The mixed martial arts world has taken some hits when it comes to drug testing. Whether it’s a case of smoking marijuana or delving into steroids and other enhancement drugs, some fighters seem to have a nonchalant attitude about drugs in general.
Now, one famous MMA fighter with a black mark in his recent past is ready to perform at UFC 84 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The event is called “Ill Will,” but a slightly checkered past has a few ears buzzing.
And in this current climate of vigilance against cheaters, former lightweight champ Sean Sherk will have to overcome the belief -- and the California State Athletic Commission finding -- that he knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Sherk failed a drug test after his fight in Sacramento last July 2007 when he fought Brazil’s Hermes Franca. In fact, both fighters failed their tests and were suspended by the California State Athletic Commission.
Even Sherk's opponent has weighed in on the matter. Current champ B.J. Penn has repeatedly called Sherk a cheater and characterizing steroid use as "cowardly."
It's a problem that MMA – much like the rest of the sports world – will continue to face. For his part, Sherk was given a one-year suspension, appealed, and ultimately convinced the CSAC to reduce the sentence to six months. Still, his test result was not overturned and he was ultimately stripped of his belt. Now he looks forward to regaining the UFC lightweight title against Penn, who beat Joe Stevenson to capture the coveted crown.
But how will fans know Sherk is clean?
Keith Kizer, executive director for Nevada State Athletic Commission, said both Sherk and Penn were tested where they train in Minnesota and Hawaii, respectively, and passed the random test.
“It was good news. No positive tests,” said Kizer who gave the go-ahead for the drug tests to both fighters. “There’s been nothing since mid-December. Hopefully that will continue.”
The last MMA fighters that failed drug tests in Nevada were Anthony Lapsley, Adam Torres and Ariel Gandulla. The first fighter tested positive for marijuana; the last two were found to have traces of steroids in their system.
Marc Ratner, the former NSAC executive director now working for UFC, said that most of the main-event participants of their fight cards are tested. But not all of the fighters undergo the scrutiny.
“At the Commission meeting, they said, ‘we want to have a random test right away around April 1.’ They called us and we got a hold of them and told them where to find them,” said Ratner, adding that pro boxers Shane Mosley and Zab Judah were also tested around the same time.
All four fighters passed their tests.
Meanwhile, in California, MMA fighters continue to fail drug tests at an alarming rate. The state began administering drug tests more than a year ago and the number of positive MMA tests surpasses those in Nevada. California found a total of 65 fighters failing the tests while Nevada found 24 in the same time period.
Though Las Vegas MMA cards are considered huge moneymakers and the biggest in the world, the total number of drug tests do not equal the number of tests administered in California. In fact, not all states administer drug tests for fighters because of the cost.
California has the most MMA fights and pro boxing matches in the country and felt compelled under CSAC executive officer Armando Garcia to maintain integrity and physical equality among fighters.
“We have 120 shows in boxing and 60 in MMA and the numbers coming out are super high,” said Garcia. “It’s a no-brainer. There’s more drug usage in MMA than boxing.”
Why so many?
No clear-cut reason exists for the disparity in drug tests failures between MMA and boxing, but there are plenty of theories.
But one fighter who formerly boxed and now practices MMA, said he was shocked at the difference in discipline outside of the training area.
“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.”
Ratner, who’s worked with both sports, said it puzzles him.
“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.”
Don Leonard, a writer for an MMA magazine in Los Angeles, said the cultural difference is indeed a point of reference.
“Most MMA guys come from middle-class homes and have the money to go to martial arts classes," says Leonard, who’s covered the sport for 10 years. "It’s something crazy to do to have fun. Boxers are generally poor. They come in poor and have a different mindset. It’s do-or-die for them.”
Recently, in California, MMA fighter Ricky Shivers tested positive for exceedingly high levels of Boldenone and Nandrolone.
“Royce Gracie set the previous record,” said Garcia regarding nanogram (ng) levels for Nandrolone. Gracie tested in the 70s during his last fight in June 2007. “This guy (Shivers) was over 250 ng. This guy was loaded to every bone in his body.”
Slowing down usage
UFC president Dana White has said on numerous occasions that the organization wants a squeaky clean image and has held an organizational meeting with all of the fighters under the umbrella to discuss the importance of remaining drug free.
On June 7, the next UFC event takes place in London, England. No commission exists in that country and there is no governing body mandating drug testing. Ratner said UFC is going to test the main-event fighters and eight others. They want everything to be regulated.
“Eventually the British board will do that,” said Ratner.
While some may question the organization regulating itself, the UFC tested its own fighters at last September's UFC 75 and reported that one fighter, Anthony Torres, had failed his drug test due to elevated levels of Boldenone. Torres was eventually cut from the organization.
Drug usage among MMA fighters looks to be slowing down, according to both Nevada and California commissions.
Ratner has a hunch that the word is definitely out now.
“I think it’s because MMA was not regulated for so long," Ratner said. "They weren’t medically tested or drug tested. But now it’s regulated in 32 states and you see less and less of positive drug tests.
It's all done so fans can trust that when Sherk steps into the Octagon to challenge Penn for the UFC lightweight title, it’s going to be mano a mano, and nothing more.
Fights coming up
Sat. May 3 – Full Force IV at Maui War Memorial Gym in Maui. (808) 250-0737.
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