The sequence of events when a UFC fighter fails an anti-doping test is fairly predictable these days.
The media reports the news that a banned substance was found in a fighter’s blood or urine. Then, said fighter and his/her manager express shock and outrage and insist they have no idea how that substance got into the athlete’s system.
Most of the time they’re lying through their teeth. The fighters took something they believed would make them better, gambling they’d be able to sneak it past the testers.
Occasionally, they are telling the truth, and either they’ve unknowingly ingested a tainted supplement or (far less likely), the lab’s results were mistaken.
All accused fighters, though, deserve the benefit of the doubt, no matter how laughable or implausible their defense may be.
That brings us to the case of ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, whose 18-month anti-doping suspension ended on Oct. 8. He will fight Derek Brunson in the main event of UFC Fight Night 119 on Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Machida is one of the last fighters you’d believe would ever cheat, though enough time has passed since the UFC contracted with the United States Anti-Doping Agency in 2015 and enough fighters have tested positive since that it’s understandable if one is suspicious of all fighters.
Machida hasn’t fought since being knocked out by Yoel Romero on June 27, 2015. It was his second straight loss – he was submitted by Luke Rockhold on April 18, 2015 – and it was his third loss in four fights.
He was preparing for an April 16, 2016, bout against Dan Henderson when he was randomly tested. Machida admitted to the doping control agent that he was taking a supplement which contained 7-Ketodehydroepiandrosterone, or 7-keto-DHEA, which is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list as an anabolic agent. Machida claimed ignorance, saying he didn’t know the substance was banned, but he immediately owned his mistake and asked for forgiveness.
Machida lost considerable time, and money, as a result of the suspension. From Feb. 23, 2013, through his loss to Romero on June 27, 2015, a span of two years, four months and five days, or 855 days, Machida fought eight times.
His 18-month suspension was for 548 days, meaning he probably would have fought four or five times had he kept up the pace he’d been on. If he averaged $200,000 per fight, he lost roughly $1 million in potential purse money, in addition to paying attorney fees and whatever sponsorship he may have lost.
It’s a lot of money for a guy who admitted what he did, and whose intentions seemingly weren’t to gain an athletic advantage.
Now, even if he didn’t intend to cheat, the substance was discovered in his urine. And so it’s correct to ban him from fighting.
It’s like speeding. If one doesn’t notice a 25 mph speed-limit sign and is pulled over for driving 40 mph, it doesn’t make it less of a violation. Sure, it’s not like the driver was drag racing at 40 mph, but there is a reason the limit was set at 25.
So Machida deserved to be penalized, particularly since USADA recommends against supplements and advises athletes who take them that they do so at their own risk. It’s the significance of the penalty he got that is difficult for many to accept.
A best practice would be to reach out for support on anything one ingests that isn’t food. It’s a hassle for clean athletes that was sadly made necessary by the extraordinary amount of their peers who were all too willing to take banned substances if they believed that A) it would boost their performance and B) they wouldn’t be caught.
Machida is eager to put the experience behind him. He’s looking forward to returning to his normal life, and that even means doing the dreaded interviews so many fighters dislike.
“I waited a long time to get back to the Octagon,” Machida said. “It’s a moment I have been waiting for. I worked hard to get here and it’s what I like to do. It’s a dream come true to come back. I’m enjoying it all, from the little things – traveling, the media commitments, making weight – everything that is involved in fight week.”
In Brunson, he’s facing a wrestler who went 4-2 during his absence, with one of those being a highly controversial decision loss to the legendary Anderson Silva.
The UFC hasn’t given him a break in terms of choice of opponent and it hasn’t allowed him to ease back into it. He’s facing a Grade-A opponent in a critical bout, coming off back-to-back losses and more than two years away from the game.
Machida isn’t pouting. He’s over that aspect and he’s worked hard enough that he believes the impact of the layoff will be negligible, if anything at all.
“I’ve had a great camp,” he said. “Many people think that the time off will be a problem for me, but I don’t see it that way. The time out helped me find different people and have a different outlook on everything. It was a maturing moment.”
He lost a significant chunk of his career due to an honest mistake. He should have done more to check, and that negligence is why he was suspended for as long as he was.
It’s fairly obvious that his intention wasn’t to cheat, but the facts are the facts.
His situation should serve as a reminder to those who willingly and knowingly cheat: You’re not only hurting yourself, you’re putting others at risk. Machida’s suspension could wind up costing him more than $1 million, as well as a priceless hit on his reputation.
Most of the money in MMA is at the top, and the champions in the UFC get the bulk of that. There is great financial incentive for athletes to do whatever they can to win because more wins lead to more opportunity and greater opportunity leads to bigger paydays.
Those like Machida who attempt to comply with the rules become collateral damage in the hunt for the real cheaters when they fail to double-check whether a supplement they’re taking is legal.
It’s galling, and it’s why the anti-doping penalties are as harsh as they are.
Sadly, though, if the threat of a multi-year ban won’t voluntarily stop fighters from cheating, it’s not clear if anything will.