Commentary

Barnett: Negatives of another positive

Updated: July 29, 2009, 12:32 AM ET
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

Josh BarnettJon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesJosh Barnett's career may not be over, but his problems have only just begun.

What a job, and what a scene to witness: a California State Athletic Commission representative tucked into a bathroom, watching as a hulking man relieves himself into a plastic cup.

Does he slip the sample into a brown paper bag? What's the protocol for spillover? Does he say, "Thank you"?

On July 21, in a story that quickly has become to the MMA media what the moon landing was to Walter Cronkite, Josh Barnett was revealed to have failed his third drug test. In 2001, he raised eyebrows in Nevada when he tested positive for performance-enhancing agents before a fight with Bobby Hoffman. Because it was an informal survey of a possible drug problem in the sport, Barnett escaped penalty. In 2002, he was stripped and suspended after coming up hot for three different anabolic agents before a fight with Randy Couture. It would be Barnett's last fight in the States for nearly five years.

The first misstep cost him only some private embarrassment. The second led to his being stripped of a UFC title and kept him out of commission for a year. The third ruined his opportunity for a California fight license and essentially crippled Affliction's promotional wing. It also denied Fedor Emelianenko the opportunity to compete against a man for whom he had specifically trained, while depriving him of personal indulgence for the past several weeks.

Fedor did not get to eat ice cream. And Fedor cannot possibly be happy about that.

For those who choose to sympathize: It is certainly possible to fail a urine test because of a tainted supplement. (Some producers intentionally "spike" product with powerful drugs to create hype; others simply use little caution in preventing cross-contamination in manufacturing plants.) A 2007 study by Informed Choice, a nonprofit organization, evaluated 52 over-the-counter products and found that 13 of them contained illegal pharmaceuticals.

But an elite athlete who claims his test-booster did him in runs the risk of being seen as having a single-digit IQ. Lists of companies known to provide "clean" pills and powders are easily available online; athletes who are genuinely serious about their careers can have their own batch of magic pills audited. "Poor me" is an ignorant mea culpa.

[+] EnlargeFedor Emelianenko
George Napolitano/FilmMagicA bout with Fedor Emelianenko could have been a career-defining moment for Barnett. Instead, a prefight trip to the urinal was.

Of course, none of this applies in the case of an athlete who actually uses steroids and hopes to save face. It has become the sportsman's Twinkie defense, a fairly hollow bit of repetition that fits the layman's legal reaction: Deny, deny, deny.

False positives do happen. But in Barnett's specific case, it would have to have happened on at least three separate occasions. You decide how plausible that sounds.

Barnett's dubious achievement this summer has been to become the first mixed martial arts athlete to produce three irradiated cups of urine. We know that one flunked test usually results in fan hissing, diminished income and residual venom. (See: Sean Sherk, Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Chris Leben et al.) It would appear that getting caught is a deterrent to repeat the cycle. But not in this case.

Barnett's future is murky. Because he wasn't afforded a license to compete in California -- the urine sample was part of a relicensing procedure -- there's technically nothing to suspend. But repeated positives could potentially affect any future license applications, a specter that conceivably could also become an issue for commissions in other states.

Worst-case scenario: Josh Barnett's career in the United States will die in a urinal cake somewhere. But far more likely is that Barnett will provide a clean sample at some point in the future, regain licensure and resume his career without complication.

I would submit that anyone who tests positive for illicit performance enhancers on three separate occasions has no business in a ring or a cage, regardless of any hairsplitting commission policy. But for a man who spent years in Japan and who has a foot in that scene's pro wrestling culture, it's not as dire a problem as that of, say, Sherk, who doesn't have the size or interest for wrestling and never caught on overseas as a shootfighter.

But the Japanese scene is nowhere near as healthy as it was during Pride's heyday: October's Dream show will be the last on the Tokyo Broadcasting System channel, creating serious doubt about the promotion's future; Sengoku is on better footing, but that's due in part to its reasonable spending. In contrast to Pride's substantial roster, only Hidehiko Yoshida and possibly Takanori Gomi stand out as fighters who make an income there that would appeal to Barnett, who competed there twice. Whether Sengoku can still afford him is another matter.

Perhaps none of this bothers Barnett a bit. Even if Affliction had gone through with its show, indications were that the promotion was so cash-strapped that future events were in serious doubt. Barnett has had personality conflicts with UFC brass for years. Maybe he would've jumped on a plane regardless.

But the repercussions have little to do with geography. No matter what legal rabbit Barnett pulls from his hat to cast doubt on the test results, there will always be observers who consider his wins tainted and his legacy poisoned. If he is able and willing to fight stateside, I can't imagine a circumstance in which the crowd would voice support of him. Barnett would be a combat leper.

What a job, and what a scene. As Barnett submitted to policy and the commission member looked on, did the poor soul realize he was quite literally watching a man's career swirl down the drain?

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.