I am a writer and soon-to-be journalism graduate. I am from Bowmanville, Ont. and I am passionate about all things to do with sports, especially hockey, mixed martial arts (MMA), football, and golf. In 2020, I covered the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, where I reported at rallies for politicians like Bernie Sanders. In the summer of 2020, I worked as an intern for The Hockey News, a magazine and online news outlet that I have been reading since I was young.
One of my goals is to work at a big-named sports network such as TSN or Sportsnet. That has always been a huge dream of mine. After working in Canada for a while, I would also like to venture out into the United States and Europe in the future. Another goal I have is to write and publish a book series as I become more experienced. My thesis project focuses on the subject of doping in MMA; specifically steroid and cannabis use in the sport. The story details some of the more notable cases of drug use among Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighters like Jon Jones, Nick Diaz, and T.J. Dillashaw, and shows the inconsistencies in how positive drug tests are handled. The story features interviews from experienced veterans of the sport, and paints a vivid picture of the landscape of doping in MMA.
Doping in mixed martial arts – the art of self-destruction
By Jack Anderson
The gym is a beautiful place.
To some, it’s a home.
Gyms are where dreams are found, and often, where they start. As people walk through the doors, they are ready to change their lives for the better.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re just trying to lose weight, gain some muscle, or trying to become a world champion; it all starts by getting your foot in the door.
That’s how every glorious career in sports is made. No one is born as a professional athlete, but every single one of them puts the time and effort in to get there.
These were my thoughts as I walked through the doors of Kalsamrit Martial Arts and watched fighters of all shapes, sizes, and ages train alongside one another.
The ambiance of a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym is beautiful, from the sounds of punching bags being beat on, the ringing of sparring timers and bells, to the crashing of footwork on the canvas. All of it is beautiful.
Careers start here. Legacies are built from these foundations.
But legacies are a tricky thing.
A strong legacy can make you a legend, but it is much easier to ruin one than it is to gain one.
Just like your career, legacies are started in the gym, but they can also be destroyed there.
See, MMA is still amidst a long process of growth.
For as long as the sport has existed, steroid use has been a major problem; and it’s not going away any time soon.
The stories most known about steroids in MMA occur in the professional setting, where the baddest, most highly-trained fighters in the world compete, so their careers are magnified.
This is the case for fighters like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)’s TJ Dillashaw and Jon Jones, two of the most polarizing fighters on their roster at the moment. Both former champions have seen all of the highs of an MMA career: undefeated records, vicious knockouts and finishes, glorious wins, and of course, having the golden belt strapped around your waist.
However, they’ve also seen all of the lows: heartbreaking losses, steroid usage, and their fans turning their back on them.
Amidst personal rollercoasters of success and failure, there is one thing all MMA fighters who use steroids have in common: they all got their start somewhere, in local gyms like Kalsamrit. At first, they were really nobody. Then they became somebody, but somewhere things changed, and steroids got in the way.
For Kalsamrit Coach Brendan “Redrum” Kalijundic, his story is not one of failure, but in his lengthy MMA career as a fighter and coach, he says he has seen a lot.
“In my younger years training, steroids were less taboo…they weren’t like just a part of it in the same way that they are in weightlifting or bodybuilding competitions, where you have guys that come into it with the expectation that they’re on steroids, but it certainly was there. And you can tell even from a young age which guys are natural and which ones clearly aren’t.”
Steroid use manifests in small, local gyms where the inexperienced train. Back then, this problem was even more clear.
Kalijundic knows this well from experience.
“It was less of a shock to be on steroids at that time. Many martial artists tried to get into the sport because they were just big dudes who thought they could fight because they were just big.
*laughs* They’d come over from other power sports, and think they could wipe out a gym of experienced fighters.”
So Kalijundic makes sure that the environment of his gym is one of safety and comfort for his young roster of fighters.
“My original coach definitely would’ve kicked anyone out for something as remotely bad as bringing steroids into a gym with other kids. And the same thing goes for here, with kids programs and a lot of young people running around. Right, they’re just trying to train or get into shape or fight off a bully or whatever. So for that, you have to shut that shit down immediately. No questions asked.”
Of course, these aren’t professional athletes competing under the pressure of a million viewers or the fact that some are fighting to put food on the table.
These are just kids, trying to slowly get better at something they’re passionate about.
Ingrid Black, a seasoned veteran of the sport, shares the same frustrations about steroids in the gym.
“There will always be people that are willing to take the next step to get where they want to be, even if that means cheating…who would even want to train with somebody who’s on steroids? A lot of people are there just to stay in shape, or to learn something new. Knowing that there are fighters running around the gym on steroids would probably drive most people away.”
“In the end, the one who takes the steroid can only blame themselves,” Black added.
Unfortunately, this is where steroid use can begin, in environments like these. It just takes one student to make a bad decision, and it only spirals out of control from there.
A couple of questions still remain to be answered. Why do fighters resort to steroids? What are their motivations behind taking them?
Kalijundic believes that the urge to take them is greater as a fighter climbs to the highest level.
“I think for some of the bigger named fighters, UFC guys who are at that top level, they would probably do it to get that extra push, which is sad because a lot of them are so naturally gifted that they don’t need to take anything but they still do now. But at least in some sense, I get where they would be coming from. Probably under a lot of mental and physical stress and there might be big money on the line, who knows?”
Kalijundic’s answer could very well be applied to the steroid use situation of former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw.
Dillashaw, still the champion at the time, decided to go ahead with a high-risk, high-reward fight when he took on fellow champion Henry Cejudo in early 2019.
Brian Mazique of Forbes magazine reported in April 2019 that Dillashaw had to cut a significant percentage of his body mass (17%) in order to make the flyweight limit of 125 pounds, and took Erythropoietin (EPO), a performance enhancing drug that must be injected by needle, as a way to ease the weight cutting process. Mazique said that EPO “is widely regarded as one of the worst drugs an MMA fighter can test positive for–in the spirit of fair competition.”
This was intentional, and it was done because of the circumstances surrounding the fight. Dillashaw had the chance to be the fourth ever simultaneous two-division champion, and he would’ve received a large paycheque, but the weight cut was too much to bear so he turned to EPO.
Dillashaw made weight with the help of the PED, but lost the fight within 35 seconds, and was eventually caught red-handed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) after being flagged for EPO use, resulting in a suspension of two years. His reputation in the MMA community took a big hit following this announcement, Mazique reported.
Situations like these show that steroids are a huge risk for fighters for a multitude of reasons. One would have to decide whether the physical advantages are worth the potential implications of being caught, and what that would mean for their careers.
It might not only be a bad look for a fighter, but also for their entire team. You won’t be able to find many gym owners and coaches who are happy to deal with the fallout from steroid controversies in their building.
“In a larger, more intense pro gym, it’s a lot of fighters to manage and a lot of guys that you have to rely on, as a coach, to be healthy and in tip-top shape and that they’re not putting anything extra into their bodies. It’s difficult for a coach to stay on top of that, right, they don’t control their fighters’ bodies. So there’s a level of trust that you have to develop. If a fighter breaks that, it could mean bad things for your gym and its reputation, and of course your financial situation,” Kalijundic said.
To get a better sense of what fighters experience while using steroids, I reached out to 1000 Islands Rehab Centre to see what steroid users go through and how they are treated.
“We have many athletes and former athletes come through here with addictions to anabolics. Amongst fighters and like bodybuilders, you see testosterone abuse a lot. At first, they might take it to build up muscle fibres and give them a strength advantage, but once your body is used to it, the toxins start to work against your body and brain and break it down piece by piece.
There is a long detox process for anabolics and it is certainly not easy,” said Andrea Williams, a staff member at the facility.
Treatment at the rehab centre is unique based on the individual and their specific needs to help their addictions.
“Taking drug abusers out of their typical environments is extremely important…users need to be away from any potential triggers, people that might get in the way of their treatment. But, that doesn’t mean being away from family, and in fact, we actually have family therapy sessions that help to rebuild the foundations of your closest relationships. Being away from your family is not always the safest route for someone who is struggling.”
Williams also mentioned that in some situations, steroid users started while they were still in high school.
“…you see guys who started taking anabolic steroids when they were as young as 14 or 15 years old. At that age, you’re still a baby! But like any drug, it gets offered to them and they feel the peer pressure of their friends and they fold. Often, it can ruin a life. We’ve had young guys here that went from being perfectly healthy, great athletes, to complete mental and physical messes. And it’s not really seen as a gateway drug, normally you hear that about marijuana. But it really can be for some.”
And that’s the fear at gyms like Kalsamrit. It can start at such young ages, and it only takes one kid to convince others that it is okay, and soon enough steroids have made their presence amongst an entire team.
Like any drug, steroids present a plethora of benefits at first, but as one uses them more and more, those effects can work against them.
That’s why Kalijundic and his team make sure that their gym is a drug-free zone.
He remains hesitant even about his fighters using marijuana, despite legalization in October 2018.
“If they want to use it during training, or in preparation for a fight then sure. You’re gonna have to deal with yourself struggling for air 2 or 3 minutes into the first round. It’s just not something I recommend. But if they want to use it afterwards to ease the pain or just, ya know, do it recreationally, go ahead. That doesn’t bother me. Just know that you gotta live with the consequences of your own actions, and if you’re not putting in 100% beforehand it could cost you. And weed adds to that.”
Kalijundic also questioned its status as a PED.
“It’s funny that it’s even a performance enhancer. Like I really don’t see the benefit of using it at all if you’re a professional. Like at least while training for a fight and all that…weed works against your lungs, and you need those in the best shape possible. Especially in this sport,” he added.
Brennan “Bubba” Picard, a student and co-coach at Kalsamrit alongside Kalijundic, echoed that statement.
“I don’t really see why a fighter would want to even use it, to be honest. I feel like it would just slow you down, and make you lazier in training. Your lungs are important, you should try to keep them as clean as possible…I don’t get why you would do that if you were taking fighting seriously.”
“I think to dedicate yourself to being better as a fighter you have to put that stuff away but that’s just my look at it,” Picard added.
Likewise to steroids, marijuana usage has been one reason why big-named fighters have had their careers derailed in the past.
This was the case for one MMA legend in 2011, Nick Diaz, when he tested positive for cannabis following a massive UFC fight against another legend in former middleweight champion Anderson “The Spider” Silva.
Diaz, a repeat offender, was handed one of the longest punishments ever doled out by an athletic commission or anti-drug agency when he was banned from competition for five years, reported Neil Davidson of the Canadian Press in 2015, who called the incident “a body blow to the MMA juggernaut given the star quality of the offender.”
This incident occurred during the prime of Diaz’ fighting career, so it is difficult to estimate how much in potential income he might have lost during that time, but he has not fought since. This ban, more or less, ended his entire career.
“Athletic commissions were taking cannabis use more seriously back then than they are with steroids right now…I’ve never seen a more ridiculous ban than that. Some people have intentionally stuck needles into their thighs and came back in two years or less already gunning for a title shot. To ban someone for 5 years is basically murdering their career,” said Elias Theodorou.
Theodorou, a mixed martial artist, formerly of the UFC but currently competing for the Professional Fighters League (PFL), is a strong advocate for medical marijuana usage in MMA. He believes that the negative stigma behind the drug is one of the main reasons why bans have been so significant in the past.
“It’s been a challenging journey to change that [stigma]…It’s therapeutic but it isn’t performance-enhancing. I’m not gonna become f****** Superman or anything…and there’s that stigma again that fighters who are using cannabis are lazy or sluggish or whatever, and that’s unfair.”
The stereotype that Theodorou is referring to is the same one that even Kalijundic and Picard alluded to earlier, when they said that serious fighters should consider putting marijuana aside.
Theodorou is most certainly a serious fighter, however.
An 18-3 professional MMA record, including seven knockouts, and no losses via finish, all help to back up that claim.
He sees that the problem isn’t getting people to take him seriously or not, it’s about looking past that stigma and just listening.
“We put in a ridiculous amount of work. We train and fight through major injuries. We risk
long-term brain damage every time we step into the cage. It’s not easy to maintain a balance for your body through all of that. If a doctor is prescribing it to you, you should still be able to use it regardless of where you are fighting and what promotion you’re fighting for.”
Although he wasn’t able to do it during his time with the UFC, Theodorou made history on January 31st, 2021 when he became the first fighter to ever be granted a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for marijuana, after a long battle with athletic commissions.
“That’s first amongst current or former UFC fighters, or anyone in another promotion. That’s history. I take a lot of pride in that accomplishment, and it’s something that can really lay the foundation for the future. All fighters should have that opportunity, especially if they’re living in places where cannabis is legal, like for us, living in Canada. It doesn’t make any sense that we wouldn’t be able to use a legal, therapeutic drug…I’m happy that I’m becoming a notable advocate and that I’m making history in the progress.”
The UFC and USADA definitely took notice of the historic efforts made by fighters and advocates like Theodorou to ease up the strict ramifications of a positive drug test for cannabis.
That’s why they announced that fighters who test positive for marijuana, and mainly the THC component of the drug, will no longer be punished unless there is enough evidence to prove that there was a performance-enhancing intention, according to an announcement made by USADA on January 14th, 2021 and posted to the UFC website.
This announcement was made the same month that Theodorou became the first fighter to receive a TUE.
So slowly but surely, marijuana usage is gradually becoming normalized in the world of mixed martial arts, and anti-doping agencies are making an effort to minimize its effect on a fighter’s career.
Still, that begs the question: How is USADA, or any of the other anti-drug governing bodies, going to compensate fighters like Nick Diaz, who were robbed of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, just because they were using cannabis at the wrong time?
Diaz was not given any opportunities to bounce back, yet plenty of fighters that have been caught using true performance-enhancing drugs have received far less significant punishments, and furthermore, some were able to immediately jump in to big paydays, fighting top-tier opponents as if nothing ever happened.
Again, this is the case for Jon Jones and T.J Dillashaw, reported by Jeff Wagenheim of ESPN in 2021, as well as Brian Mazique of Forbes, who said in 2018 that Dillashaw’s “recent dirty urine sample is pretty indefensible.”
For those two in particular, it doesn’t matter what they do inside or outside of the cage. The UFC will continue to ignore their troubled histories in order to sell a show. It is a business, after all.
Yet, that never had never really applied to the ones who got caught using marijuana before the January 2021 announcement.
Jones, for example, has had a notorious battle with USADA, and of course, himself. Between 2015 and 2017, Jones was flagged by USADA numerous times, twice for traces of performance enhancers in his urine, as well as one other time due to cocaine in his bloodstream. To make matters worse, he also committed a hit-and-run on a pregnant woman, which resulted in 18 months of supervised probation. His light heavyweight championship was stripped from him twice due to these incidents, reported by Wagenheim in 2021.
Despite all of this, Jones has returned time and time again with opportunities to win more championships and be paid millions for each fight he wins.
The inconsistency of USADA’s decisions during the course of their partnership with the UFC has been magnified because of situations like these.
Theodorou has been tested by USADA representatives many times during his career. He says that their system still needs a revamping.
“Their list of banned substances should definitely have a look over. A lot of the legal prescription medications that guys are taking- legal meaning allowed to be used during fight camps- these are heavy meds that often don’t even work well or they might have some negative effects on your body while training. Doctor’s handout opioids or painkillers that might cause side effects.
There are way too many inconsistencies on a State-to-State or even country-to-country basis- rules and regulations from governing bodies that are still new to everything- they just further complicate the whole experience.”
As Theodorou alluded to, USADA has had their fair share of mistakes and growing pains. They are still a developing anti-doping program, so they have made some glaring mistakes in their history with the UFC. There have been several instances where they have allowed steroid use, and certain types of steroids in particular, to go undetected during screening.
UFC Senior Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitsky stated in a 2019 press conference that USADA only tests for certain substances, and not all
performance-enhancing drugs, unless there is reason to search for something in particular, meaning that steroid users can fly under the radar for a period of time, usually during training and fight camps, and clean out their systems prior to fight week when testing is more extensive.
This was the case for EPO users like Dillashaw, and former middleweight title challenger Chael Sonnen. In both cases, the fighters were able to slip through the cracks for long enough to proceed with the fight (both of whom ended up losing), be paid championship-fight money, and
then be caught afterwards. This was “a disturbing revelation” to Dana White and the UFC brass following the Dillashaw suspension, according to Damon Martin of mmafighting.com in 2019.
They didn’t have to forfeit their fight purses or sit through a ban of five years. They both received lengthy suspensions, but Sonnen fought for the title again almost right after serving his two years, while Dillashaw looks poised to do the same in 2021.
So, if the UFC and other MMA promotions are willing to let steroid users redeem themselves, knowing that juicing is one of the cardinal sins of the sport, fighters like Theodorou are question the same happen can’t happen with a harmless, medicinal plant that provides no physical or mental performance advantages?
Theodorou even mentioned Matt Riddle, a former UFC fighter, turned World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar. Riddle is another case of a fighter who nearly had his career destroyed due to positive marijuana tests.
Although it only happened twice, Riddle was ostracized from the promotion, and publicly criticized by UFC president Dana White for his decisions, calling Riddle “a dummy”, according to Damon Martin of mmafighting.com. At the time, Riddle’s wife had just given birth to their third child, and the family was reportedly near-bankrupt as a result of his release.
“For guys like Riddle, back then he was barely 25 years old, something like that. Like man he could’ve been done, out on the streets doing nothing. He bounced back, but not everyone else does,” Theodorou said.
Riddle later moved on to the WWE and found success, but that story can not be said for everyone who experienced punishments like the ones that he and Diaz felt.
The irony with the progress USADA has made since that time is that if Riddle and Diaz had done the exact same thing today, in 2021, that they did when they were suspended, now they would not receive any time away from the sport. No punishments, no banishings, nothing of that nature.
So, although they’ve come a long way with their stance on cannabis use, USADA still has a lot to figure out when it comes to testing potential steroid users and handling their punishments.
According to the USADA website, they do not currently have a plan in place to help fighters that are struggling with steroid use. An anti-doping drug program should at least be able to help individuals understand that there are options out there for rehabilitation, and offer guidance through the process. The two entities don’t have to be enemies.
And that’s where people like Andrea Williams and other drug addiction counselors come in. Their experience in drug therapy might just be necessary for repeat offenders who can’t stay away from their vices.
“Therapy comes in many forms…Therapy sessions through art, sport, music are as important as the life management classes and group interventions. The little things really matter,” Williams said.
If USADA can adopt a therapy program like the one at 1000 Islands Rehab Centre, or at the very least, are able to raid fighters in finding these kinds of places, that might be impactful for their program, and most importantly, for the longevity of the individual who is struggling.
Williams mentioned that one of the biggest fears associated with the abuse of drugs like marijuana and anabolic steroids “is that eventually, your body and mind are so tolerant of it that it no longer provides the same effect and leads to you taking something even worse. Often, the next step is cocaine, or opioids or amphetamines. So that urge has to be neutralized as quickly as possible.”
One would not need to look further than the case of Jon Jones to find evidence that Williams speaks truly. At first he was clean, but one positive drug test led to another, and then another. Eventually it became more than just steroid abuse, reported by ESPN’s Wagenheim in 2021. These cases have affected his reputation and once-spotless legacy over the years, but with the proper program, maybe he could have been helped.
Theodorou says that for fighters like Jones, the pressure of constantly trying to be perfect wears on you mentally at the top level.
“I would think that most of it is intentional, probably out of fear at this level. Fear that you’re not good enough or fear that you’ll end up knocked the fuck out. Probably a lot of insecurity,” he said.
That would make a lot of sense for Jonny “Bones”. Of course, he is still the youngest champion in the history of the UFC, after he won the light heavyweight championship at just 23 years old.
To bear the weight of being the youngest champion ever, and being told that you might be the greatest martial artist of all time already, is a lot to manage, and eventually Jones cracked.
Jones is still in denial that he ever cheated, reported Wagenheim in 2021, and his excuses for being caught using steroids centred around tainted pills and swimming pools, which as Theodorou mentions, is typical of cheaters once their backs are against the wall.
“Sometimes you have fighters who think they can get away with it and just blame it on something entirely different. Like you’ve heard the excuse of a tainted supplement, or prescription drug, which I think is an easy cop-out of an excuse. I’m sure that many people think they’re smart enough to beat the system,” said Theodorou.
Jones checked into an Albuquerque rehab center following his positive test for cocaine, but only stayed for one night, reported by Wagenheim in 2021.
You have to wonder what real, authentic rehab and therapy could do for steroid users like Jones. If USADA were to commit to a program like that for repeat offenders, maybe fighters will come out on the other side with a new frame of mind.
Nobody wants to see star athletes fall from grace, and destroy their legacies, over something like this. No fighter steps into their local gym for the first time and imagines themselves later in their career in a scenario where they’ve cheated, and failed themselves. No, they are imagining title belts, glorious knockouts, 5-round wars, big paychecks, and being a household name.
The kids that wake up early to go hit the pads at their gyms are looking up to fighters like Dillashaw and Jones to be role models in their sport, because it’s in places like these where even UFC champions might have once started.
It’s here, in gyms like Kalsamrit Martial Arts, where all of that kicks off: Learning how to throw a punch, defending yourself, figuring out how to grapple. Soon that becomes a habit, and then an addiction, and somewhere down the line, you graduate from a student to a real fighter. Great legacies are born from gyms like these.
But you see now how unfortunately, sometimes that once-promising legacy can get muddy. People tell you how great you are. You’re on top of the world. Then a substance comes along that will push you even further, and some fighters are willing to take any opportunity to do that, no matter the cost. It can ruin all of the progress that they’ve worked so hard for since the time they were kids.
So, of course, it’s the kids that I think about as I write this story. For the young ones that might rise up from the local gyms like this one, for the future stars and the future fighters that fall from grace, we all can agree that they deserve a safer environment than the ones that previous generations of up-and-coming fighters grew up in.
And the first step is getting the professionals to set the example. Fighters, coaches, promoters, anti-doping agencies, all have to do their part to continue the goal of minimizing cheating in the sport, just like how they worked together to minimize the punishment associated with cannabis use.
If fighters stay committed to being clean, and seek help when they’re struggling to keep away from steroids, they’re doing the right thing. But in the moments where they can’t do the right thing, the proper aid and therapy should be available for them.
Because no one in the MMA world wants to see greatness ruined by acts of desperation. And no kids want to see their heroes self-destruct.