The Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) is ready to lead the fight to clean up MMA.
Alistair Overeem, Stephan Bonnar, Jake Shields, Cris Cyborg—those were just a handful of mixed martial artists who were busted and suspended for using banned substances in 2012. If you venture back pre-2012, many more fighters can be added to the list of dishonor.
Failed drug tests have been a black eye and a disturbing trend for the young sport, however, the UFC has been proactive in its attempt to clean up MMA. Recently, UFC vice president of regulatory affairs Marc Ratner announced the promotion was instituting its own drug testing at all international events instead of relying on independent facilities, and the UFC will no longer pay out end-of-night fight bonuses until drug test results come back clean. There’s no better way to deter a fighter from using PEDs than hitting them in the wallet.
Most state athletic commissions in North America, including the big three—Nevada, California, and New Jersey—continue to do their part, administering post-fight drug tests at events that take place in their respective states and, from time to time, pre-fight screenings. Since boxing and MMA commissions are state regulated and funded, the issue they continue to battle is limited funding for out-of-competition tests.
Overall, Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer is satisfied with his commission’s current drug testing process, but he’s not resting on his laurels.
“We are always looking at ways to improve,” Kizer says. “We will continue to seek additional information and funding to do more. No drug testing program should consider itself 100 percent perfect, but we are doing more testing than we ever have—the biggest goal is to deter usage, then there’s nothing to test for.”
While testosterone replacement therapy, therapeutic use exemptions, and PED abuse in MMA has many fans and athletes calling for improved and more extensive testing, Dr. Margaret Goodman from the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) is ready to lead the fight.
The Heavy Hitter
As a former Nevada ring physician and athletic commission member, Dr. Goodman has been around combat sports most of her life. The Las Vegas-based neurologist founded the independent, nonprofit organization VADA in 2011.
“We put together this organization because we felt that no one else was doing enough to try and stop PED use,” says Dr. Goodman. “The testing at athletic commissions was insufficient, it was disorganized, it wasn’t for enough substances, and the panels that test athletes were antiquated. It’s difficult to pass our program—if you’re dirty, don’t come to us. The athletes who are using out there know a heck of a lot more than the commissions do about performance enhancing drugs, and that’s just wrong.”
In an effort to promote clean sports, VADA uses effective anti-doping practices and programs utilizing some of the most stringent and technically advanced tests modern science has available. The organization arranges for their tests to be completed at UCLA Medical Center, and unlike the standard screenings being performed by athletic commissions, VADA does both blood and urine tests, routine blood counts that can show if an athlete is doping, and carbon isotope ratio (CIR) testing.
“CIR testing is typically done in an Olympic setting, and it is a way to detect if somebody is using synthetic or exogenerous testosterone, testosterone they’ve taken, as opposed to what’s in their body naturally,” says Dr. Goodman. “It’s hard for somebody abusing testosterone to escape our tests, and I think commissions need to start administering these tests as well.”
Another distinction with VADA is that they perform true unannounced testing, which means an athlete participating in the VADA program can be visited by a screener 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the eight weeks leading up to their fight. They must supply a blood and urine sample right then and there.
“Athletic commissions may do random testing, but they are giving an athlete 24 hours to show up,” says Dr. Goodman. “Short-acting testosterone can be out of your system, and unless you’re doing the CIR testing, you’re not going to pick it up. Lance Armstrong said he wasn’t getting caught because no one was doing unannounced or CIR tests—but VADA does.”
These high-tech tests are very expensive, and it’s up to the participants, sponsors, or donations to cover the costs. Depending on how many times a fighter is tested a year, the price tag can reach in the thousands of dollars.
Who’s Coming With Me?
The Voluntary Anti-Doping Association is exactly what their name states: Voluntary. Why would a fighter who is already subject to no-cost drug tests from the UFC and state athletic commissions want to sign up and pay for additional tests?
The answer is simple according to Dr. Goodman.
“People say, ‘Why would somebody do that, why would they volunteer for testing?’ I think it’s to show they are for clean sport. I think PEDs can contribute to the dangers of MMA, and I think the most important thing an athlete can do by signing up with VADA is to show they are clean.”
Only a handful of fighters have felt that it was worth it. So far, BJ Penn, Rory MacDonald, Ben Askren, and Roy Nelson are the only mixed martial artists to have enrolled and participate in the program. Take one look at UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson’s physical appearance and your first thought is probably not going to be, “Wow, that guy has to be using steroids.” However, Nelson wants to make sure that he and his opponents are competing on the same playing field and that his opponents are not receiving an unfair advantage by taking PEDs.
“I was fortunate to have sponsors pay for the testing, so it didn’t cost me a thing,” Nelson says. “It’s important for fans to know you’re drug-free. Taking the extra step to do the VADA testing is like giving back to the fans.”
Rory MacDonald thought the experience was fine, but he isn’t sure he would participate again.
“I wouldn’t desire to—it’s just another thing you have to worry about,” says MacDonald. “You don’t really want to be taken out of your focus and be disturbed on fight week. The commissions have their drug testing, and I’ve already participated once in VADA and proved where I stand.”
“I have spoken to many fighters who complained about the risk of being cut because they didn’t want to take PEDs, while everyone around them was,” says Dr. Goodman. “It’s always been a problem in combat sports. You can look historically at the issue, and they are not going to go away, but it really comes down to the fighter, and VADA gives them a way to control their careers and do what’s right for the sport.”
The Next Steps
As a nonprofit organization, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association is continuing to look for someone to help fund the costs associated with their testing. Dr. Goodman recently reached out to the UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to gauge their interest in VADA conducting the UFC’s tests. As of press, Dr. Goodman has not received a response.
While the UFC and Bellator, state athletic commissions, and the Association of Boxing Commissions all support what VADA and Dr. Goodman are doing in theory, they are not helping out financially. Moving forward, Dr. Goodman’s goal is to continue to educate both amateur and professional boxers and mixed martial artists, commissions, trainers, and public on the hazards of PED use.
“VADA needs to be a part of the sport,” says Dr. Goodman. “We have to continue to educate athletes about the dangers of PEDs and the side effects. They need to understand that they can compete clean.”