According to reports, the Holy Grail may be at hand.
The UFC announced, via ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, on Wednesday that it will ramp up its drug testing efforts during the coming months, instituting random, year-round blood and urine screening for a percentage of its nearly 500 contracted fighters.
UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner told Okamoto he’s hopeful the new testing program will be in place by the end of 2014. In the meantime, Ratner said the fight company will meet with “four or five” independent agencies to determine which one might best oversee testing of the UFC’s far-flung stable of athletes.
So, yeah, if you’ve been paying attention during the last few years, that’s kind of a big deal.
The UFC has long been criticized for its less-then-proactive role in MMA’s fight against performance-enhancing drugs. This year, it has also been at the heart of a number of high-profile PEDs stories. None of them good.
From Vitor Belfort’s testosterone-infused run to No. 1 contendership, to Chael Sonnen’s double-whammy positive tests, to Wanderlei Silva ducking out the backdoor of his gym to avoid a drug tester—it hasn’t been pretty.
During the last 30 days alone, news broke that bit-part players Robert Drysdale, Kevin Casey, Brian Ortega and Mike King all failed tests. Last month, recent flyweight title challenger Ali Bagautinov got popped by a random test, after passing his routine fight-night exams at UFC 174. Then two weeks ago lightweight Mark Bocek retired, claiming on his way out the door that “90 percent” of MMA fighters were using PEDs.
Perhaps worst of all, Georges St-Pierre—the UFC’s longtime welterweight champion and biggest pay-per-view draw—announced an indefinite hiatus from competition late last year, in part due to what he saw as the company’s lax drug testing policies.
All these problems, big and small, might well be cured (or at least lessened) by UFC-bankrolled independent testing. It’s something critics have asked about for years and has taken on added weight as the fight company continues to turn more of its attention to oversees markets, where it often acts as its own regulator.
Increased testing could help prevent public embarrassments like the Sonnen and Silva situations. It could help weed out users like Bagautinov before they fight for a UFC title.
Who knows, it might even help lure St-Pierre back to the cage.
While it’s unlikely the UFC would foot the bill for across-the-board testing to please a single fighter, the move certainly can’t hurt. The drug testing announcement came just a few days after GSP made his latest—and arguably most strident—appeals for better testing.
Without it, St-Pierre wrote in an email to Bloody Elbow’s Brent Brookhouse, his quasi-retirement would become permanent.
"I will never fight again in MMA," St-Pierre wrote, "without my opponent and myself being thoroughly tested for the most advanced PEDs by a credible independent anti-doping organization like VADA or USADA under the strictest standards of the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) Code.”
While we don’t yet know what the UFC landscape will look like under stricter testing, we certainly now know how it looks without St-Pierre.
As Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Snowden pointed out this week, the UFC’s 2014 PPVs are so far averaging 295,000 estimated buys each, down from 561,250 in 2010. Meanwhile, the six PPVs St-Pierre headlined from 2010-13 (which doesn’t even count the massive UFC 100 in July 2009) averaged 772,500 buys.
Obviously, if drug testing is the sticking point to getting the 33-year-old St-Pierre to return, even for a little while, then the fight company is smart to do whatever it can to rectify the situation.
For years, the UFC took a decidedly hands-off approach to drug testing. Mixed martial arts was "the most regulated sport on Earth" company President Dana White always told us, pointing to the regularly scheduled pre-fight tests conducted by many state athletic commissions.
It would be expensive and nearly impossible, White told us at times, for the UFC to do its own random tests. Other times, he took out his cellphone and dared reporters to give him a name. He’d have them tested right then and there, he said.
Over time, though, White’s insistence that drug testing was best left to “the government” began to change. In 2012, the fight company required that all new signees undergo testing. Later, White said the UFC was closely monitoring Belfort’s testosterone use (turned out, not closely enough, though).
This year, the UFC increased random testing efforts prior to events in Baltimore and Las Vegas, though it was just as pricey as White warned us it would be. According to MMA Junkie’s Steven Marrocco, the tests came with a price tag of $45,000 per fighter.
"When we decide on this regiment,” Ratner told Okamoto, “it's going to be a big cost, but it's well worth it when we do these out-of-competition tests.”
If not exactly a complete about-face, those words certainly represent a shift in philosophy for the fight company.
Perhaps the UFC has grown so big that it’s realized it must take a more active role in policing the sport. Perhaps its hand was forced as entities like the Nevada Athletic Commission vowed to step up its own testing. Or perhaps the hard-line stance taken by St-Pierre helped tighten the screws.
In the end, though, Ratner is right.
If the UFC’s new drug testing program can help the organization distance itself from perceptions that it’s been soft on PEDs, that’ll be worth a lot.
If it can help tempt St-Pierre back into action?