It isn't often a fight promotion deserves to be praised for leaving money on the table, but there are exceptions to every rule.
Take for instance the UFC's decision to forgo granting Alistair Overeem an immediate shot at the heavyweight title when he returns from a PED suspension early next year. As recently as one month ago Dana White was bullish on the idea of Overeem fighting for the title but it appears plans have since changed. This Tuesday the Las Vegas Review Journal broke the news that the former K1, Dream, and Strikeforce champ would be facing Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva at UFC 156 on Super Bowl weekend rather than sitting out and waiting for the winner of next month's Junior dos Santos/Cain Velasquez fight.
While Overeem challenging for the title would be best for business in the short term, the UFC should be credited for having the foresight to realize this is one of those cases where the easy cash grab isn't worth the ensuant collateral damage to the integrity of the sport.
If Overeem was coming off a one year layoff for injury it would be one thing, but he's returning after a failed PED test. Not just any run of the mill test failure mind you, but one that revealed he had a testosterone to epitestosterone level fourteen times higher than that of a normal man.
But it's all cool though, like so many athletes before him he claims he was the unwitting victim of a tainted substance infused with massive amounts of testosterone, in this case an anti-inflammatory drug administered by Dr. Hector Molina of the, ahem, Men's Performance Enhancement Clinic. Nope, no red flags there at all.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Overeem's alibi is reminiscent of a first grader caught with his hand in the cookie jar and a goatee of crumbs stuck to his face who then turns around and tells his mom he was looking for his lost homework.
What's even more outrageous is that this test failure came just a few months after the Reem flagrantly disrespected the Nevada State Athletic Commission's protocols for pre-fight drug testing by fleeing the country the same day he was popped with a random test. He then proceeded to wait almost a week before mailing the NSAC a sample.
That's when things got truly ridiculous. The NSAC had demanded a urine sample to test for anabolic steroids, which can't be detected in the blood, but Overeem evidently suddenly forgot how to read English while back on his native soil and submitted a blood sample. He eventually did send the NSAC the urine sample but it was a full twenty days after the initial request - enough time for an anabolic steroid to clear a person's system.
Despite all this, the NSAC showed the mercy of a saint and granted Overeem a conditional license to face Brock Lesnar in a number one contenders bout. The Demolition Man then went on to live up to his namesake by thoroughly demolishing the former WWE superstar via first round kick to the liver.
While there isn't any proof whether or not Overeem was doping before the Lesnar fight thanks in large part to poor decision making by the NSAC, the cloud of pre-fight improprieties hanging over his victory became harder to ignore after he failed the first of the random drug tests stipulated by his conditional license. Even if we can't say for certain he was cheating leading up to the Lesnar fight, we know for a fact he was just three months later.
That's why fast tracking Overeem to a shot at the title was such a bad idea. Not only would it send a message to fighters that they can keep their ill gotten gains if they fail a test after being named number one contender as long as they are popular enough, it also would tell fans and media pundits alike that the UFC doesn't take drug testing any more seriously than they absolutely have to for appearance's sake.
Perhaps most importantly it would be a slap in the face to all the clean fighters who are trying to claw and scratch their way to the top of their respective divisions. If cheating is rewarded with better opportunities - and if you as a fighter feel like everyone else is doing it - why not succumb to temptation and get on the juice yourself? Obviously Overeem being declared number one contender wouldn't instantly cause every clean fighter on the UFC roster to start sticking needles full of hormones where the sun doesn't shine, but it nevertheless would set a dangerous precedent in a sport where the margin between victory and defeat can be painfully narrow.
I'm not saying Overeem should never get another chance to fight for the title. He deserves a chance to redeem himself and move forward with his career. Missing a year between fights is a significant financial penalty for a 32 year old so it isn't like he got away with just a slap on the wrist. However, due to his past transgressions the onus is on Overeem to work to rebuild his reputation. If he wins another fight or two and passes successive independent drug tests - sorry Reem but testing yourself doesn't count - then there's no reason he should be kept out of the title picture. If Overeem really is the clean fighter he insists he is then this shouldn't be a problem for him.
It could, however, end up being a headache for Dana White and Joe Silva next Spring. Overeem is likely to be the favorite going into the fight with Bigfoot Silva, but in MMA - especially in the heavyweight division - there's no such thing as a lock when prognosticating the outcome of a fight. If Bigfoot upsets Overeem the UFC will have sacrificed a sure-fire blockbuster pay per view number and gotten a marginal contender in return.
The worst case scenario for the UFC would be for Bigfoot to beat Overeem and for Cain Velasquez to avenge his loss to JDS and recapture the title. Given the lack of depth at the top of the heavyweight division the UFC would then find themselves not only out a big money number one contender in Overeem, but also looking at the daunting prospect of convincing fans that Velasquez/Bigfoot is a fight worth paying fifty bucks for despite how one sided the result was the first time they met.
In the end that's what makes the UFC's decision to hold back on giving Overeem an immediate title shot so admirable. Not only are they foregoing short term financial gain for the long term best interests of the sport, but they're potentially setting themselves up for a vexing booking quagmire in the process.
Under normal circumstances this might be an unwise business decision but this time it was the right call. Sometimes, even in business, there are more important things than the bottom line.
After all, you can't put a price on integrity.
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