Eleven months ago, I wrote about why fighters who test positive for PEDs should have their wins overturned to disqualification losses. It was an idea that cropped up at a Nevada Athletic Commission symposium, and yes, it's kind of a weird thing to do. Instead of just wiping the slate clean with a no contest, the concept calls for contravening the laws of the combative sports universe and awarding victory to a fighter who was by all appearances beaten, perhaps decisively.
But performance-enhancing drug use has a complexion that's vastly different from the spontaneous mistakes and acts of god that traditionally produce no contests. And if we agree that athletes are solely responsible for what they put in their bodies, PED use can't be considered an accident: it has an intentionality that puts it more in line with the groin shots, bites, eye gouging, and other fouls that bring disqualification to offenders. With that in mind, wins that are overturned for drug test failures deserve an entry in the loss column.
Yesterday, that idea was quietly put into practice. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that UFC lightweight Gleison Tibau was banned from competition for two years following a pair of positive drug tests before and on the night of his most recent bout against Abel Trujillo in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Tibau tested positive for erythropoietin, better known as EPO, a red-blood-cell-boosting hormone banned under the UFC's anti-doping policy, and he's the second fighter officially sanctioned since the UFC's partnership with USADA began last July. (The other was Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, who admitted to out-of-competition usage of human growth hormone.) Additionally, in accordance with the anti-doping policy of the Comissao Atletica Brasileira de MMA (CABMMA), the 32-year-old Tibau—one of the longest-tenured UFC fighters—is the first athlete under the program to have a win overturned to a disqualification loss.
That distinction is even more dubious than the nature of Tibau's original victory. True, he dominated Trujillo from the jump, out-grappling him en route to securing a rear-naked choke less than two minutes into the first round, but referee Keith Peterson made a glaring error in stopping the fight even though Trujillo was far from unconsciousness and never appeared to submit; even Tibau said his opponent didn’t tap. It was a classic botched call from an official, and Trujillo was on track to appeal the loss by phantom submission—which, if similar appeals to the Brazilian athletic commission are an indication, might not have been a totally futile gesture—before USADA announced Tibau's provisional suspension weeks after the fight. Tibau maintained his innocence, but this Tuesday, citing the time, expense, and low return of continuing an appeal, he agreed to accept the sanctions.
According to a spokesman for USADA, the decision to issue a disqualification loss instead of a no contest to an ostensibly winning PED offender is left to the discretion of individual athletic commissions. Other ramifications of Tibau's case are unclear at the moment: how many other athletic commissions beyond CABMMA support that protocol? How do out-of-competition test failures influence their decisions of when and how to overturn wins? And in light of those transposed fight results, does Tibau forfeit the "win" portion of fight purse while Trujillo now receives his? (A request for clarification from the UFC on that last point has yet to be answered.)
One thing, however, is clear: the notion of turning a PED-using winner into a loser now has precedent. Maybe you still find it a bizarre, illogical, or stupid concept, but it's no longer foreign—kind of like no contests, where we pretend that a fight we watched never happened. The more athletic commissions follow suit and the more often the punishment is used, the more normal it becomes.
Which is not say that cleaning up the sport requires gleefully stomping all over individuals who test positive for PEDs. The sanctions on Tibau, whose 26 fights tie Matt Hughes and Frank Mir for the most in UFC history, bring the potential for real economic hardship. Because he can't legally fight, he needs to make money doing something other than what he's spent a lifetime learning to do until November 2017. Those two years are a long time to sit on the sidelines. And, for the good of the sport, that loss will last forever.
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