It's been said that the first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. If that's the case, then last week the UFC may have taken a monumental step towards dealing with its drug problem when company president Dana White came down hard on the widespread use of testosterone replacement therapy.
"What I believe [TRT users] are doing [is] jacking [their testosterone] through the roof [during] their entire training camp, then getting back down to normal levels before the fight, which is cheating," White told reporters at the UFC on FUEL TV 7 post-fight press conference at London's Wembley Arena. "I hate it, I don't like it, and I'm going to fight it. If you are using TRT in the UFC, we're going to start testing the shit out of you for [your] entire camp."
On the surface White's new hardline stance on TRT would appear to be an about face from comments he made back in August of 2012 when he told FOX Sports he thought the controversial therapy was "great" and an "absolutely fair" advancement in sports science. However, if you look at the greater context of the interview you'll find that even six months ago he had some reservations about TRT.
"The problem is, there are guys who say if this much is good, [then] this much must be great," the UFC president explained. "So you have guys who are always trying to do more than they’re supposed to do."
This is in addition to White telling ESPN's Todd Grisham just a month earlier in July of the same year that he would make TRT illegal if it were up to him.
"To me, the bottom line is you don’t need that junk, "White opined. "If you don’t abuse stuff younger in your career, you’ll never need to use that junk.”
Clearly White has been aware of the potential for abuse inherent with TRT for some time now, which begs the question what happened recently to convince him to suddenly take a stand on the issue? At this point all we can do is speculate.
It may have had something to do with Vitor Belfort receiving a TUE for TRT before his UFC on FX 7 victory over Michael Bisping and coming into the fight looking utterly shredded for a normal 35 year old, let alone one supposedly suffering from a condition like hypogonadism that leads to a deficiency in testosterone. Maybe it came after White mulled over the fact that with the loss to Belfort, Bisping fell short in a third straight potential opportunity to earn a title shot after being defeated by an opponent who was on TRT.
Then again, perhaps White merely had an epiphany after sitting down and looking at the overwhelming number of UFC fighters who have received a TUE for testosterone. The past year and change has seen Belfort, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Frank Mir, Forrest Griffin, Dan Henderson, and Chael Sonnen all granted TUE's for TRT before a fight. If you add fighters who received TUE's in the past three years such as Shane Roller, Todd Duffee, and Nate Marquardt to the list, you get a total of at least nine UFC fighters in recent years receiving TRT.
This is in sharp contrast to the estimated "half a dozen" TUE's that have been granted to NFL players dating back to 1990 according to NFL senior vice president of public relations Greg Aiello when speaking with MMAFighting.com's Mike Chiapetta last March. Clearly something is amiss in the UFC when there have been a larger number of athletes on TRT in the past few years than over the past 23 years in the NFL. If you're the UFC president, that's the kind of statistic that could lead to some serious reevaluation of company policy.
Again, this is all pure speculation. Of utmost concern here isn't what led Dana White to decide to, as he put it in his characteristically blunt fashion, "test the s***t out of" fighters who are on TRT. Rather, what's most important is how the UFC plans to screen for elevated levels of testosterone going forward.
While he wasn't forthcoming with any details, according to TRT recipient Sonnen, the UFC has already begun the increased testing White mentioned to reporters in London last weekend. "I can tell you firsthand, I have already been tested since this announcement," Sonnen revealed on this week's edition of UFC Tonight.
The UFC are to be commended for coming to the conclusion there's something amiss with so many fighters running around on TRT and then taking taking swift steps to monitor use. It's an encouraging sign to see the company displaying the ability to learn and grow in its approach to regulating TRT.
However, there is still room for improvement. Many fighters who are using synthetic testosterone may now simply not apply for a TUE and just keep using under the table in order to avoid closer scrutiny. If all the new testing does is push testosterone use back underground again, it ultimately won't make that big of a difference in cleaning up the UFC roster.
In order to most effectively combat PED use, there's really only one option: random third party testing.
For years the UFC have contended that PED screening should primarily be the responsibility of state and provincial athletic commissions in the US and Canada, with the UFC taking care of its own testing when it visits countries without a commission. However, White's recent explanation of how he believes TRT users are gaming the system also serves as the perfect illustration of the inadequacies of athletic commission testing. If, as White said, TRT users are "jacking [their testosterone] through the roof" during training and then tapering off before the fight, it also stands to reason fighters who are illicitly using synthetic testosterone or other anabolic steroids are doing the same. This is why athletic commission drug tests - which are usually administered the day of the fight - are generally referred to as IQ tests. Athletes who have a basic understanding of how the half-lives of various substances work can cycle off in time to avoid testing positive on a post-fight screening but are still able to reap all the benefits of their PED of choice during training.
Unfortunately random testing can be very expensive, and state athletic commission coffers aren't exactly overflowing with cash in these tight economic times. This leaves the onus on paying for extensive random testing on the company that is taking in massive profits thanks to the efforts of its fighters - in this case the UFC.
Granted, conducting random drugs tests for all 400 or so athletes currently competing under contract to the UFC would be a financially daunting prospect. According to the Association Against Steroid Abuse homepage a basic urinalysis costs around $200 per test. At first glance this may seem like a manageable figure for a company the size of the UFC. If they tested all 400 fighters on the roster a minimum of four times a year - ideally once per training camp and at least once a year out of competition - it would cost them approximately $320,000 a year. This is just a little over what an upper-mid tier main eventer earns for one disclosed payday. However, that doesn't factor in the cost of sending people out to all ends of the globe in order to administer the tests, or any additional screenings such as carbon isotope ratio testing (which can detect the presence of synthetic testosterone and is therefore considered more reliable than the testosterone to epi-testosterone ratio that is detectible with a urinalysis). Once you start adding up these additional costs, random unannounced testing of a roster consisting of some 400 fighters - or even of the 300 or so fighter roster the UFC is reportedly attempting to trim down to - starts to look like a financially daunting proposition.
In order to get a better idea of the financial realities of conducting random, unannounced testing of a roster the size of the UFC's, I contacted Voluntary Anti-Doping Association President Dr. Margaret Goodman and asked for her estimate of how much extensive testing might cost the UFC.
"There are so many variables involved regarding type of testing, blood/urine, fighter locations, etc. that it is difficult to estimate prices without having more info," Dr. Goodman told me. "A collection & analysis can range from a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand.
"With that said, a cost-effective program including blood and urine, random, unannounced testing including CIR (for detecting short-acting exogenous testosterone), HGH, EPO and following blood counts could be easily performed," Dr. Goodman continued. "Several years ago when I negotiated pricing for MRI/MRA testing in Nevada, I was able to improve the costs for athletes because of the large numbers of fighters. In this instance, I think there are several ways testing costs could be improved. Furthermore, some groups like VADA are 501(c)(3) charities. So, the costs of testing could be considered a charitable donation or a business expense."
When asked if VADA would test the entire UFC roster if the company asked them to do so, Dr. Goodman replied that they would. The UFC may wish to retain control of its own testing rather than assign it to a third party for a number of reasons, but the cost of doing so might be mitigated if they went with a non-profit organization like VADA or the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency since it appears possible they could write the expense off as a tax-deductible charitable donation.
"I know an organization would like to have everything in-house to lessen the costs," explained Dr. Goodman, "but PED testing is one thing that needs to be free of conflicts of interest."
This is a point that can't be stressed enough. A fight promotion taking steps to police itself is certainly better than ignoring the issue all together, but there are obviously scenarios where one could imagine it being tempting for a promoter to look past a PED test failure if it meant the cancellation of a big money fight. Even if a promoter has the most noble intentions in the world, a third party organization with a transparent, clearly stated set of policies will carry much more credibility than a promotion will if it handles its own drug testing behind closed doors.
"I completely applaud the UFC for advancing their PED testing program," Dr. Goodman stated. "It would be more cost-effective to have a program with detailed policies and less conflicts; that means an outside group to administer [the tests]. There are several in the US and worldwide that [the UFC] could approach besides VADA or USADA."
If for some reason the UFC would rather go with a private drug screening company rather than a non-profit such as VADA, they always have the option of enlisting the services of a for-profit company like Aegis Sciences Corporation, which currently oversees testing for the WWE's Substance Abuse and Drug Testing Policy. While it would doubtlessly be much more expensive for UFC to test through Aegis than it is for WWE due to the logistics of collecting random, unannounced samples from a roster that includes fighters living at all ends of the Earth, it could also be seen as an investment in creating a healthier future for the sport.
Cynics may say that whether or not the UFC implements random third party testing there will always be athletes using cutting edge PEDs, or existing PEDs that are difficult to test for such as HGH and insulin (which is a strong anabolic hormone in addition to serving as medication for diabetics). If so they'd be correct. However, that's all the more reason for promotions like the UFC to make sure they are on the cutting edge of PED screening in order to do a better job of closing the gap between testing measures and advancements in doping.
Ultimately what drug testing in MMA should be about is less the punitive aspect of punishing cheaters - although obviously that needs to be a major component of any anti-doping policy - and more about helping to foster a culture where fighters no longer feel the need to turn to PEDs in order to remain competitive. In a sport like MMA where the point is to inflict bodily harm upon your opponent until he or she either gives up or is unable to continue fighting, PEDs present a danger to the long term health of both users and non-users alike. The athletes who make a living in the premier MMA organization in the world deserve a working environment where the influence of PEDs on the course of their careers is kept to a minimum and where every effort is made to reduce the safety risks PEDs present.
The UFC's new commitment to heavily testing TRT users is an admirable first step towards creating such an environment. However, until the UFC commits to random, independent third party testing there will still be ample opportunity for PED users to continue cheating both themselves and their opponents out of the chance to find out who the better fighter truly is.