BEN JOHNSON. Marion Jones. Lance Armstrong. These are the names of athletes who all utterly dominated in their chosen sports. When they were at their respective peaks, records were broken, titles taken and opponents obliterated with consummate ease; it was if they were operating on a different planet to everyone else. All time greatness was assured. In terms of MMA, does this remind you of anyone?
Of course the rays of sunshine Johnson, Jones and Armstrong brought to sprinting and cycling were quickly eclipsed by dark clouds and a storm of drug controversy would engulf all three. As quickly as the records were broken, they were rescinded, the titles were taken back and disgrace replaced the greatness attached to their legacies. Anyone claiming any of these athletes should be remembered as anything other than drug cheats would be scoffed at. So surely the same applies in MMA and boxing, right?
Curiously, in the case of boxers and mixed martial artists the same logic does not seem to apply. Many still consider boxer Roy Jones Junior to be the greatest boxer of the nineties, despite testing positive for performance enhancing substances. With regard to Anderson Silva, the Brazilian is still feted as one of the best, if not the best, MMA fighter of all time. How can this possibly be so?
Following his fight with Nick Diaz, Silva tested positive for steroids (and other substances) and acknowledged it was one of the first times he had best tested outside of competition. Therefore, how is it possible to know what he had, or had not, been doing in the proceeding years? At the age of 18 I could run faster backwards than I can now run forwards in my late thirties. In his mid to late thirties ‘The Spider’ was dominating younger men. He was quicker than them, more elusive than them, more powerful than them. Against Chael Sonnen (another with a ‘questionable’ drugs record), Silva survived five rounds of punishment yet in the final round still found the mental wherewithal, energy and physical strength to submit his younger opponent. Was any of this real?
I used to believe in the greatness of Anderson Silva. I genuinely thought he was gifted with abilities his opponents could only dream of. But now I feel cheated, disappointed and even more cynical than I was when Steven Seagal claimed he taught MMA technique to Silva and Lyoto Machida and could beat Randy Couture in a behind closed doors, no holds barred match (I felt even more disappointed when said match didn’t happen!).
The issue of drug use in sport is not black and white. The recent case involving tennis superstar Maria Sharapova only serves to highlight the huge grey areas that still exist. However in some instances and with certain substances, wrong doing is more clear cut; I’d put Human Growth Hormone, EPO and Steroids into his category. Anderson Silva tested positive for steroids, among other things, and his excuse for doing so was not accepted (and was frankly laughable).
We will never really know if Ben Johnson or Marion Jones genuinely could have been two of the greatest sprinters of all time. We will never really know if Lance Armstrong, without the aid of EPO, could have won a stage of the Tour de France, let alone seven consecutive titles. Unfortunately for mixed martial arts fans, we will never really know if Anderson Silva was one of the greatest fighters of all time or if it was all just a drug induced fantasy.
Many fighters now talk about their legacy. Let us hope that the governing bodies in MMA and Boxing ensure the only legacy of drug cheats will be one of disgrace, not greatness.