Desperate times call for desperate measures. At least that’s the excuse of MMA fighters who get caught red handed, arguing that the stakes at the top level demand to engage in a risk to earn that extra 1%. One victory can be the difference between a life amongst the elite or being put on the scrap heap, but when all the rhetoric is said and done, the MMA has a history of dealing with cheats.
Performance Enhancing Drugs, or PEDS for short, allows fighters to punch harder, last longer and recover quicker. The line becomes blurry when sports scientists get involved behind the scenes, as we’ve seen to scandalous lengths with athletics and cycling. The tentacles for PEDs has a far reach, with Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger admitting that soccer has a huge problem. That is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Whether it’s anabolics, blood doping, steroids, stimulants or diuretics, MMA fighters are risking life and limb to gain an advantage and it won’t be until they retire or get caught that they’ll understand the error of their ways. Certain fighters face fatal health problems pushing themselves to the limit, outlining how idiotic drug taking can be.
But for all the common sense and public warnings sent out to athletes, many of them fail to listen. The problem is reaching unprecedented levels to the point where one trainer is advocating for a split in the sport – one league for clean fighters, another for drug takers. This must be cause for pause for the decision makers at HQ because that model cannot be sustainable.
These are the top 15 drug scandals in MMA history that rocked the sport and sullied its reputation.
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13 Kimo Leopoldo
The tattooed German-born American MMA fighter Kimo Leopoldo could be considered something of a pioneer if you think of the drug epidemic that spreads throughout the UFC at the moment. The problem for Kimo is this – if you’re going to cheat, do it properly. The maligned fighter returned positive tests on two occasions, the first in 2002 for the steroid Winstrol and the second in 2006. These tests were bookended by embarrassing losses and he didn’t raise his hand in MMA after admitting that he took the substance.
12 Vitor Belfort
Vitor Belfort, aka The Phenom, put his name up in lights when he became the youngest UFC champion of all-time (that record has been broken by Jon Jones). The Brazilian was doing things nobody his age had done before and a drugs test in 2006 demonstrated exactly why. A positive Hydroxytestosterone reading was blamed on an over-the-counter supplements purchase, yet that didn’t save him from a nine-month suspension and $10,000 hit to the pocket. He was given another slap on the wrist in 2014 when his testosterone levels were above normal, blaming his doctor in South America for overdosing him on account of preventing extra vials to be carried overseas. Belfort was in tears defending himself to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC), but no one was feeling sorry for the guy.
11 Nate Marquardt
FYI future MMA fighters, don’t call yourself “The Great” when you get busted on steroid use, it’s not becoming of a champion. American Nate Marquardt, sorry, Nate “The Great” Marquardt, was first exposed as a cheat in 2005 when he returned a positive test for anabolic steroids after beating Ivan Salaverry where he was handed a reduced sentence 5-month ban. It wouldn’t be until 2011 where his dodgy doctor recommended he took hormone replacement therapy to give him extra energy. He failed the pre fight testing, but successfully argued that on the day of the fight he would have been cleared and thus, had his suspension lifted.
10 Nick Diaz
The TMZ picture said more than words ever could. Unlike many of his compatriots caught for steroids and every type of PED under the sun, American MMA fighter Nick Diaz was officially slapped with a 5-year ban and $150,000 fine for returning a test with traces of marijuana. The Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) were swift and emphatic with their decision, but you have to wonder how Diaz could be punished this severely for smoking dope when other fighters who used performance enhancing drugs got nothing more than a slap on the wrist. If a fighter wins while he’s high in the Octagon, he deserves a medal, not to be banished.
9 Pawel Nastula
Polish fighter Pawel Nastula wasn’t long on the scene in 2006 when it was revealed he had banned stimulants in his system. The 1996 Gold Medalist carried the hopes of his nation transitioning into the world of MMA, until he joined Vitor Belfort in testing positive to four different substances on the NSAC’s black list. It should have come as no surprise when he lost his last outing due to exhaustion in just the second round, highlighting that he really did need the juice to keep pace.
10. Chael Sonnen
Fighting fans will argue till they’re blue in the face that Chael “Fail” Sonnen got off Scott-free when he pleaded ignorance to a blood testosterone level 400% the legal limit in 2010. At the completion of his loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 117, Sonnen’s standing went from bad to worse when the results became public, with the American using a medical condition as the reasoning behind the levels. With his doctor on hand to state that Sonnen suffers from “hypogonadism,” the California State Athletic Commission handed down a poultry $2500 fine and 6-month suspension. So long as the excuse is prepared early and backed by a doctor, the UFC bodies will pretty much allow anything.
8 Kit Cope
As a Mixed Martial Artist, Kristopher Lee or “Kit Cope” to his friends, made one hell of a Thai kickboxer. The boy from Arizona lost to another fighter from that discipline, Rob McCullough, in 2007 via submission. When the television cameras were turned off and the janitors were cleaning up the mess, Cope tested positive to Boldenone, an anabolic steroid deemed illegal by every sporting body worldwide. It was to no one’s surprise Kit returned to kickboxing with little fan fare.
7 Cung Le
Various actors and high profile public figures have admitted to taking Human Growth Hormone, but Cung Le was busted in the wake of UFC Fight Night 48 to cop a 9-month suspension. It’s a grey area in sport because when you consider Lionel Messi took HGH to bridge the gap between himself and professional soccer players, it opens up a subjective debate. When Le failed another doping test afterwards, the UFC and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) were scrambling furiously to enforce a one-year suspension before he successfully challenged to have that decision overturned. Whether Cung Le is or isn’t guilty, it certainly warrants a scandal of soap opera proportions.
6 Stephan Bonnar
Serial offender Stephen Bonnar clearly didn’t learn his lesson after getting busted the first time. Best known for taking part in the brutally brilliant Griffin vs. Bonnar UFC fight, a contest that will go down in history, Bonnar tested positive for steroids on two separate occasions to tarnish his name and legacy. When Boldenone was discovered in his system initially, he tried to blame it on the trainer on account of an injury he was trying to rush back from. But the “dog ate my homework” trick didn’t work a second time, being forced to retire in disgrace and exit via the backdoor. Such a shame for such a top fighter.
As the sport of female MMA fighting grows in profile, so does the extra scrutiny that comes with it. The first and only woman to make the disgraced top 15, Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos dominated the division before Rousey came on the scene, using her size and physicality to boss fights. Her ferocity and aggression felt unnatural and in 2012 a positive PED test proved the doubters right and the rumors founded in fact. Despite being caught out, all the CSAC could muster was a 12-month ban and $2,500 fine. With such a pathetic punishment, that is almost a scandal in and of itself.
5. Anderson Silva
The 2008 World MMA Fighter of the Year is widely regarded as one of the most technically gifted fighters to ever compete in the sport. The Brazilian southpaw enjoyed 33 wins out of 40 MMA fights and when he was invited to coach during The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 he was considered an idol and mentor to the next generation. Then all of a sudden Silva failed a drugs test for two anabolic steroids and that standing fell sharply. He cited a drug passed to him by a friend on a trip to Thailand to help his sex life and to sleep better, but the NSAC didn’t buy that excuse.
4 Wanderlei Silva
Wanderlei’s failure to comply with the rules saw him fall on his sword in 2014. As one of a number of superstars to collapse in a bizarre domino effect, the Brazilian brawler who went by aliases The Axe Murderer or Mad Dog on a good day, copped a double whammy when he suffered a hand injury during The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 Finale. Silva flat out refused the organization to undergo random drug testing and with it, was refused a license. The lifetime ban and $70,000 fine was far more heavy handed than the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) were accustomed to handing out, as Silva retired in disgrace just moments later.
3 Thiago Silva
What is it about Silva’s in MMA getting busted with drugs? Thiago is the third amigo of Silva fame that makes the top 15 list, but in a weird turn of events was never directly found guilty of doping himself. Thiago’s farcical example put the NSAC commission under the pump for their soft punishments when they gave the fighter a $33,750 fine and 12-month ban. The reason? Silva’s urine sample was not from a human specimen and Silva admitted to not taking the test from his own body. If that doesn’t spell guilty then nothing does.
2 Royce Gracie
Gracie’s standing in the sport was monumental and was coasting towards a Hall of Fame entry. Then it was revealed the UFC fighter was actually a steroid cheat and all of his achievements were either swept under the rug, wiped out or written with a massive asterix next to them. With a hugely controversial rematch win over Sakuraba in 2007, Gracie registered 25 times the normal level of nandrolone in his body which immediately raised alarm bells. Rather than admit what he did, Gracie took the Lance Armstrong approach by double downing. “I have no idea what they’re talking about… I never gained a pound in my life. It’s ridiculous.” The one-year suspension and $2500 was nothing compared to the ridicule and stain on his name, something Gracie has never nor will ever recover from.
1 Josh Barnett
Perhaps the UFC saw the best of Josh Barnett; perhaps he had more in the tank. The sad thing is for the American MMA fighter we’ll never know how great or otherwise he could have been had he been clean. In 2000 he took out non other than Randy Couture by TKO to become the youngest heavyweight champion in the UFC, until that title was taken away because of a banned substance testing. That cast a shadow over name and reputation, which seemed to disappear until 2009. Gearing himself to take on Fedor Emelianenko, the CSAC pulled the fight when Barnett tested positive for anabolic steroids. With so many dodgy fighters coming and going, Barnett has enjoyed stints in wrestling and commentary post his fighting career, but UFC fans will always consider him a two-time cheat.
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