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The Fight Opinion Five: The Regulators and The Drug Cheats

By Zach Arnold | December 26, 2009

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Throughout the past decade, we have looked through our site archives and all of the various notes written during the time period to come up with five of the most interesting and important stories that Zach Arnold and the Fight Opinion team have covered. This is an arbitrary list of themes, but each theme carries historical importance and also emotional importance to not only the fans but also the authors, too. This is not an article series meant to cover everything that happened over the past decade, but rather to highlight what were some of the most fascinating stories to cover.

The Zuffa Myth. Those words won’t ring a bell to the casual MMA fan, but they became a bane to my existence in life this past decade. For the smarter, veteran MMA fans who understood how the Unified Rules came about in Mixed Martial Arts, watching UFC and favorable media cohorts push the storyline that it was Zuffa that cleaned up the sport of MMA and implemented a rule structure was one of the most irritating things imaginable. Why was it so irritating? Because Zuffa, through sheer market force, has done a wonderful job of getting many States and countries to sanction and regular Mixed Martial Arts. The company had no reason to push the myth that they were the ones who invented regulation the sport, but yet they did and it has been a great disservice to the people who were actually involved in the initial regulatory process.

We know about the origins of the rules in Quebec (a sports commission that would ironically surface years later in controversy in relation to a major UFC event at the Bell Centre) and how New Jersey under the leadership of Nick Lembo and Larry Hazzard was the first state to cement the Unified Rules into place. (California originally had meetings but NJ got it done before the Golden State did.) What you see today in terms of rules is largely in part due to the work of the New Jersey commission. The commission has been a leader and not a follower when it comes to Mixed Martial Arts. They recently brought replay to the forefront for referees to use in certain instances during fights. Nevada would soon adopt New Jersey’s replay rule.

The push for regulation of Mixed Martial Arts was critical for the success of the sport in the Western world. Japan has no regulation and never will have regulation of MMA. They can say drug testing exists, but when’s the last time anyone got suspended over there for taking HGH or steroids? Each promotion in Japan used and still uses different rules (there were PRIDE rules, there were K-1 MMA rules, there were Shooto rules). Uniformity didn’t exist. Open-weight freak shows were all the norm and still are in Japan. UFC made sure to push the Unified rules and used the best people possible to put their cause forward — including the signing of former Nevada State Athletic Commission head Marc Ratner. The move to hire Ratner stunned the boxing world and served to put states on notice that he and lobbyists would be ready to come and present Zuffa’s case to regulate MMA. Simply making “there’s money to be made!” sales pitches wasn’t going to cut it.

The move for regulation of MMA in many States and countries has been such a success that the public focus has shifted more towards the efficiency of the many state athletic commissions to manage MMA regulation. It will be a dominant storyline for the Mixed Martial Arts industry heading into the next decade. The proper training of officials and judges, upgrading drug testing of fighters, and accurate enforcement of the rules are major issues that will put many of the top commissioners in the spotlight.

So far, the spotlight hasn’t been pretty. I have always been a proponent for regulation of Mixed Martial Arts, but my biggest fear has been the people in charge. Nothing irritates people more than to see complete and total inefficiency, cronyism, and corporatism in action at such regulatory levels.

Larry Hazzard ended up losing his job due to a political war and the fight game was left poorer because of it. For every Larry Hazzard, we ended up with someone like Armando Garcia — whose antics became such fodder that people all but celebrated his departure from being head of the California State Athletic Commission. The ultimate irony? There are media reports claiming that he’s working for the Fertitta empire in Las Vegas now. However, the damage of Garcia’s tenure has been noticeable — the amount of MMA events in California now versus two or three years ago has dropped off significantly. Garcia promised that MMA activity would boom in the state, but the way the CSAC managed to run shows combined with the heavy financial costs of taxes and production costs of running shows has all but limited MMA”s growth in the state. Garcia left California due to scandal.

Keith Kizer stepped into Marc Ratner’s role in Nevada and the results so far have been nothing short of “business as usual.” It’s been one issue after another with Kizer. Despite the fact that a lot of the fight media has given Nevada a mostly-free pass, people are waking up and seeing what’s going on.

Even when Kizer and the NSAC have been on the “right side” of an issue, there has been nothing but controversy. Think about the greasing scandal between Georges St. Pierre and BJ Penn. Penn, to this day, says he won’t fight in Nevada. After the initial estimates of over 600,000 PPV buys at UFC 107 involving Penn vs. Diego Sanchez, I bet UFC and the NSAC are hoping Penn fights in the state again.

Three glaring examples of the NSAC at work…

Which brings us to some of the drug scandals that have happened over the past decade in Mixed Martial Arts.

If drug tests are nothing more than IQ tests, then we’ve had some spectacular failures in Mixed Martial Arts. However, it’s fascinating to see both the insider and the public reaction to the guys who have failed tests. Josh Barnett’s failed drug test last Summer killed a mega-money fight with Fedor for the third Affliction show. Barnett not being able to fight Fedor ended up giving Affliction an opening to negotiate a settlement with UFC, which has now resulted in M-1 filing a lawsuit and Affliction fighting back against M-1 in court. Sean Sherk and Hermes Franca both failed drug tests for their UFC 73 fight. Sherk has struggled to get back into MMA action and is largely booed by fans. Franca, not so much. The ultimate in drug test failures was Royce Gracie getting busted for nandrolone. As soon as he got busted, everyone’s first thought was, “Nobody’s going to care. He’s Royce. People will forget.” Sure enough, the drug test failure is rarely ever brought up when Royce’s name is mentioned in public.

The selective outrage that has accomplished those who failed drug tests (including your garden variety Boldenone suspensions for Kit Cope and Stephan Bonnar) is predictable in terms of the behavior of the average American sports fan. If the star isn’t a heel or isn’t perceived to be a big name, then the test failure really doesn’t mean much. However, if the fighter is one most crowds hate or is perceived to be a big name ready to be taken down a peg or two, then there’s outrage.

Which brings us to why regulation is a good thing for Mixed Martial Arts and why the proper, credible enforcement of such regulation is key for the sport’s long-term credibility. I’ve spent my life covering the Japanese fight scene and most fans of the Japanese scene know that guys who fight there understand that it’s like fighting in the Wild West. You didn’t know how many guys were on something and what that something was, but you knew something was going on. When PRIDE collapsed and UFC attempted to bring in top fighters from that promotion, a big question asked by a lot of the fans was which guys would take the plunge and which guys wouldn’t do it because of the commission-appointed drug testing policies (as weak as they may be). When drug testing happened, we saw that a lot of the good, but not main-event level fighters like Dan Henderson and Rampage Jackson became the most successful cross-over stars in UFC. There are still big-name fighters from PRIDE who never fought in the UFC and the cynicism about drug usage will forever haunt PRIDE’s legacy.

Let’s hope that in the coming decade that there isn’t a same level of cynicism about the performance of the regulatory bodies that are in charge of governing Mixed Martial Arts. If there is, the health of the industry will be in big trouble.

Topics: All Topics, Boxing, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 15 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

15 Responses to “The Fight Opinion Five: The Regulators and The Drug Cheats”

  1. 45 Huddle says:

    I expect nothing from Japan, but all American promoters need to implement the “Josh Barnett Rule”. If you are busted 3 times for PED’s, you are no longer allowed to compete in America… Whether that be in a sanctioned state or not. And those same companies cannot use that fighter overseas either. Smoking lots of weed Nick Diaz style does not apply….

    The Zuffa Myth is correctly named. It never bothered me as much as it did others. I care that the sport is regulated and accepted, I don’t care who wants to take the credit for it. And while Dana White is full of crap when he says what Zuffa has done in terms of regulation… They are still the best organization in terms of making sure their fighters are tested and that regulation happens in each state before they put on fights there.

  2. Steve4192 says:

    I hate to say it, but I agree with Huddle.

    I don’t care one iota who gets credit for the sanctioning and cleaning up of the sport. All that I care about is that the process continues and Zuffa is the one driving that bus and has been for years.

    Look no further than your recent article on the possibly of MMA finally being approved in Ontario and all the heavy hitters Zuffa is bringing in to lobby for the cause. That shit don’t come cheap. Zuffa is sinking some serious money into getting the legitimized in Ontario, and that helps everyone associated with the sport in Canada.

  3. While I appreciate New Jersey’s efforts, the rules you give them credit for are almost word for word the same set of rules Jeff Blatnick devised for the UFC.

  4. theYiffer says:

    There should be a great deal of cynicism about the performance of the regulatory bodies that govern Mixed Martial Arts. Just like any other bureaucracy, these commissions have always been rife with corruption, cronyism, incompetence, etc. They were that way, if not worst when the NWA was bribing and manipulating state commissions back in the 60’s and 70’s.

    The funny thing is that Zach attempts to make the case for commissions in his article, yet lays out the case for their complete incompetence and ultimate uselessness. Ideally regulation and commissions sound like a good idea and will at all times put the well-being of fights over all (assuming we have saints at the helm, which we don’t), but in practice human beings (bureaucrats), motivated by money and the need to enhance their resume, make decisions based on what’s best for them politicly and/or for who ever they’re trying to please.

    Case in point is Strike Two: If Tito Ortiz really had a cracked skull (which I’m skeptical of) and Forest Griffin had a broken foot, why the hell were they allowed to further endanger their health by continuing with the fight? If they purposely fooled doctors and the commission during their pre-fight medical examinations, how come they haven’t been severely punished? I know fighters almost never step into the cage 100%, but if either fighter were to loose his career due to death or an injury that became debilitating, then what? In the end it didn’t matter, even to most of the MMA media, because the fight was more important then the health and well-being of two of the biggest stars in MMA.

    Another case in point was the Nogeuira vs. Mir fight. Big Nog looked like crap in that fight, easily getting TKOed by Mir. It was later reveled that Nog was hospitalized for a severe staph infection and had a torn meniscus. How come the Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t step in to stop this fight?

    I am under no illusion or delusion as to the point and purpose of state athletic commissions regulating sports like boxing and MMA, to provide “legitimacy” in the minds of the general public, and to take their cut of the profits for this service. That’s it! That’s all their good for at this juncture. That’s why Dana White has campaigned for years to have MMA regulated in every state and every nation they hold events in. I also highly doubt that the health of the industry will ever be endanger any time soon. MMA and the UFC will go on as long as people spend money on it.

    So the next question is, what do we do? Since commissions are an accepted part of MMA here in the West, the only logical step is to campaign for real reform, not just a change in who’s asses keep the seats warm. This requires citizens in every state and nation-wide to actively lobby and demand of their governors and state legislators to bring more accountability as well as more scrutiny to athletic commissions. When a “screw-up” happens, we need to demand why and take steps to correct it. I once again want to reiterate that citizens need to do this. Don’t expect the media to actual do their jobs, and to apply the pressure for you. (Assuming you care.) Given the media’s (in the sports world and everywhere else) selective outrage, it will surely never happen. But life will continue…

  5. mattio says:

    I think all high level MMA athletes should be tested using the most stringent anti-doping testing procedures available. They should be tested during their training camp for the fight and after the fight itself. The major MMA orgs should cover all costs for these tests.

    I think the penalties should be very severe for athletes that get caught using PEDs in MMA competition. A 2 year suspension for 1st time offenders and lifetime ban for any fighter who fails 2 PED tests. (And Japan should not be an option for fighters serving a suspension for abusing PEDs. Fight in Japan during your suspension and you are barred from stateside MMA forever.) And the win should be stricken from the cheater’s record. (Has that loophole that a fighter abusing steroids gets to keep his win been closed yet?)

    I don’t know if the culture of cheating is as prevalent in MMA fighter circles as it is in Tour De France cyclists, but the fight promoters and athletic commissioners should be doing everything in their power to make sure it never gets to that point.

    I hate to think about how many cheaters there are in MMA, and right now we don’t have any real idea on how prevalent it is because of the coddling, de-fanged, penny-pinching, limp-dicked athletic commissions and the bury-their-head-in-the-sand fight promoters.

    A fighter gaining unnatural strength and stamina for his fights is about as low as it can get in my book. How could anyone take pride in that? PED abuse in MMA needs to be stamped out with extreme prejudice.

  6. Mark says:

    People make a big deal about the “Zuffa Myth” because it is a way to make Zuffa inseparable from MMA. Like Vince McMahon’s “pro wrestling was only watched by a bunch of blood thirsty yokels in smoke filled tiny arenas before I took over the WWF” yarn (which even throws his own father under a bus) when in fact pro wrestling did huge business in a dozen territories with a family oriented crowd, what this is an attempt to do is claim total ownership of an entire sport (or fake sport in WWF’s case) just because your piece of it is more popular than other pieces of it. It’s like if McDonald’s was taking credit for inventing the hamburger or if Sony was saying they invented the idea of color television.Yes, it doesn’t hurt anything outright, but the intentions don’t sit well with people who knew of MMA before the Jazzerciser got involved and/or don’t feel the need to worship him as a bald deity. .

    @Yiffer: nobody is going to be motivated to push for reform of Athletic Commissions. They don’t push for reform on issues that actually affect their lives, so why would they finally get off their butts to rally for something as unimportant to the world as sports? And even if they did, Athletic Commissions are like Liquor Licensing boards and zoning commissions that are a job people in power give to supporters as a thank you. Those are boats that cannot be rocked no matter how many times you call or petition. I’ll bet if you looked deep enough everybody on AC’s has been a campaigner or fund raiser or did some kind of favor for a high ranking politician to get the job (Definitely in Nevada.) That won’t change because you get 50 people to call to say they’re pissed about Forrest’s broken foot.

  7. 45 Huddle says:

    The problem with having such stringent drug testing and long penalties is that fans don’t want it. They want enough testing so they can play dumb that their favorite is clean. And if they do test positive, they still want the athlete back within a reasonable time so they can watch him again. If they did want something more severe, then we would have already seen it in the major team sports. To me, the testing in MMA is on par with those major sports leagues and that is “good enough” for the vast majority of people.

  8. Michael Nome says:

    If New Jersey’s Commission hadnt recognized the sport and regulated and accepted it, no matter what Dana and others did, the sport would have never been accepted in Nevada or allowed to mature.

  9. Alan Conceicao says:

    The testing debate is a complex one. I think in general, fans wouldn’t care if athletes are tested or not. If they are however, they clearly enjoy seeing athletes getting busted and seeing the system work. To that end, I think its funny to see MMA writers talk about how the UFC’s willingness to quash any demands of more regular testing (as seen in Mayweather/Pacquiao) as a percieved positive in light of the positive tests of those caught, who range from legends like Bas Rutten and Royce Gracie to Josh Barnett and Sean Sherk.

  10. Mark says:

    It’s definitely a writer’s issue more than a fan issue. It’s an easy stance to take to get an easy article out of. “Hey, drug cheats are bad for the sport, we have to stop them.” But if blood testing prevented cyclers (and what star hasn’t been accused of cycling?) from fighting, fans would be 100% against strict testing. You’d be possibly stuck with nothing but guys who drink their own piss fighting each other.

    Of course it sucks if a fighter gets beaten by a guy who is juicing, but there’s been so many steroid users who lose fights that you can’t point to steroids affecting MMA results as clearly as you can in baseball. In baseball you can see countless examples where players go from mediocre to great due to steroids. In MMA it seems like more failed drug tests come from losers than winners. So it’s hard to get people behind hardline stances when it really isn’t hurting the purity of the sport where like the PSAs used to say “users are losers.”

    Ken Shamrock of all people once attributed steroids being bad for MMA fighters by saying the steroids make you expend too much extra energy in a fight, and I guess he should know.

  11. theYiffer says:

    @Mark: Don’t assume I’ll be ever holding my breath for reform of athletic commissions. I love to bitch, but that’s always too easy. So I made an attempt at proposing a solution, assuming (like in a perfect world) anyone cared. Those people are few and far between. Maybe lighting the commissions on fire would sound more fun… 😛

    I agree that this is more or less a writers’ issue to chew over. Writers want and desire more benevolent athletic commissions even though that will never happen. They will hold on to them and continue wishing for better no matter how many times they screw up. (Commissions are made up of bureaucrats, they do not directly care about the people they effect unless it directly benefits them financially or politically.) Unless someone dies, commissions will only do enough just to get by. I also agree with the sentiment from posters here that fans don’t really care all that much. Hell, a lot of fans don’t even care if fighters use illegal substances like pot. As long as they are entertained, what happens behind the scenes (unless that becomes a form of entertainment like wrestling dirt-sheets) is irrelevant to them.

  12. ajz123 says:

    Alan,
    When was Bas caught with PED’s and what did he test positive for? I was not aware of him getting caught with anything.

  13. Alan Conceicao says:

    Rutten tested positive after his WFA fight (final bout ever) for morphine and hydrocodone. He was never put on suspension because he retired after the bout.

  14. ajz123 says:

    Thank you.

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