Commentary

Steroids in MMA: A two-sided story

Updated: April 28, 2010, 2:15 PM ET
By Matt Pitt | Sherdog.com

As great a baseball player as Barry Bonds was, it seems safe to assume my children and yours will know him as the greatest anabolic steroids salesman his sport has ever known.

Will the same be said of Royce Gracie in MMA? Will we remember the scrappy 170-pound David who toppled the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Gerard Gordeau in UFC 1 to definitively prove that technique trumps muscle, or will we remember the steroid cheat who reacted to a loss to Matt Hughes by illicitly bulking up for his next fight?

[+] EnlargeHughes/Gracie
Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.comMatt Hughes overwhelmed Royce Gracie at UFC 60, and Gracie tested positive for performance enhancers before his next fight.

For MMA fans and athletes, the lesson from Gracie's steroid use was unmistakable: Technique might trump muscle, but technique plus steroids trumps everything.

As dismaying as the dawn of the steroids era in MMA might have been to purists, it was old news for mainstream sport. A decade before Gracie first belted up a gi, an unremarkable German party apparatchik named Manfred Ewald began the work that would earn him the title "Father of the Steroid Century."

For physicians, Ewald's work has borne little fruit: The use of anabolic hormones such as HGH and steroids in the treatment of burns, aging and neuromuscular disease is quite limited. For elite athletes and their trainers, however, Ewald's research on anabolic steroids and performance is the Magna Carta of doping. Every "enhanced" MMA fighter -- Gracie, fellow implicated violators and who knows how many undiscovered others -- is the pharmaceutical child of Ewald's black genius.

Ewald performed his groundbreaking anabolic steroid research in East Germany. In 1961, Ewald -- a party functionary with no scientific background and nothing on his résumé other than service in the Hitler Youth and the Nazi Party -- assumed the post of Minister of Sport in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic. Upon assuming leadership, he promptly initiated a cooperative effort among biochemists, pharmaceutical companies and the state-run athletic development program to engineer superhuman athletes.

What he achieved was impressive: The GDR won nine gold medals in the 1968 Olympics, 20 in 1972 and 40 in 1976. This for a nation with a small, genetically homogenous population and a crippled economy. Starting in 1974, buoyed by the success of doping and the international acclaim East German athletes garnered, Ewald initiated near universal anabolic hormone doping throughout the entire GDR athletic program. Often the doping was conducted without the athletes' knowledge or consent. For more than a decade, athletes as young as 11 years old -- males and particularly females -- were started on pharmaceutical "assistance" programs as carefully engineered and scrupulously monitored as a modern Kentucky Derby winner's diet and training.

The ministry's work was done with the full cooperation and support of the state, so there was no need for internal secrecy. Detailed records were kept on thousands of athletes for their entire professional lives. When the Berlin Wall fell, Ewald lost his job and the startling data became available to the world.

It showed two dramatic findings. First, it proved that steroids work -- unquestionably and dramatically. Aside from the astronomic international medal count of a tiny nation with little genetic diversity and a Third World economy, the data show quantifiable individual performance improvements. With steroids, 100-meter sprint times were cut almost three-quarters of a second -- the difference between a world champion and a runner whose career ends in college. Athletes on steroids put the shot an additional 2 to 5 meters (world record: 23.12 meters), hurled the javelin 8 to 15 meters farther (world record: 72.2 meters) and added as much as 20 meters to their discus throws (world record: 74.1 meters).

The data is unambiguous: In "strength" sports, anabolic hormones are undeniably effective. To the degree that combat sports are strength-dependent -- and the beating Hughes subjected Gracie to at UFC 60 forcefully made that argument -- the advantages of using steroids are abundantly clear. If that reality is clear to the doctors and scientists who study performance, it is all the more obvious to the fighters whose lives, careers and livelihoods depend on gaining that performance advantage.

The second clear lesson from the 30-year GDR anabolic hormone program is that the human costs of steroid use are gruesome. A lawsuit has been leveled against the makers of the most commonly used steroid, turinabol, by several GDR athletes suffering from its long-term effects. Many of these athletes were so physically crippled after their athletic careers that they are incapable of other work. Female subjects, those athletes whose performance benefited most from the masculinizing effects of anabolic steroids, suffered peculiarly, with cases of severe acne, hirsutism and infertility. Among all doped athletes, rates of premature heart disease, liver failure and cancer are increased.

These are not isolated cases of over-amped muscle junkies taking bizarre steroid doses and compounding their danger with alcohol and drug abuse; these are physician-controlled doses in carefully managed athletes. The conceit among fighters that steroids can be used without consequences to speed the healing of an injury or add lean mass is just that: a fanciful notion unenlightened by the evidence of 40 years.

Even for someone not familiar with the GDR's anabolic hormone data, for someone coming up in Muay Thai smokers and no-name gyms, the benefits of steroids are clear. Anyone can look at the weekend's baseball box scores or the latest star athlete's heartfelt confessional and see the evidence.

Tragically, the long-term costs of anabolic hormone use aren't nearly as evident or as well-publicized. And it's possible that if they were, it wouldn't matter: Athletes who engage in combat sports have already reconciled themselves to a hard life of sacrifice and risk. The additional, deferred risks of steroids are all too easy to ignore in light of the tremendous next-fight advantages they offer.

Matt Pitt is a physician with degrees in biophysics and medicine. He is board-certified in emergency medicine and has postgraduate training in head injuries and multisystem trauma. To ask a question that could be answered in a future article, e-mail him at mpitt@sherdog.com.