Let Cris Cyborg Work Through This Steroids Debacle and Return a Cleaner, Smarter Fighter

Photo by Esther Lin via allelbows.com

The furor over Cristiane Santos and the CSAC proceedings regarding her positive test for stanozolol metabolites has triggered quite a bit of commentary from all kinds of people with wildly divergent perspectives on Cris Cyborg, steroids, women's mixed martial arts and even sports themselves. One of the more common things I see in the writings here and there, formal and informal, (even from MMA-specific writers) is the idea that the career of Cris Cyborg can be declared "dead" and that she will never fight again in a prominent MMA organization.

I do not agree with that one bit nor do I agree with the logic that leads to such conclusions.

That type of "never" has a short half life with people like Ben Johnson, Michael Vick and the many other steroid users or athletes with a violent crime on their permanent record that we soon ignore or forget about. The anger of the sporting public fades, even if memories and records do not. Suspensions end. People are let back in their sports. The positive test and subsequent suspension of Cris Cyborg for one year by the California State Athletic Commission is destined to be a simple footnote in the endless battle for athletic achievement, fame and fortune.

The rage of the sporting public burns hot, but it burns short. We let the Michael Vick dog-fighting debacle simmer down. The bizarre Evander Holyfield ear-bitings are a faded memory for those familiar with Mike Tyson. In time, the Penn State cover-ups will recede into dim recollection despite being the biggest and worst scandal in college sports history. Time passes and as it does, disgraced athletes are allowed to work their way back into the limelight and to clean up their acts. Many do not, but the opportunity is there for them.

That is how things should be for Cris Cyborg. The same opportunity accorded the male mixed martial arts athletes who test positive for steroids to work to improve themselves, their adherence to the rules and to redeem themselves should be given to her. This is a steroids bust - not a Margarito-style loaded wraps deal. If the latter were to occur in MMA, I would be among the forefront of those looking for the imposition of severe penalties as far up to a life ban.

This "death blow" for the women's 145 division was already coming. Cyborg has nobody else to fight within that division and there was building talk of her dropping down to the 135 lb division (however feasible that may have been). What this positive test does is accelerate the end of that particular division - not WMMA in its entirety.

As for her career, people pay attention to Cyborg Santos. The ratings during Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal peaked during her 16 second beatdown of Yamanaka. Gina Carano might have been the flash in the pan of all flash in the pans not named Kimbo Slice or James Toney, but Cyborg has more staying power, more fights and is the most dominant champion in all of mixed martial arts. The ratings for Cyborg, for Ronda Rousey, for Miesha Tate, for Sarah Kaufman and for Marloes Coenen look like they say that people are willing to tune into WMMA if a quality fight is on or if a beatdown is about to occur. Which is exactly the same pattern male MMA generally follows.

If Cyborg takes the year off as an opportunity for positive change (as she said she would), actually hits 135 lbs in a healthy manner and provides clean tests, I believe that she will be right back in the thick of things. Look at how many male fighters test positive and work their way back into Zuffa good graces, let alone other fight organizations.

In a year, very few people will care with the passion being thrown about now and the accidental beauty about this process is that it allows the opportunity for redemption. Let's have a bet on how Cyborg is treated a year from now. I say "Essentially no change from just before steroids story", you say "MMA pariah with an irrevocably ruined career." Who do you think is closer to being right?

After the jump, a look at the many women athletes who have been caught using steroids like Marion Jones, the East German women back in the 1970s and 1980s, a professional boxer who subsequently fought seven title bouts and a Chinese heavyweight judo champ, as well as more thoughts on Cyborg Santos.

Elite sports has long been a place where competitors use every edge legally possible to inch ahead. Every year, we hear of athletes using controlled, banned, illegal or criminalized substances as performance enhancers or plainly to abuse them. The steroids debate has been going on for decades and will continue to be a topic of discussion among competitors and regulators long after we are dust. In the here and now, performance enhancing steroids are banned from most forms of regulated sporting competition - including MMA. When athletes get caught crossing that fine line between legal and illegal actions, they take the punishment meted out and life moves on.

Catching these cheaters is the tough part. Way back in the 1970s, the East German state athletic programs made steroids a nearly universal part of the training regimen for pre-teens on up to Olympic athletes. East German athletes in track and field, swimming, skiing and all the other less famous Olympic sports were basically training on steroids under state supervision and then cycled off before the big competitions. Due to the state support, very few East German athletes were officially identified as submitting a hot drug test - but the majority of the ones who were caught were women. Heidi Krieger, a shot-putter, claimed that she was on so much steroids since she was 16 that it was the cause of her eventual sex reassignment surgery (and name change to Andreas Krieger). Many East German athletes claimed the cycles were administered unknowingly, but several defectors came out and publicly stated their regimens or even presented some of the drugs they were using in East Germany. This went on for decades and bushels of world records were set by the East Germans. Some of those records still stand.

The Olympics responded over time by instituting stricter drug testing, which includes rules like an automatic four year ban for track and field athletes missing a demanded random drug test. Of course, Olympic athletes still cross that line between "acceptable" and "really bad idea" and use steroids. Many get caught too. We hear many more cases of men testing positive, but women athletes as a group are not innocent of this. In the arms race between cheater and tester, athletes of both genders commit themselves to shaky nights worrying about random drug tests, whether the masking agents worked or if they cycled off in time and they concoct absurd-sounding excuses to employ if caught. MMA is sadly not free of this and many rumors float around about the percentage of people on and off the gear.

Instead of focusing on the women athletes who tested positive (too many to discuss in depth), I decided to look at the women athletes who decided not to leave their athletic careers permanently and chose to make a serious attempt at getting back to the competition level they were at before their career-jeopardizing positive drug test, which is a smaller crowd.

"Hotstuff" Hollie Dunaway is a boxer fighting in the lighter weight classes. She tested positive after a WIBF flyweight title bout in Germany during April of 2005. She was hit with a one year suspension from WIBF and chose to continue fighting. Since 2005, she has fought ten times for a title in various weight classes - including for the WIBF again in 2007. Dunaway went 4-6 in those title fights and appears to be boxing as long as the promoters and managers let her.

Marion Jones is maybe the highest profile female athlete to admit steroid use - admitting to the illegal usage after years denying the constant questions and rumors. Jones was married to C.J. Hunter, a shot-putter who failed four tests for nandrolone, in a romantic relationship with Tim Montgomery, a sprinter who was stripped of nearly his entire career's achievements for his involvement with BALCO and coached by Trevor Graham, who was given a life ban from track and field and house arrest for lying to the federal investigators about his role in drug cheating. She still spent years denying the use of any performance enhancing drugs and made herself the face of the USA contingent in the 2000 Olympics. After admitting in 2007 that she had used the "clear" product supplied by BALCO, Jones was retroactively stripped of all titles, medals, wins and records all the way back to before her five medal winning effort in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Jones received a two year suspension from her sport, but chose to retire from track and field entirely and served a short time in jail for perjury and check fraud. Jones was 31 at the time and no longer the dominant figure in women's sprinting like she once was. After her release in 2008, Jones decided to try for a WNBA career and tried out for several teams. The Tulsa Shock picked her up in early 2010 and kept her until July of 2011.

Marta Bastianelli was a promising Italian cyclist who'd won what they call a world championship within the sport and was preparing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In mid-2008, she tested positive for fenfluramine, a banned anorectic drug. Bastianelli received a two year suspension and missed the Beijing Games. After serving her suspension, she came back to professional cycling in 2011 and is now riding for an elite team run by Mario Cipollini.

Jessica Hardy, a U.S. swimmer, had a sample that tested positive for clenbuterol in 2008. She left the Olympic team, blaming a supplement and served a one year suspension from the sport. In 2009, she came back and promptly broke the world record in the 50 and 100 meter breaststrokes. Today, she is still an elite swimmer and wins world championship medals in her events.

Tong Wen, the female Chinese heavyweight judoka and multiple time world champion, as well as the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, tested positive for clenbuterol in mid-2010. Most famously, she blamed roided up Chinese pork chops for her troubles. Wen was forced to hand back her 2009 World Championship gold medal and began serving a two year suspension. However, thanks to some smart and dedicated legal work by her attorneys, Wen was able to get the Court for Arbitration of Sport to overturn her suspension on a procedural failure, reinstate her 2009 gold medal and render no opinion on whether or not she used clenbuterol in a rule-breaking way. Wen went out and won the 2011 Judo Worlds, the Moscow Grand Slam and the Qingdao Grand Prix too.

Dunaway was about 22 at the time of the positive test and will turn 28 in 2012. Bastianelli was 22 at the time of her bust and is now 24. Hardy is 24 now and was 21 in 2008. Wen is nearly 29 now and was 27 at the time of her allegedly porcine-related problems. Jones is the only one of these four other women athletes to be caught past the age of 30. Cyborg Santos is 26 years old. She is not in a desperate sprint against the ticking clock of age to get all her fights in before the finish line of "Too Late" is past.

There is time to address the problems making the lower weight class of 135 lbs. Her commitment to legal sporting competition can be reforged. Her technical skills in striking and grappling can be vastly improved in that one year span. Perhaps she can win more medals in Brazilian jiu jitsu or submission grappling competitions. Perhaps she can focus on training fighters at her gym. Perhaps she can take up yoga or the Dolce Diet. The possibilities for her are not super-limited. Cyborg has the opportunity to change for the better and I see very little reason why her career should be called to an end - even after this disheartening revelation.

By all means, be disappointed over the steroids usage, but treat Cristiane Santos as the talented, young and exciting mixed martial arts athlete she is. Allow her to use this time wisely if she can and give her the opportunity to return a wiser, better fighter. And nobody give her Chinese pork chops either.

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