By Zach Arnold | December 20, 2011
After all the hullabaloo that the Nevada State Athletic Commission put Alistair Overeem through in regards to taking a urine drug test, he’s touting how he’s been drug tested the most out of anyone in the sport. It makes for a media-friendly tag line heading into his fight against Brock Lesnar on Friday, December 30th at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
On this site, we’ve focused on the issue of doping in MMA and what kind of tests athletic commissions could implement if they really wanted to catch more guys in the act of doping. Suffice to say, we don’t buy what Keith Kizer is selling in regards to the claim that urine drug testing is more effective than blood testing. It may be effective for catching idiots who are using horse drugs like boldenone which have a long half-life, but you’re not going to catch any sort of substantive/sophisticated testosterone usage unless you use a Carbon Isotope Ratio test.
Dr. Margaret Goodman appeared on the Sherdog Rewind show this past weekend and did an interview with the inimitable Jack Encarnacao on this very topic. She is launching a new organization called VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency) which will allow fighters in the combat sports to be able to be independently drug tested at a higher standard than what the current athletic commissions are using. You can find out more details about VADA on Twitter and Facebook.
If you’re looking for a perfect example of how VADA can be utilized, Jack brought up the example of Josh Koscheck when he said he wanted to have more stringent drug testing for his fight against Georges St. Pierre. Instead of being lauded for the request, Dana White told him to be quiet and that the commissions are the ones who handle drug testing protocols.
As for why VADA has been established, Dr. Goodman says that the current testing standards simply aren’t modified to test for standards that are important in boxing & MMA.
“The way commissions order tests now, the prices might have changed, but for example to do the regular drug screens that a commission would order, let’s say that they do the complete panel that goes through Quest labs. It could be somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 items, most of which are either drugs of abuse and a lot of other things that maybe aren’t even applicable to combat sports that’s included in the panel and then you’ve got the large amount of numbers of things that are done in the anabolic screening panel and diuretics and masking agents. That may only cost $300 but unfortunately the problem becomes is that you’re missing all these other items. You’re missing EPO, you’re missing checking the blood count which can only maybe cost you $8. But you’re missing all those other things and that’s why the process needs to be advanced and done the right way or not done at all.
“That’s another thing that we really want to do with VADA is we want to educate the athlete on these aspects. When I started working as a ring doctor (and I always go back to this silly story), but when I first started as a ring doctor and I would sit with the fighters and one of the ways you examine a fighter is by hearing them talk and seeing how they respond to questions. You kind of know if somebody’s brain is working well by just doing something simple like that and I would ask them what they were taking. We had a sheet where they had to write down any medications they were on and attest that that’s the only things they were taking. But a lot of fighters would write down that they were taking aspiring and I would say to them, ‘Don’t you know the risks of taking aspirin right before a fight?” and they had no clue and the fighters that had been taking a lot of aspirin you’d often see in a fight those are the guys not just with the nosebleeds but those were the guys that had faces that ended up looking like Elephant Man after five or six rounds. And so to me it was all about education and at first I remember when I would talk to fighters about these things at the weigh-in, you don’t have a lot of time when you’re doing your exam but the trainer would come up and say, ‘don’t, don’t, you’re going to scare them! You’re going to tell them all these things.’ But you know what? I think fighters are different, especially we know with a lot of the UFC fighters they’ve had other jobs in life, some of them are very medically trained. They need to understand all of these different issues so that they know what they’re putting into their bodies (and what) could be detrimental and life-threatening to them.”
Dr. Goodman also think that focusing on anabolic steroid use as opposed to focusing on blood doping is not a good idea given the kinds of health risks involved in that kind of drug usage.
“[Blood doping] is extremely dangerous and it’s probably one of the most dangerous things that an athlete can do and I don’t think that really any commission, at this point in time and for whatever reason, takes this problem as seriously as they should and whether it’s EPO, whether it’s somebody infusing their own blood to bring up their blood count, I mean the risks are just so devastating that it really has to be looked into… I mentioned to you, to do a simple blood count, I just negotiated this with a lab that will be doing it for VADA, I mean it’s going to cost $8 and when you look at the expense of all these other things that are coming up in these drug panels that commissions are often doing that are really of no pertinent value to the safety of the fighter because you order a panel and it’s got a bunch of stuff in it that you didn’t really ask for but it’s just the way the lab has their panel, you know a simple hematocrit, installing that (in a panel) is really going to tell if they’re at a place where they shouldn’t be training and I don’t know the exact rules in Cycling but I do know that they follow the 50% rule and if an athlete’s higher than that, you know they’re not being suspended because someone thinks that they’re blood doping they’re also being suspended because it’s unsafe for them to train when you have too many blood cells that have no room, no place to go, they’re going to get clogged in your arteries and your brain and in your heart and next thing you know you got athletes keeling over for no necessary reason.
“You know what happens? It’s just the same way in other sports is people say, ‘well I’m going to just do it for a short period of time and when the fight’s over or when my competition’s over I’ll go off of this stuff and I’ll just be fine,’ and that’s probably true 90% or maybe even 99% of the time but there’s those risks there and then you put it together with what kind of family history do these athletes have, do they have a family history of heart attack and stroke, what are any other medical issues that they may have that are undisclosed or undiscovered… you know it’s all about education and I think that not only MMA athletes but I think boxers are smart enough to understand this but somebody has to take the time to explain it to them. It shouldn’t just be that we’re testing athletes to catch them, that we’re trying to prove a point or we’re trying to prove that our system is good enough that obviously they’re not using because we don’t catch them…
“Unfortunately, I can tell you some personal experience in my regulatory days is that if a fighter dies, everyone gets all upset because there’s all this (negative) press and obviously everyone’s concerned about the poor individual that passed away but nobody sits down and looks at why, nobody wants to deal with these issues and you really have to … not be afraid to hear the answers. And so after it’s out of the media, these things fade away and that was one of the reasons why I left as a ring physician, it was just so frustrating to me that these issues weren’t taken seriously enough and weren’t acted upon enough.”
As for the great debate about urine vs. blood testing to catch doping, Dr. Goodman agrees with Keith Kizer’s premise… only on one condition, a condition that we’ve brought up before in numerous articles on this site.
“I do agree that urine is better for certain things but, once again, you want to test for everything that’s important and by not testing with blood in addition you’re missing a lot of things. You’re missing every possible instance of blood doping and that can really be lethal to an individual even more so in a lot of respects than someone taking anabolic steroids. The other thing that we’re missing here is, yes, something will stay in someone’s system longer but unfortunately if you don’t do certain kinds of testing, there’s a test (Carbon Isotope Ratio) called CIR. Bottom line is if you don’t do the right test to look for synthetic testosterone, you may miss it any way! The main thing that’s important is this is a growing body of knowledge. Things are changing all the time. Panels that are tested for are changing and if you talk to people now it’s not so much that fighters are using these anabolic steroids that stay in somebody’s system for a long time, they’re too smart for that. Those aren’t the most effective ones out there. They can use creams and gels and things that they can take that are out of their system in just a few hours. Sticking with some kind of urine test so you’re going to catch something that someone took months ago, those aren’t the drugs that these guys are using and we were talking about Carbon Isotope Ratio testing which is a way to make sure whether or not somebody could be using some kind of exogenous testosterone and you might not pick it up in the urine when you’re testing for anabolic steroids specifically but this specific test can often tell you in a much shorter period of time within maybe several hours to days to really pick up and find out whether or not somebody’s been using.”
One of the unique aspects of the drug testing debate is that those who believes the commissions are doing enough or shouldn’t be doing any testing at all say that doping really doesn’t help MMA fighters win fights (based on how many fighters have gotten caught and what their win % is in those fights where they got busted). So, if there’s no winning benefit to doping, then why are so many fighters involved in the practice? Dr. Goodman believes, like you and I do, that there are short-term benefits (that come with higher health risks) when it comes to doping.
“Of course (there are) benefits. The one thing it may not help and I can tell you from years ago when Fernando Vargas lost a fight and then tested positive for Winstrol and he was one of the first major fighters to ever test positive in boxing for anabolic steroids… it certainly didn’t help his chin. So, yeah, there are certain things it won’t help but will it help you train more? Will you be able to train for frequently? Will you then get the benefits of that? Of course you will! And, of course, it can make your stronger and make you faster and maybe it helps on the takedowns. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of different things. Of course it’s valuable but the other side of the coin is that the dangers of it aren’t really appreciated and understood and that’s what makes it so wrong. I just think that the knowledge is partially there not enough and commissions tend to not do as good of a job as maybe they would like to or maybe they even care to.
“I was talking to someone about this that was very much on the inside, not with the commission, but someone very involved in boxing and they said, ‘don’t you understand that this is hell for us? Nobody wants to see fights not take place.’ And so every time, for example, when we started doing MRI testing on fighters nobody was really concerned about the MRI itself but they were concerned about what was going to happen if we found an abnormal result. I mean, I can tell you that there was a very well-respected promoter in boxing (this was before we started having MMA) and the promoter was like, ‘well, do you understand, what (a famous fighter) if he has an abnormal scan?’ And I just looked at him like… well, that’s the point! Isn’t that the point? If someone has an aneurysm or a hemorrhage in their head and he was looking at it from the perspective of the promotional side that ‘that fight won’t take place!’ And, so, that’s another problem with doing drug testing and I sure understand that and I can see why an organization like VADA or even trying to enlist other organizations like WADA or USADA involved in combat sports are not going to be welcomed because no one wants to have anything that can stop a fight and they don’t like to look at the repercussions that it could save somebody’s life, that somebody wasn’t using some substance or some dangerous (agent) to make their performance better.”
Speaking of MRIs, here’s a report that Ron Kruck filed for Inside MMA in which he reviews the study being done at the Cleveland Clinic (in Las Vegas) to give 150 fighters quarterly MRI scans & brain tests to see what kind, if any, damage fighters are suffering in terms of head trauma in their respective sports. The study will be conducted over the next four years.