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Friday, August 05, 2005
Mixed Martial Arts--- A Look Back at a High-Profile Steroids Case
With steroids back in the headlines this week, it's worth taking a moment to look back at a high-profile steroids case from two years ago. In October of 2003, the world of mixed martial arts was rocked by the news that UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia had tested positive for steroids. In an article for MMAWeekly, I took an in-depth, investigative look at the charges against Sylvia, the detailed toxicology report, and all of the possible scenarios that could have played out as a result.
The steroid that Sylvia was caught using was Stanozolol, which is the same steroid that was found in the system of Rafael Palmeiro when he failed a Major League Baseball drug test in May (and for which he was finally suspended this week).
A week after this article was originally published on MMAWeekly, Tim Sylvia's hearing in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission took place. At that hearing, Sylvia became one of the few examples of an athlete standing up and admitting what he did. Sylvia voluntarily relenquished his UFC Heavyweight Title (although he would likely have been stripped anyway), and was suspened by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for six months.
After serving his suspension and having to wait for all remaining traces of steroids to leave his system, Sylvia has since fought twice in the UFC and passed drug tests after both fights. This is not always the case, as former UFC fighter Josh Barnett never fought again in the United States after failing a drug-test in 2002. Barnett would have to pass a drug test in order to be cleared to fight in the United States, but instead he has fought since 2002 only in Japan, where there is no drug-testing for mixed martial arts events.
An Inside Look at the Charges Against Tim Sylvia
by Ivan Trembow
Originally Published: October 9, 2003 on MMAWeekly.com
The news ripped through the MMA community like a sword through the chest on Tuesday, October 7: UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia had tested positive for a "banned substance," later confirmed to be steroids, after his successful title defense against Gan McGee. Small tidbits have dripped out regarding the exact charges being brought against Tim Sylvia by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. In this MMAWeekly Special Report, we will take an in-depth look at the situation from both the disciplinary side and the medical side.
First and foremost, the specific kind of anabolic steroid that was detected in the system of Tim Sylvia was Stanozolol Metabolite (more commonly known as Winstrol), according to Nevada State Athletic Commission documents obtained by MMAWeekly. More information on the full test results will be discussed later in this article. Due to the positive test result, the NSAC is now seeking to fine and suspend Sylvia in a hearing that has been scheduled for Wednesday, October 15.
Under Nevada state law, Sylvia was given 30 days to protest or appeal the positive drug test result if he wanted to go that route, but instead he chose to waive that right and request that his hearing take place as soon as possible. While Tim Sylvia and his management may or may not have been informally notified a few days earlier, records show that many different things happened on Tuesday, October 7. The formal complaint was filed, the certified-mail with the legal documents was mailed to Tim Sylvia, a fax version of the legal documents was sent to Sylvia's manager Monte Cox, and Sylvia's camp issued a press release... all on Tuesday, October 7.
Possible Punishments for Sylvia
The Nevada State Athletic Commission is seeking three things at the October 15 hearing, which will be decided by the NSAC's board of commissioners. The NSAC's stance is that Tim Sylvia's license to fight in MMA should be suspended, he should be fined, and he should have to pay all of the legal fees and investigative costs that resulted from his positive drug test.
Sylvia could be fined up to $250,000 for his violation, though the amount that he is actually fined will probably be nowhere near that amount. The commission might choose to fine him the amount of money that he made for the fight against McGee (which was $60,000), or any other amount of their choosing.
Sylvia could be suspended from mixed martial arts for a length of time anywhere in the range of 3-12 months, although the most likely range in this case would probably have to be considered six or nine months. During the suspension, Sylvia will not be able to fight in the UFC, Pride, K-1, or any other NSAC-sanctioned organization, regardless of what state or country is hosting the event. It is technically possible under NSAC rules, but extremely unlikely, that Sylvia will only be hit with a fine and will not be suspended at all. It is also technically possible under NSAC rules, but extremely unlikely, that Sylvia will be permanently suspended or banned.
Deciding the length of Tim Sylvia's suspension is up to the NSAC commissioners, and the UFC has no choice but to comply with their ruling. On the other hand, the decision of what to do with the UFC Heavyweight Title is completely up to the UFC. The NSAC has no formal role in the decision of what to do with the title belt, other than the fact that the NSAC's ruling on the suspension could limit the number of practical options that the UFC has to work with.
If the NSAC suspends Sylvia for six months or more, it is expected that the UFC will strip him of the title, if for no other reason because it's simply not practical to have a champion who goes that long without being available to defend his title. If Sylvia is only suspended for somewhere in the ballpark of three months, it would become a judgment call for the UFC on whether or not to strip him of the title. For the record, Sylvia took and passed a drug test immediately after he won the title from Ricco Rodriguez. These charges by the NSAC are strictly in regards to Sylvia's fight with Gan McGee and the drug test he took afterwards.
Detailed Information from the Toxicology Report
The toxicology report, obtained by MMAWeekly, provides all of the medical details about Sylvia's failed drug test, including the fact that all of the results were independently verified by third-party lab company Quest Diagnostics. The urine specimen was collected immediately after Sylvia's fight with Gan McGee on September 26, shortly after 8:30 PM Pacific Standard Time. Sylvia passed the tests for numerous kinds of anabolic steroids, masking agents, diuretics, and a long list of various other banned substances.
Sylvia's test results did come up positive for having a blood-creatinine level that was almost four times the NSAC's legal limit, though Sylvia has not been formally charged for this offense and is only being charged for the anabolic steroid that was found in his system. The maximum blood-creatinine level allowed by the NSAC is 20 mg/dL, while Sylvia was found to have a level of 78.2 mg/dL.
This drastically elevated blood-creatinine level indicates one of two things: Either Sylvia has fairly severe kidney problems of some kind, or he has been taking an excessive amount of supplemental "creatine." Creatine is naturally formed in one's body when the body breaks down food, but it can also be ingested in large quantities if you purchase creatine in the form of a muscle-building supplement.
Without getting into a long story about creatine and creatinine, it's much more concise to break it down to one simple statement: In the vast majority of cases, the higher your blood-creatinine level is, the more creatine you have in your system. Just the act of taking pharmaceutical creatine supplements is completely legal, but most athletic commissions and other sports governing bodies have established legal limits on blood-creatinine levels to discourage excessive use, and Tim Sylvia tested at almost four times the legal limit. It appears as though the NSAC has chosen not to formally charge Sylvia for this particular failed test, probably because it is a proverbial misdemeanor when compared to the felony of having anabolic steroids in your system.
Misconceptions Continue to Surround Stanozolol
Tim Sylvia tested positive for the anabolic steroid known as Stanozolol Metabolite, which is more commonly known by its brand name of Winstrol. Though there will always be some people who claim that steroids are essentially harmless, the fact remains that taking Stanozolol and other steroids can have serious consequences, with heart problems and high blood pressure being just two items on a very long list. As compared to other anabolic steroids, Stanozolol has been shown to have a much higher occurrence of serious liver problems.
Most of the world first heard of Stanozolol/Winstrol back in 1988, when Canadian track and field star Ben Johnson won an Olympic gold medal and broke a world record at the Olympic Games in South Korea, only to test positive for Stanozolol and get stripped of his tainted accomplishments in what ended up being one of the biggest drug-related scandal in Olympic history.
Johnson and his handlers would admit years later (some as recently as just a few months ago) that Johnson was using many banned substances at the time, and that Stanozolol was the one banned substance that they never expected to come up as positive on any test. They were certain that it wouldn't be detectable if Johnson stopped taking it a few weeks before the Olympics.
Fourteen years later, professional boxer Fernando Vargas made the same mistake in underestimating the amount of time that Stanozolol can remain detectable in the body. Vargas tested positive for Stanozolol and a few other banned substances last year, and was suspended for nine months by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Still thought by some people to be undetectable after a few weeks if you take the drug in certain forms, advanced testing procedures by such organizations as the NSAC and the World Anti-Doping Agency can detect traces of Stanozolol in an athlete's fat cells more than six months after the athlete stopped taking the steroid, long after the drug has all-but-left the athlete's body.
Mitigating Factors in Sylvia's Case
The distinction between Ben Johnson, Fernando Vargas, and Tim Sylvia is this: There is no indication that Tim Sylvia took Stanozolol in the last few months leading up to his September 26 fight, nor does it appear that he specifically tried to "beat the system," as Johnson and Vargas attempted to do.
Sylvia said in the press release on October 7 that he only took a "banned substance" for one month after he fought Ricco Rodriguez on February 28 because he wanted to have a better appearance and be more muscular. In this particular case, there is no reason to believe that he's not telling the truth.
There were no masking agents found in Sylvia's body, and Sylvia's claimed desire to have a more muscular appearance is consistent with the fact that he chose Stanozolol out of all the steroids he could have possibly chosen. Stanozolol is known for making users "look" much better, with more muscle tone and less fat in a relatively short period of time, despite the fact that it's not the strongest steroid you can get. Stanozolol also has among the lowest rates of estrogen-related side effects, which is consistent with Sylvia's statements that he just wanted to look better.
Combined with the fact that Sylvia owned up to his steroid usage rather than denying everything as Josh Barnett did in a similar situation, these points may illustrate that Sylvia is not a liar and does not use steroids regularly in an effort to enhance his performance... but none of this can change the fact that what Sylvia did was wrong. Regardless of how long he took the steroids or any other circumstances, there is no doubt that Sylvia did a great disservice to the fans, the UFC, and himself.
So, what happens now? Provided that he never does anything like this again and he continues to admit that what he did was wrong, Tim Sylvia certainly doesn't deserve to be blacklisted or looked down upon for the rest of his career, but he does deserve a punishment of some kind. Now we'll just have to sit back and watch as the Nevada State Athletic Commission decides exactly what his punishment should be.