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Steroids in MMA, Part 1: Busting the Myths

Steroids in MMA, Part 1:  Busting the Myths

There are a few topics in MMA that many fans have a hard time discussing rationally.  Fedor’s negotiations with the UFC, Anderson Silva vs Jon Jones, transgender fighter Fallon Fox… some things seem to have a naturally polarizing effect, eliciting strong emotional responses from both sides of the debate.

Performance-enhancing drugs (also known as PEDs or the more colloquial “steroids”) also fall into this category.  Some MMA fans see PEDs as a valuable part of the sport, because they allow fighters to compete with higher intensity and put on a better show.  But many others are vigorously opposed to PEDs, lobbing insults like “cheater” and “pussy” at athletes who pee hot.

After some reflection, I’ve found that I sympathize more with the “pro-steroid” crowd.  However, it’s not because I necessarily like steroids, or I want every fighter to use them; my own value judgments toward PEDs are not in play here.  Rather, I’ve come to favor legalization because my analysis of the facts tells me that PED use in MMA is inevitable, brought on by the willingness of competitors to seek every possible advantage and the inability of regulators to be everywhere at once.  And, given this sober appraisal of the situation at hand, I think the costs of prohibition are outweighed by the benefits of legalization.

Maybe you don’t agree, and that’s okay.  But what I want to do now is dissect some commonly held misconceptions surrounding PEDs, to see if the case in favor of PEDs is stronger than many might anticipate.  Here goes:

Myth:  Banning substances makes them go away.

This myth is one of the oldest and easiest to disprove, but the overwhelming body of contrary evidence hasn’t shaken its grip over our culture.  Prohibitions always fail to eradicate their targets, and the vast number of positive PED tests proves MMA’s steroid ban is no exception.  Most fans won’t go so far as to openly support this myth if pressed, but if we accept that bans don’t really work all that well, then why do we keep doing them?

Myth:  Steroids put fighters at an increased risk of serious injury and/or death.

This myth seems perfectly sensible, at least at first.  Steroids increase performance, and in MMA, performance means hurting your opponent.  Doesn’t it then follow that PEDs make MMA significantly more dangerous?  The logic appears sound, but there is no evidence to support it.  To see what I’m talking about, consider the thousands of MMA fights that have occurred over the sport’s 20-plus year history.  Only a small portion of those took place in a tightly regulated environment similar to today’s UFC.  Mixed martial arts has seen a huge amount of unregulated action, where PED testing wasn’t even on the radar.  But even taking that into account, there have been relatively few deaths or disabling injuries.  Point being, steroids or not, MMA is just statistically not that dangerous.

Myth:  Steroids are a shortcut to victory.

This myth is one of the more emotionally driven arguments against steroids.  The claim is that PEDs are for weak-minded, cowardly, lazy athletes who just want an easy road to success.  But in reality, steroids can’t turn a Glass Joe into a UFC contender.  They can’t teach technique, mental toughness, or how to execute a game plan.  Hell, steroids alone can’t even build muscles.  The primary benefit to steroids is they help fighters recover better from training, which allows for longer, harsher, more grueling sessions.  That’s right; in order to derive any significant benefit from steroids, you have to actually train harder than if you aren’t on them!  It may seem ironic, but a weak person wouldn’t be able to effectively use PEDs.

That’s it for today’s column, but be sure to stick around for Part 2, where I’ll talk about the benefits of steroid legalization and what a more reasonable approach to PEDs might look like.

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