The Oncoming Train Wreck in Combat Sports

By Zach Arnold on July 5, 2011
The Oncoming Train Wreck in Combat Sports
Getting a fighting license is not a right, it's a privilege (Robert Ecksel)

If Evander Holyfield can still continue to fight, you can be assured that Jermain Taylor will get a license to fight in Arkansas…

One week ago at this time, Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz had their initial press conference to start the hype train for their upcoming PPV extravaganza that is going to draw a lot of eyeballs. Despite Mayweather being a substantial favorite going into the fight, a lot of people are intrigued by the choice of Ortiz as his opponent. It should be a good action fight if Ortiz can manage to catch Mayweather a few times and stop Floyd from using his speedy defensive skills in the ring.

One positive storyline coming out of this fight is the fact that Mayweather and Ortiz have agreed to use USADA/WADA level drug testing protocols. Floyd has done this before and he should be commended for doing so. He may not want to take a vocal lead as being the cheerleader for drug testing of all fighters, but he is setting a good example and painting Manny Pacquiao in a negative light by doing so. Whatever Floyd’s motives are, the step up in drug testing is a good thing.

While Mayweather was giving his press conference on Tuesday to the boxing media, former UFC Middleweight Nate Marquardt was in a different kind of media forum. He was a guest, along with his manager Lex McMahon, on’s MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani discussing why he got fired by the UFC. Marquardt didn’t pass his medicals with Greg Sirb’s Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission because he messed up his testosterone levels due to Testosterone Replacement Therapy. A tearful Marquardt, who has previously failed a steroid test, told Helwani that he needed TRT in order to recover from sluggishness and irritability. If you’re like me and you’re wondering why world-class athletes such as Nate Marquardt and Chael Sonnen are proclaiming a need for TRT due to low testosterone and hypogonadism, you’re not alone. For an industry like combat sports with so many guys in such good physical shape, it’s preposterous to see the percentage level of fighters claiming that they need TRT and that state athletic commissions like Nevada even allow it to happen in the first place.

A tearful Marquardt said that after he fought in New Jersey, he went off TRT so that he could take three blood tests in order to show the low levels required to pass the tests. He was done with his testing approximately three weeks before a scheduled bout in late June against up-and-coming UFC Middleweight Rick Story. The fight was set to take place on a Sunday night for a Versus live telecast. Marquardt’s fight was slotted for the main event in Pittsburgh and got booked at a time when UFC was/is in protracted television negotiations with Versus/Comcast/NBC and Spike TV. 

Marquardt claimed in The MMA Hour interview that his doctor, who he magically never named once publicly, told him to ramp up the testosterone ingestion via injection before the fight with Story.

“I went back to my doctor and, um, and he decided that I should go back on treatment, obviously, and at this point I was three weeks out from my fight that I was supposed to have with Rick Story. Three weeks out and… so, he basically said that I needed to go on a more aggressive treatment because of the proximity to the fight because it was so close.”

Marquardt revealed during the interview that he went from a pill treatment to an injection treatment and that he had not managed his levels properly before the fight. I don’t know about you, but if I was slotted for the main event of a UFC card and my doctor supposedly screwed up the management of my testosterone levels, I would be making sure to spotlight the name of the doctor in question. Instead, we got no name of the doctor from the Marquardt camp. Nothing. Marquardt was asked if he would consult with that doctor and ask him why things went wrong and his answer in reply was to essentially say, “What’s the point?” Again, I don’t know about you, but if my doctor screwed something up, I don’t think cutting all ties with him/her in terms of communication is exactly what I would do. Perhaps an angry phone call to them or to a medical board, but not complete silence.

The issue of TRT as a legal loophole for fighters who are in good physical shape to use testosterone is frankly asinine. Keith Kizer, the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, tried to justify the allowance of TRT for boxers and MMA fighters during an interview last week with Tapout media head Mike Straka.

“You don’t want an athlete to have to choose between getting better, getting well, and competing,” said Kizer, “if in fact you do both without putting either himself at unfair risk or putting his opponent at unfair advantage.”

Getting a fighting license is not a right. It’s a privilege. And, yet, Kizer claimed that Nevada’s testing for TRT usage is good enough to detect those who really need TRT versus fighters with mark/fanboy doctors who are giving their clients steroids and PEDs, damaging endocrine systems, and then crying for the need of a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE).

“There’s also something that’s checked on, it’s the LH (Luteinizing hormone/lutropin) and FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) levels that are checked at the same time as the testosterone levels and those two levels have to be normal or better. And again the testosterone level has to be low in order to really qualify automatically or, that’s not the right word, but to qualify normally for such an exemption. Those are the levels that they check. If your LH and FSH levels are low that does indicate that it could be from prior steroids. If those levels are normal or high, odds are really, really, really good that it wasn’t due to prior PED usage because I guess those are the levels that go down due to steroid usage in the past. So, you know, if I get an athlete that the doctors know has explained all that sufficiently, our doctor checks it out and he’s happy with it, the blood tests a low T/E but a normal-to-high LH and FSH and I get the affidavit from the athlete and there’s no other evidence that the athlete used PEDs in the past, they have a very good chance of getting a TUE, they should get a TUE in a case like that and, again, they don’t have to choose between leading a healthy life and leading a life as a professional athlete nor should they. On the other hand, if they’re not entitled a TUE, they don’t meet the burden, then they have two choices—take the drugs and don’t compete or compete but don’t take the drugs. But again, hopefully there’s a situation in legitimate case where the athlete can do because there’s no harm, no foul.”

The truth is that TRT is quickly becoming the latest and greatest loophole for fighters who want to dope in combat sports. There’s more holes in the current drug testing programs of various state athletic commissions than there is for Swiss cheese. It’s out of control. The Marquardt situation has sparked new outcry amongst MMA fans for a clean sport. However, we are reaching the point where fans want one of two outcomes—a completely clean sport or legalized drug usage so that every fighter can experiment and use drugs. 

Dana White, UFC President, got mad at Marquardt not because he used TRT but because he was incompetent in how he did it. White’s longtime position is that he doesn’t handle drug testing matters and that ‘the Government’ (state athletic commissions) deals with such matters. It gives him a convenient ‘bad guy’ to play off because, hey, he can shift the blame on fighters getting caught doping onto other people. In an interview with HDNet last Friday, White expanded upon his current stance in regards to TRT usage amongst MMA fighters.

“I think the testosterone therapy thing, it’s real, people do do it. What it is is after guys, when you get in your 40s and 50s, men’s testosterone starts to go down so they bump it back up to the levels that they used to be, and there’s guys now that are younger doing it for whatever their reasons are and, you know, it gets to the point where… how much are you taking? You know, you’re supposed to take this amount to get to the right levels. Guys are taking too much and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s performance-enhancing. Now you’re cheating.”

The fact that guys with muscles and world-class physical ability need TRT is patently absurd. Guys who use steroids, who damage their endocrine system and then use testosterone boosts, are essentially double-doping in my book. The kicker? Fighters are getting away with this right now.

Making the situation even more curious is the fact that Nate Marquardt claims he was using TRT while fighting for the promotion last November in Germany when he fought top UFC Middleweight contender Yushin Okami. UFC ran their own drug testing program in Germany because there’s no commission oversight. Therefore, what did UFC doctors know about Marquardt’s TRT program and how far up the chain of command did that knowledge go? Josh Gross, ESPN MMA writer, tried to get comment from Dr. Jeff Davidson, UFC’s lead doctor, and Davidson reportedly would not talk on the record. No surprise.

It’s no wonder that critics of Mixed Martial Arts in the state of New York are not exactly glowing at the chance to pass legislation to legalize the sport in their state. Assemblyman Bob Reilly has long been the public face of opposition to such legislation of MMA in New York, but it’s really Sheldon Silver (Democratic leader of the New York State Assembly) and his deputy Herman Farrell who have the power to halt a vote for MMA legalization. They’ve done that this year and will probably do it for the foreseeable future. Reilly, who has continued his vociferous stance against MMA legalization in New York, says that not even the sport of boxing could get passed in 2011 in New York if there was legislation for it.

Based on this next story, Reilly may have a point.

Dan Rafael posted a column on last week in which Jermain Taylor and his camp (lead by Al Haymon and Pat Burns) said that Taylor magically has a clean bill of health and that he will return to action on August 13th in Little Rock, Arkansas on Showtime. Yes, the same Jermain Taylor whose skills have eroded quickly and have put him in danger, in my opinion, in his last couple of encounters. The article went on to quote Taylor’s camp as saying that the fighter has been medically examined and cleared to fight, despite the fact that Arthur Abraham punished him to the point of causing bleeding on the brain. Any time you hear that phrase, it should give you great pause. Recently, UFC fighter Brian Foster had an MRI done for the Ontario athletic commission prior to the organization’s mega event at the Sky Dome in Toronto and the MRI revealed some bleeding on the brain. Foster was pulled from his scheduled bout but is set to return to action in the near future.

The truth is, bleeding on the brain is nothing to mess with. It’s dangerous and, if not properly treated and handled by the right medical professionals, can lead to unconsciousness, or worse, if any further head trauma is inflicted. 

Dr. Margaret Goodman, former chairwoman of the Medical Advisory Board of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, told radio host Eddie Goldman last Friday that she is terrified about Taylor’s return to the ring after the damage his body has taken in recent fights.

“It’s devastating to me to see that that could possibly happen. You know, here you have still a young man who’s extremely talented, who has had some really nasty fights. In his last fight, he was really hurt. He hadn’t been looking good in a few fights prior to that and then he is hurt, hospitalized, has a subdural hematoma, does extremely well as far as surviving that and is now back training with his original trainer, Pat Burns. And I just think it’s ridiculous that anyone would license him, that he should be even training, and that [it] would be something that might be on Showtime. I think that’s just horrifying.

“We want the sports to police themselves, but you know, who’s going to have a conscience for Jermain? The problem is the article, and like I said I’m not privy to any of the private information on this, but the article referred to the fact that Jermain had been to Mayo Clinic, had been evaluated by two neurologists, blah blah blah, but the problem is that the testing that we do to determine whether or not somebody is fit to box is often not thorough enough and it’s not the right testing and it takes people that understand what a boxer goes through or an MMA athlete, especially when they’ve been hurt in competition or even in the gym, to understand what they’re going to continue to go through. So, to say that Jermain Taylor is okay to continue his career because his scan may look normal and because doctors have never seen that before, that haven’t watched all of his fights to see how he’s deteriorated from fight to fight in his last few fights, to say that he’s okay to go back and compete is just sad. It’s just sad and it just shows you why it’s hard for combat sports like boxing and MMA to get past where they are because of that mentality.”

Because Taylor fought Abraham in Germany and has been out of action for two years, he can come back and fight. If Evander Holyfield can still continue to fight, you can be assured that Taylor will get a license to fight in Arkansas. 

“He’s off suspension and, you know, it depends on what jurisdiction you go to and, I mean, I think that a lot of people will argue and the argument is still there that, you know, who’s to say 100% that an athlete’s not okay to come back if they’ve had a small subdural hematoma? But because it’s not adequately studied in boxing or in MMA, we just don’t know, we don’t know how often it happens because not every fighter is scanned and all we do know is that fighters that do die from subdural hematomas probably had bleeding before that fight, may have had numerous bleeds before that fight, and we just don’t have the appropriate statistics. But we do know that there may be a predisposition and so putting an athlete back is an increased risk and that’s not even the whole thing with Jermain. Jermain, like I said, was an amazingly talented young man, but if you look at this last several fights, even before the Abraham fight, he’s just not the same fighter. And, you know, you can chalk it up to, ‘Oh, well, he was fighting in the wrong weight class’ or ‘He wasn’t prepared, he didn’t have the legs he used to have, he didn’t have the coordination, he didn’t have the balance,’ and, you know, those are all indications of a fighter who has taken too much punishment fight after fight.”

In sports like boxing and MMA where fighters suffer greatly after they are out of the spotlight, it’s clear that the litany of medical issues facing the combat sports world is only continuing to grow. Who will step up and take the (sometimes unpopular) lead in being proactive in regards to changes to improve the health and safety of fighters who often don’t demonstrate an ability to help themselves?

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Kelly Pavlik v Jermain Taylor

Carl Froch knocks out Jermain Taylor

Arthur Abraham vs. Jermain Taylor ( Ko round 12)

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  1. The Thresher 05:37pm, 08/11/2011

    He needs to be protected from himself. He is headed for a bad ending. Get out now and smell the roses unless they have wilted (and he needs the money).

  2. Joe 09:24am, 07/06/2011

    I’d like to fight Jermain.  It must be fun to know that your guy can get KTFO in rounds 11 or 12 - if you don’t catch him sooner.  Three matches in a row he gets “stretched” pun intended, down the stretch.  Al and Co. should just keep him away from anyone even close to good.  We all need to make a living and Taylor is a fighter.