The last thing I need to explain to readers of this site are the dangers inherent in the wanton, unregulated usage of prescription painkillers and performance enhancing drugs. The long list of professional wrestlers that succumbed to severe health problems brought on by drug abuse has been chronicled many times (I particularly recommend Deadspin's "Dead Wrestler of the Week" series) and doesn't require rehashing here. Rather, for those of you familiar with the WWF (I'll never concede to the World Wildlife Fund) and its sordid history with contracted employees using PEDs, let me pose a question to you.
Unlike the WWF, mixed martial arts is regulated as an athletic competition. This is essential to the sport being fodder for betting, which makes it much more popular. Before they are allowed to have a major PPV or TV event in a state, a number of the performers for said event have to pass a government-mandated drug test before performing, and all of them must be cleared by a physician. After initial difficulties (and despite occasional positive tests), most of the roster has adhered to the same protocols and the sport had actually gained a modicum of respectability as far as attempting to be clean. Now, formerly popular heavyweight Josh Barnett - proud owner of three positive tests, one of which sunk an entire promotion prematurely - has been announced as a participant in Strikeforce's heavyweight tournament, despite being unlicensed to perform in the state that last caught him for juicing (California). Rather than get him relicensed, however, Scott Coker - Strikeforce's CEO - has decided to shop him and his draw to various athletic commissions, attempting to circumvent California's implicit decree that the wrestler is not fit to fight. This is Scott Coker on Sherdog, as transcribed by Zach Arnold:
JACK ENCARNACAO: "Scott, without venues locked down or even all the licensing in place for the Barnett and Overeem fights, why announce the tournament already if you’re not 100%? You might be 90% sure that you can get Barnett and Overeem in the cage in March or as part of this tournament, especially Barnett."
SCOTT COKER: "Well, no, we never said that he’s fighting in March. I’m not sure where you got that, but… you know, Barnett has his issues in California, guys, we all know it. We’ve all been through that dance and he’s got to go back and deal with it some more. But, you know, to me, here’s a guy that has been, uh, out of the cage or, you know, out of the ring for, in North America, for a year and a half and, you know, I feel like he’s paid his time, he’s paid his dues, let the guy make a living. You know and his history before Strikeforce is his past and, you know, we’re going to judge him on what he does now and six weeks ago he went to (the) California (state athletic commission) in Sacramento in the offices and, you know, he tested clean for all, you know, all their battery of tests that they ran on him and he’s not on suspension, so why can’t he fight? And, you know, some commissions still feel like, you know, we want to wait until he gets through the process in California but, you know, there are commissions out there saying, ‘Look, you know, have him come in, let him take the test, and if he’s clean then we’ll let him fight.’ So, you know, we’re going to work with those commissions that are welcoming him and us but Josh, guys, Josh is going to be part of this tournament and we’re going to move on and I think Josh has moved on and I think everybody should move on as well."
Emphasis added. Below the fold, a breakdown of this rambling statement, recent precedence for such a move in American combat sports, and the dangers all of this entails.
Let's begin with the idea that Josh Barnett has "paid his dues". The Affliction event that Barnett sank by testing positive in the weeks before (and rendering Tom Atencio incapable of finding a replacement opponent for Fedor on such short notice) was scheduled for the summer of 2009. Positive steroid tests for a first offender normally garner between a nine month and yearlong suspension, though that amount can come down on appeal (as it recently has for Chael Sonnen). In MLB, a first time offense is met with a 50 game suspension, doubling for a second offense and - get this - a lifetime ban for any further infractions. Josh Barnett has tested positive three times before or immediately after three different MMA fights that were years apart, and has fought numerous times overseas before and since those positive tests. Whether or not he's "paid his dues" is very, very much up to debate, as is whether or not he should ever be licensed to fight in the US again.
Second - the "why can't he fight if he's not suspended" line of argument. When you are licensed to fight in a state and test positive, they have the authority to suspend you for a period of time from fighting in the state. At the end of that period, you don't need to reapply for a license - you've served your time and paid your fine, and while you may be more susceptible to random tests (like the one that snagged Barnett last time around), you're back to being licensed to fight. Last time around, the CSAC actually denied him a license to fight against Fedor, and has not licensed him yet pending his actually showing up prepared to a hearing to determine his status. To Coker, this manufactured limbo is somehow preferable to actually being suspended. Here's why.
The efficacy of athletic commissions in the United States - their very legitimacy - is dependent upon honoring the findings and suspensions of others. UFC events are almost never in the same state more than twice a year (exempting Nevada, the grand daddy of athletic commissions) - between international events and disparate American locations, the UFC could easily put a suspended fighter in as many fights as they pleased... except, of course, for the cooperation between different commissions. While few organizations would dare cross Nevada, Strikeforce - a San Jose based company - seems intent on running roughshod over their hometown AC's concerns about Barnett and putting him anywhere that will have him.
I'm not "moving on" from Josh Barnett's past. His Wikipedia page correctly identifies him as the only mixed martial artist to test positive for anabolic steroids three times. Once is a mistake, a mishap. Twice is a pattern. Three times? That's a premeditated, repeated disrespect shown toward the sport, your opponent, your employer, the fans and the gamblers. This history, accompanied nothing other than fabrications and denials from Barnett himself, means the man should not be within sniffing distance of any respectable MMA promotion. Never mind his paucity of quality opponents over the last 48 months or his inability to finish Gilbert Yvel (Jon Madsen did it in the first) - the guy is an insult to the game regardless of his performances in the cage. To me, he blew his chance at redemption against Fedor.
Unfortunately, there is precedence for Coker's game here. Antonio Margarito, widely scorned after his corner was caught with prepared loaded wraps before his fight with Shane Mosley, was suspended for at least a year by California's AC (the same much-maligned unit that has caught Barnett and Sean Sherk, among others) in January 2009. While still unlicensed to perform in California, the Texas AC took advantage of Margarito's situation and agreed to sanction his bout against Manny Pacquiao at Cowboys Stadium. Unscrupulous commissions, under more pressure than ever to generate revenue, may see one state's trash and consider it treasure, and Strikeforce is deliberately trying to pit ACs against each other by keeping Barnett's fight schedule ambiguous and shopping him around to various possible venues. This kind of blatant skirting of the rules threatens the beachhead of legitimacy that mixed martial arts has clawed and scraped for, inch by inch, over the last decade. It's sad that he couldn't just find another heavyweight without this kind of self-inflicted baggage.
Finally, I leave you with the questions so often asked by pro wrestling fans when one of their favorites fall: who do we blame? Do we blame the athletic commissions for allowing an athlete that clearly has a problem to compete? Do we blame the promotion for actively trying to find a guy work instead of addressing the problems that led to his inability to work? Do we keep our blame solely focused on the individual that just can't seem to stop cheating?
I'd argue there is more than enough blame to go around in this situation.