Something is very, very wrong when Chael Sonnen has nothing to say. The fighter, who was lauded for a terrific 23-minute performance against Anderson Silva in early August, is now a virtual shut-in thanks to California Athletic Commission executive director George Dodd, who confirmed Sonnen tested positive for performance enhancers -- a charge prompted by abnormally high levels of testosterone.
[+] EnlargeDave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Did Chael Sonnen cut corners to achieve this physique? So far, he isn't talking.
Sonnen, whose personality is often outrageous, became nearly incomprehensible with the high standard he built for himself leading into the Silva fight. He said he would beat up the champion, take his lunch money, steal his book bag, etc. And that's more or less what he did. But now all of that hustle and effort may have an asterisk next to it.
(Fighters can be given a pass from testosterone supplementation if they're taking it for a legitimate medical reason, specifically to elevate abnormally low levels to a normal range, but if Sonnen's results were off the charts the California commission either has a different idea of "elevated" or he exceeded any reasonable medical use.)
Sonnen is far from unique. He is the fourth of Silva's UFC opponents to test positive for drugs at some point in their respective careers. What makes his situation regrettable is that he was popped immediately following a crucial fight. Worse, his pro wrestling shtick didn't leave him much room for personal error, including a monologue on how Lance Armstrong's alleged use of banned substances gave him cancer. You make a statement like that, and you better not burn a hole in the cup you're asked to pee in.
This development breaks what had been a fairly long stretch of quiet for the UFC. The last title contender that tested positive was Sean Sherk in the summer of 2007, a charge Sherk vehemently denied. Right or wrong, PEDs remain a staple of sports. The only real debate is how best to mask usage so that it remains an unspoken topic.
The accused are hardly the only athletes using pharmaceutical help at this level. They just happen to be the unlucky few who get tagged for it. Aside from the prohibitively expensive method of blood work, the best way to dissuade athletes from using is completely random testing -- no notice, no pattern, just a demand for a sample at any time during the year. Although some commissions have a policy in place to execute that strategy, few (or none) ever actually put it into practice with any conviction. As long as the system remains predictable, fighters will find ways around it.
It's unrealistic to expect that drug protocol will be uniform from top to bottom or from state to state. As the stakes get higher, it should be up to promotions and commissions to work in tandem to create a solution that will treat key bouts with the attention they require. Every fighter on a card can't be tested with blood work and offseason tests. Fine. Focus on the main event and subject those fighters to exhaustive testing. If a contender knows the price of competing for a title is a system that could and would detect any invalid substance in his body, he would be far less likely to get into the habit of using on the road. And because every fighter believes he can one day contend for a title, it should act as a deterrent without breaking any state's bank.
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As for Sonnen, his choice is between a sincere confession (if he did as he is accused) and coming up with another gimmick to deflect attention away from the situation. If Sonnen is as straight-talking as he claims to be, he won't dive for cover behind the idea of "tainted supplements" (a popular defense) or a drawn-out semantics argument over testing protocol. If guilty, admitting it goes a long way. Already, there are reports that Sonnen told Dodd he did take a banned substance immediately prior to the fight. Why would Sonnen say that, especially if he had no way of knowing whether Dodd would act on that information and pull him from the card?
In that case, the UFC would quarter him. In this drawn-out scenario, what else can the organization do after the commission has suspended and fined him? The real test of the UFC's sincerity would come when Sonnen's possible suspension is up. Does it schedule a rematch with Silva, basically turning a blind eye to the situation, or does the promotion acknowledge that the fighter has dropped himself down the ladder and will need to fight his way back up? Awarding a title bout to a figher coming off a scandal wouldn't do much to prove that the UFC is anti-PEDs.
Only Silva comes out spotless. Not only did he perform an 11th-hour save of his own butt, he did it injured and against a man who is alleged to have cheated.
It's going to be a rough few months for Sonnen, who also has to deal with the aftershock in a simmering political career in Oregon. But he shouldn't sweat it. The penalty for PED use in those circles? Becoming governor of California.