- Jake Rossen, MMA
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Here is the man, lean, lithe, and stoic. In a field of eight, he's a physical anomaly, with shoulders as narrow as his hips; a bulky pair of white pajamas conceals a set of pipe-cleaner arms.
Despite the implied malnutrition, he seems unconcerned about the series of athletes who intend to do him harm in as catastrophic a way as possible. The groin can be punted; biting is frowned upon, eliciting a fine but nothing more.
One is a fit boxer, a style naturally suited for organized mayhem; another is built like Mr. Olympia; one finalist has a sunken chest, but kicked the literal teeth from his first opponent. Some are still embedded in his foot.
In a sight that would prove alternately repugnant and fascinating -- depending on the constitution of the viewer -- the seemingly hapless martial artist would go on to effortlessly defeat all of his adversaries, dragging them down into the depths of the grappling waters and strangling them until they squeaked uncle.
It is unlikely that any athlete has left a bigger footprint in an 18-month span than Royce Gracie did during his pithy run through the Ultimate Fighting Championship's embryonic events. It is equally unlikely that any martial artist will ever transform the perception of combat sports to the degree he did.
The lesson was simple: all your fancy crescent kicks and Chi are useless when you can't breathe or your broken limbs are dangling from their sockets. And just like that, black belts in Tae Kwon Do and karate found themselves questioning decades of baseless confidence.
Gracie was the true embodiment of the Martial Arts Promise: regardless of your size or fitness level, you can spit sand back in the bully's face without fear of repercussions. You could try to understand the principles of leverage, carotid arteries, and flimsy tendons, or you could just accept the theory that your entire body, no matter how fragile, would win over a single appendage or neck every time.
And unlike the lurid Death Touches of traditional masters, you didn't need to take the principle on faith. You had only to drive to Blockbuster to view footage of the foreigner with the adolescent's build toy with some seriously rough-looking characters.
Gracie's career after those contributions to video shelves has been little more than one long, celebratory send-off. He has earned no impressive victories; ironically, his best performance (against judoka Hidehiko Yoshida in 2003) had to be called a draw due to Gracie's insistence that there be no judges.
Now comes the lurid news that the lanky Brazilian has tested positive for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. Forget about the idea that there was a urinalysis mix-up, Marx Brothers-style: his levels of the substance (which is produced by the body naturally in low levels) were more than 25 times what could be considered normal in an adult male.
Gracie is hardly possessed of an exaggerated physique, but he was clearly more sculpted for his June 2 fight with Kazushi Sakuraba than he was for a May 2006 match with Matt Hughes. In the former contest, he weighed in at 175 pounds; for Sakuraba, he was 188.
One may not need to be nutritionist to observe that a muscle gain of 13 pounds in one year at the age of 40 is a strikingly accomplished feat. Athletes nearing the half-century mark are often happy to maintain functional mass, let alone pack it on.
Naturally (pun perhaps intended), Gracie refuted the test results, claiming that he's never used pharmaceuticals in competition. According to a University of Aberdeen study, nandrolone detection can result in a false positive if the subject has engaged in a cardio-intensive regimen coupled with excessive protein and creatine intake; it's theoretically possible that eating steroid-tainted beef could also influence scores.
But it's unlikely that such a recipe would result in the off-the-charts measure taken from Gracie.
After being tossed around like a haystack by Hughes, it's not a stretch to believe that the grappler wanted to become a stronger athlete. What's puzzling is that he would choose the twilight of his career to do so. With a lucrative stint in Japan and a bottomless seminar schedule, he's hardly as financially strapped as younger fighters. And with the exception of Hughes, he's picking bouts (Sakuraba, Hideo Tokoro, Akebono) where horsepower is hardly a necessity.
So why do it? As Renzo Gracie has speculated, Royce's decision to drift away from the Gracie nucleus may have led to whispers in his ear from errant associates. Or perhaps like many aging fighters, he was so desperate to remain in the spotlight that he needed a way to decelerate the effects of the calendar.
But in doing so, he's animated the perpetual joke of the MMA community: of all athletes, the one who preached skill over muscle was the least likely to be caught with controlled substances. Gracie was the one who openly mocked admitted steroid user Mark Kerr, saying, "Milk does a body good, but not that good."
What the Gracie imbroglio is teaching us is that sports are a drug culture, and no one is exempt. If a car salesman was told a little pill could help him sell more vehicles and improve his quality of life, and careful intake would minimize side effects, he would be made of fairly obstinate material not to be tempted especially if he knew the 10 other salesmen on the lot were partaking.
Cheating? Some might believe he's simply trying to catch up.
And so it is with fighting. The pressure to look and perform a certain way is intense, and where your genetics aren't accommodating, science is. I have little doubt that a majority of combatants in the Top 10 of each division are on some kind of performance-enhancing substance, be it growth hormone, anabolics, painkillers, or any combination of the above.
That Gracie doesn't look the part is immaterial: you can look at pictures of circus strongmen from the turn of the century and see "clean" physiques. An aesthetically pleasing musculature isn't drug-dependent.
Complications arise when you need your muscles to endure the unfathomable rigors of MMA preparation: not only weight work, but cardio, grappling, boxing, and the substantial punishment inflicted on the joints every day in the gym. It's a schedule that wears you down.
I'm strangely apathetic about Gracie's indictment. Is it "cheating" to want to sustain muscle function into middle age? To level a playing field where countless others have an a-- dotted with needle punctures?
Some are going to sympathize with Gracie; others will demonize him. But nothing he does now can -- or should -- remove any of the adulation he received during those 18 months in the mid-1990s. What matters is the mettle he put on display against men who were clearly his physical superiors.
His accomplishments were earned the hard way: by risking his neck in an unpaved path that could've conceivably led to a hearse instead of an ambulance. That's a kind of bravado that's hard to imagine in today's sterilized sport.
And that's the Royce Gracie I choose to remember.
Jake Rossen covers mixed martial arts for Sherdog.com. For comments, email email@example.com