I've been a professional sports fan since I was around 8 years old. I'm sure that many of you here would say something similar. My first, and still my greatest love, was Ice Hockey. In Vancouver, where I was born and raised, the only pro sports team that competes in one of the big four leagues is a hockey team, so it was a no-brainer that I became a fan. In 1994, when I was 10 years old that team went on a run to the Stanley Cup finals and I was forever hooked. As I got older I would watch and enjoy pretty much any sport that had physical confrontation, especially Football. I would say that until about three years ago I was a huge fan of both those sports, although I did follow the NBA and baseball from a distance.
I was never a pro wrestling fan. I'm not entirely sure why I feel the need to mention that but perhaps it will help some of you see where I'm coming from with this post, since it is looked upon as being very closely tied to MMA by many fans and analysts. The main reason I had for ignoring pro wrestling was that it had predetermined outcomes. If there wasn't something on the line I wasn't watching it.
Fast forward about 15 years and MMA was just starting to break into the mainstream. A few of my friends were into it and I tagged along to watch GSP fight Matt Hughes for the title, UFC 65. I was an interested observer after that but didn't really embrace the sport until about a year later. Since that time I've been a massive MMA fan. I was drawn in by the down-to-earth nature of the fighters, I enjoyed Dana White's no-bullshit persona and of course the competition was incredibly exciting. Watching a fight card made me feel like I was opening a window into the past, made me feel like I was making a connection with something instinctual, something that we as a species have pushed down over years and years of socialization: Fight or Flight? I'll Fight. The competition was so pure.
While I was getting into MMA, the steroids in baseball issue was in the process of being broken wide open. I followed the proceedings very closely and I was very put off by the whole thing. What bothered me most was the lack of respect the athletes gave to the intelligence of the fans. A player would test positive and would deny it the next day, blaming everyone and everything but themselves. Former players would come out and suggest that using steroids in baseball wouldn't even help you that much because "they don't help you make contact with the ball". It was infuriating. But at the same time it opened my eyes to the real nature of professional sports.
After wrestling with the ethics and morality of the issue I came to the conclusion that professional sports leagues should be working closely with the medical community to develop safe performance enhancers and make them available to everyone, OR, get serious about taking them out of the games.
I have come to see no moral difference between allowing football players to smash into one another at high speeds, seriously jeopardizing their ability to live a normal life after their careers are over, and allowing the same players to do so while using Stanozolol, Human Growth Hormone or any other performance enhancing substance, as long as everyone is using the same thing. In fact I would state that we have a moral responsibility to insist that everyone is using if anyone is using. To me it comes down to ensuring a level playing field. And that is where MMA comes in.
It has become ridiculously apparent that PEDs are all over MMA. Am I surprised by this? I guess I am a little bit. As I said above, what I initially loved about the sport was how "real" it was compared to other pro sports. At the best of times the big four sports leagues are covered by the slick sheen of big business. At the worst it is almost unwatchable. But MMA was different. It wasn't filled with shameless self-promoters. I never saw an agent speaking on behalf of a fighter, (Ed Soares not withstanding). It was real guys, guys who seemed just like me, getting into a cage and putting their hearts and souls on the line.
But now I see the forest through the trees. Probably the one incident that really made me open my eyes to this entire issue was the recent Shane Carwin story. After seeing how PED use was uncovered in other sports and reading the story it was entirely obvious that Carwin used. Even worse is that he appeared to use with the sole intention of making himself into a UFC calibre fighter. And Dana White sat back and did nothing, said that Carwin had never failed a test while in the UFC, that MMA was the only sport tested by the government and basically seriously insulted the intelligence of every free thinking fan by claiming that his organization was for the most part clean.
If the playing field isn't level than the best part of MMA for me is gone. What do you have inside you? How do you measure up against the toughest men of your size in the world? These are the questions that I love seeing answered. Dana likes to say that he doesn't do freak shows in the UFC. Well to me, Shane Carwin is a freak show. So is anyone else who used PEDs to get into the UFC, or to stay there.
Last night I watched a 20 year old kid, as thin as a rail, put on an incredible performance. I should have been thinking about how crisp and poised his striking was for such a young man. I should have been marveling at his incredible Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills. Instead I was thinking how cool it was that a guy who wasn't ripped to shreds was doing well in the Octagon. And I found myself hoping that he'd be able to survive the next five years of his fighting career without getting his face beat in by some freak show who knows how to cycle off.
And I have to admit, I was a little sad.