NSAC elimination of TRT exemptions fails to address many lingering issues in combat drug testing

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

The NSAC decision to eliminate TRT should not be celebrated without taking the larger picture into account. A larger picture that includes massive inconsistencies in NSAC actions and holes in current testing protocols.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission's vote to eliminate Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) from the combat sports equation was a game changer, to be sure. Twitter filled with members of the MMA world celebrating that what many saw as legalized steroid use had been struck down in the world's premier fight destination.

However, the battle is not over for those who want a drug-free sport. In fact, it's not even over for those who want a TRT-free sport...even in Nevada. Ben Fowlkes covered the Vitor Belfort situation in an article at MMA Junkie prior to Belfort pulling out of the bout early this morning:

But then, just because he can’t use it legally doesn’t mean he can’t use it. Catching users of synthetic testosterone – especially if they know exactly when they’ll be tested – isn’t so easy. The NSAC’s usual tests only look at testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. If you want to catch a guy who shot up that week (or one who didn’t expect to be tested, like Alistair Overeem), that might be good enough. But if you want to catch the people who shot up throughout training camp and knew when to taper off, you’ll need a carbon isotope ratio test, which the NSAC generally doesn’t do.

I posted the details of the Nevada "Enhanced Drug Testing" done by the NSAC for Travis Browne vs. Josh Barnett. That testing did not include CIR testing, the testing that would detect if the testosterone in someone's body is synthetic or natural. Without that, Belfort could use TRT for a fight in Nevada without issue, provided he keeps his testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio in the normal range.

The UFC has suggested that they'd be willing to foot the bill for any sort of testing as explained in a Yahoo! Sports piece:

Fertitta told Yahoo Sports that the UFC embraces regulation and has told commissions that it would pay to have any fighter it has under contract tested at any time. He said that offer would include as many fighters as the commission would want and said it would cover any test, including Carbon Isotope Ratio testing.

That is a promising development, but one that becomes more difficult when the specifics are really laid out.

Bob Arum and the NSAC wanted to cut VADA out of handling the testing for Manny Pacquiao's rematch with Timothy Bradley, choosing instead to have the testing managed by the actual regulating body. They stepped up the testing to the point of having random testing including CIR, IRMS, etc. But the testing will cost $35,000. Top Rank is footing the bill as it simply would eat up too much of the NSAC budget. Considering the millions and millions that everyone involved stands to make off the fight, it certainly isn't a crippling amount of money. Former NSAC executive director Keith Kizer also stated that Bradley's 2013 PPV bout with Juan Manuel Marquez featured enhanced testing that saw half the samples turned in given CIR tests.

The UFC doesn't hand out purses like Bradley/Pacquiao will generate. In fact, a $35,000 payday would be a big step up for much of the roster.

So, don't think we're on the way to seeing comprehensive blood testing for all fighters any time soon.

Where the pressure should be placed is on promoters (UFC, Top Rank, Golden Boy, etc.) to have at least the top two fights on any show go through the "true" enhanced testing programs, which include CIR, IRMS, EPO tests, etc. Yes, a $70,000 bill is costly, but it could prove to be a major step forward in cleaning up the top of the sports of MMA and boxing.

But there are some, like Zach Arnold of Fight Opinion, who say that the TRT ban is less about moving toward "cleaning up the sport," and more about making PR moves that will take some heat off the commission and the UFC:

The Nevada State Athletic Commission had a meeting today in Las Vegas where they announced a ban on all testosterone permission slips for fighters in combat sports. It was a unanimous vote. Not a coincidence. The UFC is already putting on a dog-and-pony show celebrating this triumph.

That’s Sig Rogich-style public relations malarkey. The UFC celebrating the "end" of anabolic steroid permission slips in Nevada is the equivalent of Big Tobacco celebrating an orchestrated anti-smoking campaign for kids in schools while making tens of millions of dollars profiting from the promotion of individuals who used or got addicted to their drug in the first place. Think the UFC is going to apologize for Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir, Ben Rothwell, Dan Henderson, and many other fighters who have headlined Fox events or PPVs where the UFC banked big coin? Hell no.

...

The truth about Nevada’s commission is what I’ve stated all along: Sig Rogich, Lorenzo Fertitta, and the politicians indebted to these individuals are the ones collaborating in this public relations campaign to look like they are cracking down on anabolic steroid usage in combat sports when in fact they were the enablers in the first place. Look at the facts. It wasn’t until UFC started promoting anabolic steroid users in main event fights that we had this plague of fighters crying hypogonadism and needing permission slips. It wasn’t Bob Arum. It wasn’t Golden Boy. It wasn’t Lou DiBella. This plague falls squarely on the shoulders of the UFC. They fostered the environment that let the plague spread and now they want you to think that they are altruistic in trying to stamp in out, that somehow this was never their fault and it was the fault of politicians (who they happen to exert great influence over).

One of the great things overlooked in the NSAC/TRT decision and the behavior of the commission are Georges St. Pierre's recent comments that he felt the UFC never had his back in the drug testing department.

St. Pierre wanted VADA testing for his bout with Johny Hendricks. In fact, GSP did VADA testing for the fight, even when it fell through. But, when the Hendricks camp wanted VADA ousted from the picture and the idea of enhanced testing through the NSAC came up, things got weird.

You can read our reporting on the situation from last September here.

St. Pierre's representative repeatedly tried to clarify what the testing will include in the NSAC's enhanced testing protocols. In the process, the UFC's Michael Mersch seems to get upset with the process, stating that the NSAC offering enhanced testing was "doing a favor" to St. Pierre and even seemingly pushing St. Pierre away from VADA or NSAC enhanced testing suggesting that St. Pierre could basically run his own testing program with a lab in Montreal rather than involve anyone else.

Keith Kizer then immediately stated that the St. Pierre camp's line of questioning about the type of testing that would be included was a refusal to participate in testing, including the line "the Commission does not allow any licensee to dictate or craft the testing. Not only is this inappropriate, it is not something the Commission would even consider."

Of course, in the Bradley/Pacquiao fight, that is unequivocally what the commission did. The NSAC shot down the fighters testing through VADA, using the reasoning that they were an "outside agency." The NSAC then stated that they could do the Marquez/Bradley protocols again, and Arum claimed to Yahoo! "I told him that was OK as long as it was the full WADA testing, with that stuff, the [CIR and IRMS] tests, so we can make sure there is no artificial testosterone."

St. Pierre did agree to the NSAC's testing, as well as VADA's, effectively doubling the amount of random tests he was likely to face. His representative then said he'd be out of the office and without a means of being contacted for ten days, asking that he be sent the payment instructions, documentation and invoice during that time. Kizer immediately squashed the testing at that point, explaining to SB Nation "they continued to ask questions and then finally they got to the point where they were unavailable and can't be reached in any manner for at least 10 days. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that's a 'no.' That's a 'no' by one's inactions than it is a verbal 'no' or a written 'no,'"

It may have been a "no" if it were in the weeks leading up to the fight, but Rodolphe Beaulieu was to return to the office on August 27, more than 80 days prior to the UFC 167 bout between St. Pierre and Hendricks.

When one starts to add things up, it does paint a picture that could raise a considerable amount of suspicion. Especially this bit from the e-mail exchange (questions are from Beaulieu, answers in bold are the NSAC response):

4- How long has the Nevada Athletic Commission been conducting these un-announced program with a WADA accredited lab using Olympic level testing? The Commission has been working directly with the SMRT lab starting this summer. Do you/will you also test for HGH and EPO? I already informed you that the testing will be for substances on WADA’s Prohibited List- http://www.wada-ama.org/Documents/World_Anti-Doping_Program/WADP-Prohibited-list/2013/WADA-Prohibited-List-2013-EN.pdf.

Included in that WADA prohibited list is EPO, one of the substances that the St. Pierre camp asks about directly, and one of the substances that was not tested for when a UFC bout (Browne/Barnett) was conducted with "enhanced testing." Barnett is a multi-time drug cheat who was put into a testing protocol that didn't include tests to detect synthetic testosterone or other methods of doping such as EPO.

That some (including the NSAC and UFC according to the e-mails) took issue with attempts from the St. Pierre camp to try to get details on the exact form of testing remains odd to me. Especially when the mantra of "WADA, WADA, WADA" from the NSAC during these "negotiations" and in putting Barnett through the testing did not include testing for substances on the WADA prohibited list.

And there's the NSAC's staunch refusal to have any licensee "dictate testing" only to then allow terms to be dictated for Pacquiao/Bradley.

The UFC and NSAC seemingly made a push to kill the testing at multiple levels. They took a "yes, we're in, tell us how to pay" situation and terminated the talks because someone would be out of the office until about three months ahead of the fight. By the way, did no one have any other contact details for the St. Pierre camp? Mersch wasn't able to say "wait, he said he was in. This testing really legitimizes the fight, lets try to reach out to his camp?" It was Beaulieu or bust?

It's not hard to understand the reasons that there are some who aren't yet ready to celebrate simply because TRT exemptions were taken off the table in Nevada. Nor is it hard to understand why there are some who consider this more of a PR move than an effort by the NSAC to really clean up anything.

The truth is simply that there is a long way to go in the combat sports "PED war" and behavior that needs to become far more consistent if there are serious people in the UFC and NSAC who want to clean up the sport.

Luke Thomas from MMA Fighting discussed the big ESPN "Outside the Lines" story regarding TRT use in MMS on his Chat Wrap show earlier this week:

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