A sport I love is being eaten from the inside out by performance-enhancing drugs. It's crawling with them, like a flea-bitten dog scratching at clumps of knotted hair. I know this, the MMA community knows this, and the authorities that loosely govern the sport know this. Perhaps the tragic part is that it might just be too late to save its credibility.
The man widely considered the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time, Anderson Silva, recently tested positive for two performance-enhancing drugs in an out-of-competition test. This is easily the highest-profile positive test that I've experienced in my time as an MMA fan, and it leaves me questioning the integrity of every single MMA competitor. What always takes my breath away about these results is the bald-faced lying and deception that they uncover. Here is Anderson Silva, four months ago:
“When the guys test for the steroids, (they should have) no more fights,” Silva said. “When you use the steroids, you use them for a long time. When you use the steroids for a long time, you have a problem. It’s a drug and it’s not good for the sport.”
“People around the world love the UFC, but the kids love the UFC, and the families love UFC. It’s bad for the sport. I don’t think this is good because the sport can change the lives of the kids and the people in the world.
He's not going full Lance Armstrong here, but it's pretty fucking galling nonetheless. Maybe I'm naive to be surprised at this given Lance's spectacular fall from grace, but there's an emotional difference between having a nebulous understanding that any competitor could be using these substances to having one of the highest-profile and most revered fighters get busted.
I was critical of cycling fan friends of mine who defended Lance even as the circumstancial evidence against him piled higher and higher. I stand by that criticism; I wasn't questioning why they continued to watch the sport, rather why intelligent people sided with emotion in defending the man rather than siding with logic. The difference for me in this instance is that I know this is happening and I don't believe that we can seriously exclude anyone from suspicion, failed tests or otherwise. Up until this point I hadn't seen one of my favourite fighters test positive so I never fully understood how it would affect my view of the sport. I just might be about to find out.
Take a look at this scorching infographic from the New York Times. The faces you see belong to cyclists who were found to have doped or admitted to doping while finishing top ten at the Tour De France. This shows a stolen decade from what should be one of the world's great sporting events. If the UFC randomly blood-tested every fighter on their roster tomorrow, the situation would be far worse than this.
As much as any other organised, mainstream-ish sport, prizefighting is the Wild West. In administrative and regulatory terms, it is far more decentralised than your favourite football code or more domesticated individual sports like tennis and golf. In this game, all thinking is short-term and money talks, and the serious changes needed to rebuild the sport from the ground up would probably destroy it. So instead the UFC must rebuild the plane while still flying, all the while convincing the passengers that this is only minor turbulence and that normal service will be resumed shortly.
News like this doesn't make me want to abandon the sport. But I suspect it will chew away at the foundations of why I enjoy it. MMA is the most unpredictable, technical and demanding sport that humans participate in. Believing that fighters are just like me humanises the sport, closing the distance between the couch and the cage. Maybe that is more of a fiction than I otherwise cared to imagine.