Nevada State Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer recently spoke with MMAWeekly about drug use in mixed martial arts. He specifically talked about the policies and procedures of the commission on steroid use, recreational drug use, testing, suspensions and fines as well as addressed specific positive test situations that have occurred in the state of Nevada.
The recent rash of positive drug tests in mixed martial arts with fighters testing positive for an array for substances ranging from steroids and methamphetamine to marijuana has raised the question, how big of a problem are steroids and recreational drugs in MMA?
“I don’t know. That’s the problem I guess with any sport, you never know how prevalent the drug use is within that sport. You do your best to control it. You do your best to deter it, and that’s what we try to do and any other commission tries to do as well,” answered Kizer.
Elaborating on the dangers of steroid use in MMA and its prevalence, Kizer said, “I don’t know if there’s a big distinction between the sports. We’ve busted guys in kickboxing, mixed martial arts and boxing with steroid use as well as recreational drug use. It’s definitely not limited to one sport.
“Now, if it’s more prevalent or not I don’t know. I hear from people that MMA because you have the wrestling aspect, you have the grappling i.e. gripping, strength is important, that steroids are more beneficial to a mixed martial artist than they are to a boxer.
“Of course we had the Fernando Vargas case which was the first big time steroid case in boxing in Nevada. We had just recently Orlando Salido who won the IBF featherweight championship in November testing positive, so it happens in the other sports too. To me, it doesn’t really matter. To me, in all three of the sports we regulate: kickboxing, boxing and mixed martial arts, one human being is hitting another human being in the head and the body, kicking them when it comes to MMA and kickboxing. That’s the difference I see. I don’t see a distinction between boxing and MMA or MMA and kickboxing.
“I see a distinction between the unarmed combat sports that we regulate and say track and field where you take steroids you run a little faster, or you throw a javelin a little further, or in baseball you throw a pitch a little further, harder or faster, you hit a ball a little further. There’s a world of difference between that and hitting another human being in the head harder and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day if a fighter severely injures his opponent, the winning fighter then test positive to steroids and you see a district attorney file manslaughter charges against the offending fighter. These guys have to realize this is serious business.”
Every state has their own procedures concerning who will be drug tested and Kizer explained how it’s decided in the state of Nevada. “Before July 1, which was our last budget, luckily we got the legislature to give us more money to test more. What we did was we tested every title fight and/or main event and we also did some undercard bouts, nothing set in stone. I don’t know if random is the right word, but basically Marc Ratner and now me as the director would go and pick two or three or four fighters to test as well just based on luck of the draw, so to speak, on these fighters. Now in some cases, like the first time I think we had the UFC here, Marc tested everybody just because it was a new sport and see what was going to happen with that, and we go from there. I would say we probably test about twice as many fighters as we did say two years ago. With this extra money we have now it may be more as we go on. We definitely won’t be testing less.”
After the tests are administered, if an athlete’s sample results in a positive test the commission then has to decide what disciplinary action to take. Kizer explained, “When we first started testing for steroids we had kind of a period of leniency. It wasn’t amnesty by any means.
“It was a situation where we first and foremost wanted to educate the fighters that, look, regardless of what you hear, I still see it on message boards on the Internet almost everyday some knucklehead talking about steroids aren’t bad for you and that you can use steroids and perform if you do it the right way without any short-term or long-term damage to you; that’s just not the case. Unfortunately a lot of these fighters believe that. There are still a lot of myths and legends that fighters, be it boxers or kickboxers or martial artists believe, some fighters still believe you should drink only water. If you drink something other than water it affects your performance negatively or vise versa, so you want to educate the fighters and trainers first and foremost. Then you have to do something to deter the use. We’re not looking to catch people on steroids. We’re looking to deter the use so that every test comes back with a legitimate negative, so part of that process is testing, and if you find somebody, punishing them. The most recent steroid suspensions have been nine months from the day of the contest plus a fine from say 25% and 50% [of the fighters’ purse].”
Following disciplinary action by the commission fighters can file an appeal and a hearing date will be set. Discussing the appeal process in Nevada, Kizer said, “We used to have a process about a decade or so ago where the executive director, kind of like California still does, the executive director would issue a penalty and the fighter can appeal. I know if California, for example, unfortunately some fighters appealed and Armando [Garcia] put a one-year suspension on them and they appealed and the commission greatly reduced that suspension, and now of course everyone is appealing and hoping for leniency from the commission and hopefully that trend will reverse.
“We changed our regulations and statute years ago and to get around that. I do not have the power to issue a suspension or fine. The fighter comes into the hearing without anything against him. It’s a hearing. It’s not an appeal process. It’s the initial hearing. They come forward and it’s my duty as the executive director to prove the case that they fought under the influence of some sort of prohibited drug. Once that’s proven than it’s up to the fighter to put forth some affirmative defense, hey, you know I approve that someone slipped that into my drink the night before unbeknownst to my knowledge, you know, a vindictive former friend or trainer or something like that. We’ve never had that raised, but I know it’s been raised in track and field before. Or they can come and say, look, I did it but I have some mitigating factors and please be lenient on me and I throw myself at the mercy of the court so to speak. That’s the process that comes out there.
“The five commissioners then vote and they decided if there should be a suspension. If so, how long? Should there be a fine? If so, how much? Maybe it should be a revocation instead of a suspension. They’ve also always said one of the conditions is you have to provide a clean drug test before you can fight again in Nevada. That’s the process there. The fighter, if they lose the case, they’re free to appeal it to the district court.”
Questioned about retests after the fact, Kizer answered, “They’re free to do that, though I see no benefit of that. We had that with Nate Marquardt. He did a retest I think about six days later and it came back clean. All that means is you should have stopped using steroids a week earlier. It would have been out of your system. Your cycle was off by a week. Retests in that sense of being a week later, or two weeks later, or three weeks later is irrelevant. If you’re using steroids, all that proves is you probably did it intentionally. If you didn’t know any better, hey I was using a product and didn’t realize it had steroids in it, you should be very high in steroids when we test you. It shouldn’t be out of your system a week later. If it’s with you the day we test you and a week later it’s gone, more likely than not that means you intentionally took them and you just messed up your cycle by one week.
“Again, you don’t stop taking steroids six months before the fight because they don’t help you then. You stop taking very close to the fight where you want them to cycle out of your body. Best case scenario for the cheater is if it gets out of their system the day before the fight, or two days before the fight, so the retest in that case makes no sense.
“In fact, you could hurt yourself perhaps by doing that as I believe personally, on a personal level, that Nate did in his case. Now, on the flip side, retesting the same sample, the lab still has the urine, I don’t know how they do it in California, but I’m assuming the urine they tested from Sean Sherk, the urine they tested from Hermes Franca, there probably still is some of that sample left. Now if a fighter wants that retested they’re free to do that. In fact, fighters have asked and have done that in the past in Nevada. We have our lab send the sample to the third party lab, a different lab, and they’ll retest the fight night sample. In all the cases we’ve done that, it’s come back positive, not surprisingly.
“That’s the situation there, but again if you’re using steroids and you’re trying to cheat you’d be crazy to have it in your system a week later. Of course you’re crazy to have it in your system fight night. That’s what makes some of these cases like the [Royce] Gracie case so strange to be such a high level. When we’ve busted people for Nandrolone, their levels have been closer to Sean Sherk’s level than to Royce’s level because arguably, I’m not speaking for Sean, that’s not our case, but arguably in some of the cases we’ve had it looks like the fighter just missed it by two days. Had he stopped taking steroids two days earlier, he would have gotten away with it. That may have been the situation. I’m not sure.”
Marquardt tested positive for steroids following his ‘Ultimate Fight Night’ bout against Ivan Salaverry in August of 2005. There was a misconception by many, including media outlets that it was a false positive.
That was not the case. Setting the record straight, Kizer stated, “Basically we’ve had two situations in there. We’ve had the situation where fighters come in and they’ve been professional after the fact like Stephan Bonnar and said, yes I used, and Hermes Franca as I understand as well.
“We’ve had other situations where fighters have come in like Nate and said, hey I didn’t intentionally take it. The same with Josh Barnett, I didn’t intentionally take it. It must have been in some supplement I took. In Nate’s case, he provided us with some sort of andro-product he was taking. I typed the name of the product into the Internet and I came back with I think Max Muscle’s website saying do not use this product in competition, you will test positive for Nandrolone, so stop taking this well before any competition. That was me typing it in Google search and I think it was the number one or number two result coming back, so if I can do it, the athletes can do it. That’s my advice.
“Again, we’re not looking to catch athletes. We’re looking to deter them from using, so the athletes out there listening, use the Internet, use your doctor, use your trainer. Find out if this stuff is a banned substance or not. That’s what happened with Nate, and Nate came forward, and to his credit he provided the sample or told us yeah I took this product. I didn’t know it was banned when I was taking it. So no, he intentionally used a product that was banned though he didn’t know that product was banned, at least according to him. Again, it was kind of weird that he, I still don’t know why was it out of your system three days later? If you were using this product, why wouldn’t you have used it up through your fight and then it would have been in your system for several weeks later. His excuse, whether you believe it or not was, well I didn’t like what it was doing to me so I stopped using it X amount of weeks out, which of course is roughly the same amount of time you would stop using illegal steroids, so you wouldn’t get caught X amount of weeks out. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Marquardt, but none-the-less, he served his time. He did his time, and we move forward with that.”
Are fighters who admit to their steroid use after testing positive as opposed to denying it to the commission treated differently? According to Kizer they aren’t when it comes to fines and suspensions, but it could be a factor in the future when attempting to have their license reinstated.
“It all comes into play. I’ve heard people say why don’t you just have an automatic suspension, an automatic fine? Well, you have to take each case on a case-by-case basis. You’ve got to listen to the mitigating factors, or in some cases the aggravating factors, which could make it worse.
“I can tell you for example, Fernando Vargas, he came in and said I had no clue, and that could be. He may not have known exactly that he was taking something that was banned, but he was in the papers before the [Oscar] De La Hoya fight saying I’ve never looked so ripped, I’ve never had this kind of definition before, this is great, I’m in the best shape of my life. At the hearing he’s saying this guy I hired like three months before, he was giving me a shake every morning, and he never told me what was in it. I had no clue it was steroids. Come on. You know, he probably didn’t think, hey is this steroids, but he should have. And that comes into play with the commission and it’s decisions as well.
“I think with respect to coming in and admitting it, it helps you. I don’t know if that necessarily gets you less of a suspension because I’m not sure being brave and honest after you get caught should really come into play as far as how much the fine and how much the suspension should be for. However, it does come into play going forward. When Mr. Bonnar comes back to Nevada, just speaking for myself, I can’t speak for the whole commission, it’s going to be a much more comfortable relationship than it will if Mr. Nastula comes back to Nevada. It just depends. Every year you go forward you get re-licensed and you’ve got to prove your character. Coming forward and admitting your mistake, willing to do whatever it takes to make up for it comes into play prospectively, but I’m not sure it makes any difference retroactively.”
New supplements are being made and marketed every day, so what if an athlete takes a product that is not on the banned substance list, but it’s use results in elevated Nandrolone levels?
“Yea, that’s the problem. We take the approach that you can only take approved substances. So, just to get around that, you can’t just give someone a list of all banned products because like you said new products are coming out all the time where they change one little branch of an amino acid or something like that. If you look at the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) prohibited list that any athlete can go on www.wada-ama.org, you can find their prohibited substance list for 2007, and it’s very broad because of that, to cover situations like that. The bottom line is, if you’re taking a product that tests positive for Nandrolone then you’ve violated WADA’s rules, you violated our rules, you violated the California Commission’s rules, you violated the New Jersey Athletic board’s rules; you’re going to get punished.”
Addressing other specific positive test situations that have occurred in Nevada, Kizer went on to say, “We’ve had a few athletes, Josh Barnett, another guy I don’t have a lot of sympathy for, kind of had the same excuse. The third example, which I think you’re going to see with, it sounds like it’s coming from Mr. Sherk, which again may be a viable or not defense, we had with Pawel Nastula. He came in with his attorney and said we looked at the products he used. We checked them on the Internet. None of them are banned substances, so they must have been contaminated with some sort of banned substance unbeknownst to us. The problem is they provided no evidence whatsoever.
“In those cases, what happened was you don’t test the sample you have at home because then the athlete can open protein powder, mix it with a bunch of steroids, take it and later say oh look here’s my product. Test it, you’ll see it’s mixed with steroids. I don’t know how it got in there. What you do is you get the lot number, you contact the manufacturer, the manufacturer finds some of the product he has that’s opened. He sends it unopened to a testing lab, they test it, and then they see whether or not it got mixed unintentionally with some banned product. If that’s the case the athlete wins. That’s happened in track and field, and that may be the situation with Sean Sherk. I can tell you in Nastula’s case, his attorney said that but had no evidence. I’m still waiting for him, he said that he’s going to find what Nastula’s supplements were, contact a lab and have them test it to see if they’re contaminated or not. I’ve not heard back from here and here we are almost a year later, so again I don’t give a lot of credence to that. If every athlete could just walk in and say, shoot, my supplements must have been tainted. I have no evidence of that, but they must have been tainted. If the commission in turn says oh okay then we’ll drop the charges against you, obviously every athlete’s going to say that, or there’s something wrong with them, when they get caught. That’s an affirmative offense that the athlete has to prove to us. If he can show that I was taking protein powder which is not banned, or I was taking Creatine which is not banned, and the lab made a mistake and mixed it together with some steroids and I didn’t know about it, that’s definitely a defense and we definitely want to hear that. We’ve just never had that.”
Nevada was the first state to overturn a victory making it a No Contest after Nick Diaz tested positive for marijuana use following his Pride 33 match against Takanori Gomi. Asked about overturning fight results based on positive drug tests and the reasoning behind it, Kizer replied, “That’s why we changed the rules. The rule hadn’t been there before and in most states it’s not there because the steroid testing is relatively new in all states. I think we were the first to do it and it’s only been four years for us. In the past, the main reason steroids is illegal or prohibited, just like marijuana, just like alcohol, just like aspirin to take before a fight is because it puts the athlete at risk. It’s a danger to him. For example, aspirin can cause you to bleed into your brain. Obviously marijuana and alcohol can change your reflexes, slow them down, so you can get injured, or it could numb the pain so you don’t realize you’re hurt. That’s why we don’t let fighters, for example, to have cortisone shots into their back or into their hand before they fight because they can not realize they’re hurt and they keep fighting and the next thing you know they’re permanently damaged. Obviously steroids has negative health effects as well. If steroids were healthy for every body we’d all be taking them just like we can take a multi-vitamin which is healthy for you, but it’s not, so that’s the first and foremost. But with steroids and some of these other drugs you can affect performance as well, not just negatively. Aspirin’s not going to affect your performance one way or the other, but it could affect your safety. These all could affect your safety to the negative, but some of these drugs can affect your performance, and steroids is an easy one.”
Kizer added, “We had a couple of guys get away with it, Nate Marquardt, Josh Barnett, Tim Sylvia, but I think because of that the commission decided, hey look, we have to ramp this up even more. We have to deter it even greater. Taking away the win is probably the best deterrent of all and more of a deterrent than the suspension or the fine in some cases. It wasn’t that long ago. Nate Marquardt was the final straw, and we changed our regulations, and then we were able to do it. But like you said, it’s very rare that someone on steroids actually wins the fight. They’re taking steroids because they think they need it to win the fight, and they’re usually right. It’s going to be a rarity, but I can’t imagine a guy testing positive and the commission not taking away that win. For other drugs I think it depends on a case by case basis. With Nick Diaz’ case, a very brutal fight, a fight where he was able to retain his composure and deal with some pretty severe injuries. Did marijuana help him deal with that, obviously it didn’t make him a better fighter, but did it help him keep his composure? Did it help him with some of the pain issues? The answer is who knows? At the end of the day do you resolve any uncertainties in favor of the fighter who cheated, or on the fighter who didn’t cheat? The commission decided, no, we’re going to resolve any uncertainties for the fighter who followed the rules, Mr. Gomi, and make it a not contest.”
Keith Kizer’s stance on steroids in MMA is they’re dangerous not only to fighters’ safety, but to his or hers long-term health. He didn’t hold back on his personal opinion about fighters who use steroids when he commented, “The reason they do it is because usually they’re the underdog, or they don’t have enough confidence in themselves. They’re cowards. They’re cheaters, so they go in there thinking oh my God I’m going to lose. How am I going to feed my family if I lose? Or here’s my chance to be world champion, let me use steroids, or I want to retain my title so I use steroids. We’ve had all these situations, so I don’t think they lost because they used steroids. I think they used steroids because they’re losers.”