By Nick Barringer
A few weeks ago recently retired MMA fighter Mark Bocek stated that he thinks 90% of MMA fighters use Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).
Now to be fair, obviously MMA is not the only sport where PEDs are being used. I also think it should be noted Lorenzo Fertitta is the only sports owner I know of who has put up his own money for enhanced testing. So while the PED problem in MMA is being addressed, I, like many others, think more could be done. But to better understand the problem one first needs to understand some of the strengths and weaknesses of the current tests being used.
Testosterone/Epitestosterone (T/E) ratio is the standard testosterone test used by most athletic commissions and is based on the premise that individuals have a certain about of epitestosterone secreted in the urine that is not impacted by taking exogenous testosterone. So if an athlete uses a substance that increases his/her testosterone, it will increase the T portion of the ratio and cause them to test positive. The normal T/E ratio is 1:1 but the World Anti-Doping Agency allows 4:1 and the Nevada State Athletic Commission allows 6:1. The test is solid in theory but as you will see it become more malleable the more you know.
Why UGT2B17 matters:
The testosterone measured in the T/E urine test is actually testosterone glucuronide. The test measures testosterone glucuronide because that is what testosterone is converted to largely by UDP glucuronosyltransferase 2 family, polypeptide B17 (UGT2B17) before being excreted in the urine. Well that is unless your genetics have deleted that gene. In that case, researchers have demonstrated that you could take a large 500mg dose of testosterone enathate and still not exceed the 4:1 T/E threshold
I know what you are thinking: “But that genetic mutation is rare, right?”
Yes, if you are a Caucasian male of European decent it only occurs in an estimated 3.5% of that population. However if you are Swedish it goes up to 9.5%, African American 29.1%, Hispanic 37.1%, and Pacific Asian 30.4%. However the real genetic winners are Korean and Brazilian Mulatto were 66.7% and 78% of the population has the UGT2B17-less genetic trait.
Now imagine if you are a green tea chugging Brazilian merlot aficionado fighting in Vegas. Your genetics, habits, and a generous 6:1 T/E might allow you quite a bit of wiggle room in terms of exogenous testosterone.
But what about “enhanced” testing?
The new enhanced testing allows for unannounced testing and tests for other non-testosterone based PEDs such as Erythropoietin (EPO). However in an excellent article by Brent Brookhouse, he highlights how there are still many gaps in the enhanced testing using the testing leading up to the Josh Barnett vs. Travis Browne fight as an example.
One of the game changing tests that can be used in the enhanced testing is the Carbon Isotope Test. This test takes advantage of the difference in Carbon 12 and 13 levels in natural occurring testosterone and testosterone produced in a lab.
But due to the cost, the Carbon Isotope Test, is mostly only utilized after someone fails the urine T/E ratio test. Since we just learned that the accuracy of this test can compromised based on genetics and other substances, in theory you could have an athlete who gains a tactical advantage from utilizing testosterone based drugs but still stays under the 4:1 or 6:1 T/E ratio.
So you are probably left wondering: How might the PED problem be fixed?
- Out of competition completely unannounced testing of randomly selected fighters. They don’t know a test is coming and since an advantage for PED use is not just gained in the weeks leading up to the fight. A random selection process has to be utilized to insure a fighter cannot say he was unjustly selected.
(Note: The UFC is now planning on doing this.)
- Hire someone who has beaten the test. This will be controversial to some as you are more than likely hiring an ex-felon to oversee testing. However the best person to catch a cheater is someone who thinks like one, a la Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame. Now many might first think Victor Conte fits this bill as he has been vocal about better testing. However the best guy for the job is Patrick Arnold , an organic chemist, who actually created substances that beat WADA testing for a number of years. I would imagine Mr. Arnold could identify weaknesses in the tests and ways to mitigate those weaknesses being exploited. Joe Rogan recently mentioned on his podcast how he would like to have a conversation with PED experts to shed light on the situation; Patrick Arnold would be a great start.
- Make the punishment draconian. Test positive for a PED, you get a 5-year ban from competition the first time and lifetime on the second. It does not matter if you got it from your doctor or took a supposed “tainted” dietary supplement. You are an adult and responsible for what you do or do not put in your body; end of story. Sound too harsh? Good, that is the point. Imagine if you are a fighter and realize your livelihood could essentially be ended or the best years of your career taken away, I bet you are going to think twice about using a PED and scrutinize everything you put in your body.
PEDs are not going anywhere; actually with gene doping being a reality, cheating is probably only going to get worse. Only through aggressive action is the tide going to turn. But we know MMA, like all sports, is fiscally driven so the threat of cancelling cards and losing big money high-profile fights can keep organizations from taking aggressive action just like the lure of the big paydays and more lucrative fights can make fighters take the risk and cheat. It is a simple risk to reward ratio and in the current system the denominator significantly outweighs the numerator. By shifting more weight to risk through better testing and harsher punishments the ratio becomes unfavorable for the fighter and the “juice” is no longer worth the squeeze(pun intended) and in the end cheating will be choked-out.