man fights on a banned substance that his opponent doesn’t know about until days, weeks later? Who protected the opponent prior to the fight?
The legendary Bas Rutten has long said, “A fighter has to be responsible for what he puts in his body.” MMA has to work with these state commissions—a reminder they are public not a private group–and the fighters to set concrete tests and penalties. Otherwise as a sport, MMA will be damaged goods in a few years even if it is entertaining.