The Nevada State Athletic Commission is a bumbling, soulless government agency, and so a strange agent for the delivery of the message that our gods have forsaken us. They never have been particularly diligent messengers in any event, but for whatever reason—bureaucracy, incompetence, something more nefarious—they took their sweet time delivering this, the most important news they had to bring us.
Anderson Silva, the trickster god/longtime UFC middleweight champion whose failed pre-fight drug screen precipitated the commission's gloomy announcement, presented bodily fluids contaminated with drostanolone metabolites on Jan. 9 of this year. Twenty-two days later, Silva fought Nick Diaz at UFC 183. Three days after that, having made aware of the news by the NSAC, the UFC issued a statement. Because the indictment of maybe the greatest mixed martial artist ever was apparently not enough on its own, this was followed by a second statement. Both headlining fighters, it turned, had posted positive tests. Diaz had also presented impure fluids, having been flagged for marijuana metabolites in his own post-fight evaluation.
On Tuesday, preceding a commission meeting where someone finally, fittingly, literally played "Yakety Sax" over the conference line, the NSAC announced the departure of the gods by way of confirming an earlier report that Silva had failed a second test. His fight-night test, they said, again found drostanolone metabolites, this time along with oxazepam and temazepam. (These aren't explicitly banned, but may represent an additional problem if it turns out that he didn't disclose their use.)
The MMA news cycle is regularly awful, so in some ways this is just one more debacle in a series of pretty ambitious ones. The recent list of failures has been bad. Resident smirking juggernaut Jon Jones failed a pre-fight test for benzoylecgonine, a cocaine metabolite, in the lead up to his fight with Daniel Cormier, but was rightly still allowed to fight. (Cocaine is not considered a banned substance outside of competition.) This information, though, didn't surface until after the fight. Jones spent one day in rehab, and the NSAC later acknowledged the test never should have been administered, calling it "a bit of an anomaly" and "an administrative oversight." Longtime welterweight contender and current WSOF fighter Jon Fitch and the UFC's 5th-ranked welterweight challenger Hector Lombard have both had drug test failures announced, and Ashlee Evans-Smith was suspended for diuretics on Tuesday. Mixed martial arts, like plenty of sports, has major problems with a culture of drug use under a regulatory structure that is rock-headed, moralistic, and disastrous. People fail tests all the time, and while all you can do is guess the number of people are getting away with doping for every one who's caught, the best guess is that the number is large. The thing is that those people generally aren't Anderson Silva.
The weight of Silva's name, coming after the recent rash of positives, was, at least in part, enough to trigger a Wednesday damage control press conference from UFC figurehead Dana White and real-life UFC boss Lorenzo Fertitta. While the two have recently been giving more lip service to regulatory change, the impact of this particular disaster seems to have been enough to finally motivate ownership that as recently last month said, "We have no business doing drug testing. We fucked it up, and we will fuck it up again," and has long maintained a policy of, "We're regulated by the fucking government." They are now suddenly saying relatively very serious things about ambitious new policies that involve millions of dollars, phrases like "out of competition," and, potentially, numbers like "two and "four" in front of "year bans." If the rot has climbed up Olympus and touched Anderson Silva, well, it could spread anywhere, and can no longer be ignored. Though this planning was reportedly underway, there are few other fighters who would have had as much influence on such a reaction.
Nick Diaz' positive test, for example, was treated not so much as a call to action or betrayal but as an inevitability. This is partly because it was for marijuana, not steroids, partly because it has happened twice previously, and partly because Diaz is a vigorous and enthusiastic marijuana user who holds a California medical marijuana license, prescribed for ADHD. Ultimately, though, it's because he has cultivated a reputation—much of it roundly earned, some if it thrust upon him—as an irritable, doesn't-play-by-your-rules manchild and/or anti-hero. It's Manny being Manny. The official positive was for marijuana metabolites, but it was primarily for being Nick Diaz.
Diaz would not have found success without his unique combination of stylized volume punching and lanky, slick-looking jiu-jitsu, but for better or worse, his reputation is what made him famous. In the words of photographer Esther Lin, who was describing her photo of Diaz flipping off Frank Shamrock in 2009, "This is what we have come to anticipate from Nick Diaz." Pointedly, she was contrasting this expectation with a picture of a calm Diaz respectfully pointing to Silva during a face-off before UFC 183. The idols we build to our athletes don't always skew towards realism. The more transcendent the star, the easier it is to lose track of reality.
Anderson Silva is a violence genius. As far as humans in underwear punching each other in a cage goes, he is about as transcendent as it gets. He's one of only a handful of fighters— Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, and whoever else you might want to name—worthy of discussion as greatest in the sport's modern history. No one has looked remotely as stylish doing it. Silva brings joy to a sport not used to joyous things. That may be why the news of his positive test was especially disheartening to some of us, even those cynical (or just realistic) enough to know what it means to be an aging fighter trying to keep his edge.
This is the man who ended Hayato Sakurai's 20-fight unbeaten streak; imploded Carlos Newton with a thudding flying knee; and casually knocked out Tony Fryklund with an a reverse, floor-to-ceiling elbow to the chin that even today remains an impossibility despite video evidence. He's the man who in his UFC debut hit Chris Leben so many times, so fast, that 49 seconds later no one was exactly sure what had happened; who earned his UFC middleweight title in 2006 by leaving Rich Franklin with a perpendicular nose and terrifying visions; and whose first bout at light heavyweight was finished in a paltry 61 seconds, when he caught a kick from James Irvin and answered with one short right hand.
Silva's second bout at 205 pounds was against Forrest Griffin, who was just one fight removed from holding the weight class's title, and he dodged Griffin's punches as though he could slow down time at will. Griffin, at his most charismatic, described the experience: "I tried to punch him. I tried to punch him and he literally moved his head out of the way and looked at me like I was stupid for doing it." He dropped Griffin for the final time with a flicked jab he threw while floating backwards, as you do.
He went undefeated for six years, defending the middleweight title 10 times. He won 17 straight fights in two weight classes, and while doing so redefined what is considered possible in a live fight between top-level professionals. We eventually forgot that he was mortal.
We developed collective amnesia around the four losses earlier in his career, despite the fact that one of them came via a flying-scissors heel-hook from Ryo Chonan, one for the all-time highlight reel. Every time he appeared listless—as he did for periods against Diaz—we habitually blanked on his many previous lethargic performances, notably the stretch of defenses against Patrick Cote, Thales Leites, and Demian Maia where it appeared the challengers weren't a sufficient threat to pique his interest. We explained away the 23 minutes against Chael Sonnen where Silva was cycled repeatedly through a wood-chipper, because that was something that would happen to a mere man, and not Anderson Silva. (He validated our delusion when, being Anderson Silva, he found a miraculous way to win anyway.)
We didn't learn when his reign ended in a pair of losses to current champion Chris Weidman.
The first we wrote off as a fluke, as a consequence of his trolling—"If you fight like that long enough, eventually you're bound to get caught"—or even the culmination of it. While the second fight was even less satisfying in terms of decisiveness, the subtext was all the more clear. Silva's leg exploded when Weidman timed and checked a leg kick. The aging former champion's body had failed him in the most overt way.
We didn't care. We wanted something unnaturally pure in a sport that is anything but. Now we are left shocked that a 39-year-old man, a former champion coming off of two losses and a year of rehab for a horrifically shattered leg, would test positive for substances that are intended to help fragile bodies heal faster and perform better.
This is despite the fact that we are familiar with Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and the long history of people doing everything they can to gain an advantage for as long as sports have existed; despite knowledge that two other fighters that train at Silva's camp, Kevin Casey and Brian Ortega, have failed drug tests for drostanolone following UFC bouts; and despite the fact that Silva operates in an environment that demands athletes be superhuman, and treats injuries and age as an imposition on our right to be entertained. Finally, it's despite the fact that we know MMA is a sport that unreasonably builds up its stars, only to eventually tear them down.
It's a pattern, and it goes back to the originators of the sport. We paid to watch when the UFC fed an aging version of Royce Gracie, de facto face of the sport's rebirth, to threshing machine Matt Hughes for the love of pride and pay-per-view sales. Hughes mauled him like a short, pale bear. For his following, final fight against Kazushi Sakuraba, Gracie turned in a hilarious positive test for nandrolone. He retired from competition and now occasionally offers up opinions we are generally not enriched by hearing, like how bad he thinks drug users are and how women are too feminine to fight. He decided to weigh in before the press conference this week, insisting that the sport doesn't have a drug problem, the system is working, and to deny that is to look at the bad side when we should be looking at the good.
Like Gracie, Silva is actually just a person who can't be blamed for disappointing anyone who had unreasonable expectations for him; like him, his true failure was to have revealed himself as such.
We have sampled one of our constructed god's bodily fluids and found him to have broken our shoddy rules. He cheated, and did so in a competition in which you inflict grave harm on your opponent and being stronger, fitter, and able to train harder can help you inflict more harm. It's understandable to be disappointed, angry, or, I suppose, even outraged, if this is the kind of thing you deem worthy of outrage. Anderson Silva is special and his career has been special, and to some degree, that may be tainted now. It's hard watching the special ones fall. Maybe he deserves our ire. Maybe Gaylord Perry and Jimmie Johnson deserve our ire, too. I don't know.
It's possible that the UFC is committed to changing things, and maybe even capable of having an impact. It's possible the NSAC and most other athletic associations will change for the better. It's even possible that sports—or society—will have an epiphany and come to a more reasonable understanding about drugs of all kinds. Likelihoods vary. In any case, it will be too late for Silva, as there is a contingent who will now write off his existence entirely. In some camps he will be forever be scorned, his career aggressively devalued. The whole affair is sad, but that particular view seems sad in a unique way. While we're debating about the size of the asterisk we will demand be pinned on Silva's chest, we should reserve some of the indignation for the broken system he's competed under and for the people who have enabled it. There's no escaping that the system is more than fractionally fueled by our dangerous tendency to dehumanize people who play sports and lionize the ones who play them supremely well. Our gods didn't forsake us. They never existed to begin with.
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty