Chael Sonnen file photo: Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
You know something is very, very wrong when Chael Sonnen has nothing to say: the fighter lauded for a terrific 23-minute performance against Anderson Silva in early August is now a virtual shut-in thanks to California Athletic Commission Executive Director George Dodd confirming Sonnen tested positive for performance enhancers -- a charge prompted by abnormally high levels of testosterone.
Sonnen -- who spun an often-outrageous personality to the point he became nearly incomprehensible -- built a very high standard for himself leading in to the Silva fight: he would beat the champion up, take his lunch money, steal his book bag, and etc. That’s more or less what he did. But now all of that hustle and effort may have an asterisk next to it.
(Fighters can be given a pass from testosterone supplementation if they’re taking it for a legitimate medical reason: specifically, to elevate abnormally low levels to a normal range. But if Sonnen’s results were off the charts, the California commission either has a very different idea of “elevated” or he had exceeded any reasonable medical use.)
Sonnen is far from unique: he’s the fourth of Silva’s UFC opponents to test positive for drugs at some point in their respective careers. What makes his situation regrettable is that he was popped immediately following a crucial fight; worse, his pro wrestling shtick didn’t leave him much room for personal error -- including a monologue on how Lance Armstrong’s alleged use of banned substances gave him cancer. You make a statement like that and you’d better not burn a hole in the cup you’re asked to pee in.
That achievement breaks what’s been a fairly long stretch of quiet for the UFC: the last time a title contender tested positive was Sean Sherk in the summer of 2007, a charge Sherk vehemently denied. Right or wrong, PEDs remain a staple of sports: the only real debate is how best to mask usage so it remains an unspoken topic.
The accused are hardly the only athletes using pharmaceutical help at this level: they just happen to be one of the unlucky few who get tagged for it. Aside from the prohibitively expensive method of blood work, the best way to dissuade athletes from using is completely random testing: no notice, no pattern, just a demand for a sample at any time during the year. While some commissions have a policy in place for that strategy, few (or none) ever actually put it in practice with any conviction. As long as the system remains predictable, fighters will think of ways around it.
It’s unrealistic to expect drug protocol will be uniform from top to bottom, or from state to state. As the stakes get higher, it should be up to promotions and commissions to work in tandem to create a solution that will treat key bouts with the attention they require to keep them honest. You can’t test every fighter on a card with blood work and off-season tests? Fine: focus on the main event and subject those fighters to exhaustive testing. If a contender knows that the price of competing for a title is a system that could and would detect any invalid substance in his body, he’s far less likely to get into the habit of using on the road to that opportunity. And since every fighter believes he can one day contend for a title, it should act as a deterrent without breaking any state’s bank.
As for Sonnen: his choice is whether or not to confess in a sincere way (if he did as he’s accused) or come up with another gimmick to deflect attention away from the situation. If Sonnen is as straight-talking as he claims to be, he won’t dive for cover behind the idea of “tainted supplements” (a popular defense) or a drawn-out semantics argument over testing protocol. If guilty, admitting it goes a long way. Already, there are reports that Sonnen told Dodd he had taken a banned substance immediately prior to the fight. Why would Sonnen say that, especially if he had no way of knowing whether Dodd would act on that information and pull him from the card?
In that instance, the UFC would quarter him; in this drawn-out scenario, what else can they do after the commission has suspended and fined him? It’s a fair point, but the real test of the UFC’s sincerity will be when Sonnen’s possible suspension is up: does it do a rematch with Silva, basically turning a blind eye to the situation, or does it acknowledge that the fighter has dropped himself down the ladder and will need to fight his way back up? Being awarded a title bout after coming off a scandal would not do much to prove the UFC is anti-PEDs.
Only Silva comes out spotless. Not only did he perform an 11th-hour save of his own ass, he did it injured and against a man who is alleged to have been cheating.
It’s going to be a rough few months for Sonnen, who also has to deal with the aftershocks in a simmering political career in Oregon. But he shouldn’t sweat it. The penalty for PED use in those circles? Becoming Governor of California.