On Oct. 19, Rosi Sexton’s phone started ringing. The name on the caller ID was that of Ian Dean, matchmaker for the Cage Warriors promotion, where, just eight days later, Sexton was to fight Sheila Gaff for the promotion’s vacant women’s flyweight championship. Before she even answered Dean’s call, Sexton had a premonition about what the matchmaker would tell her.

“My first thought, honestly, was ‘damn, I knew it!’” Sexton recalled in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I’d actually talked to my coaches about this exact scenario. We’d predicted that there was a pretty high chance we’d get a pull out before the fight—but we had to go ahead with the training for it 100 percent, assuming that it was going to happen. I put everything else on hold for eight weeks to train for that fight. With it getting so close, I’d actually convinced myself it was going to go ahead. Then I got the phone call.”

Sexton’s concerns about Gaff withdrawing from the fight didn’t come out of the blue. Sexton had her suspicions about Gaff’s extraordinary physique and power. In addition, the British fighter knew that her German counterpart had undergone drug tests under the Voluntary Anti-Doping Administration (VADA) program during the week ending on Friday, Oct. 12—one week before Dean’s name appeared on Sexton’s caller ID. Sexton had requested that both she and Gaff undergo the VADA testing prior to their title fight, and both fighters had enrolled in the program. Could the timing of Gaff’s withdrawal from the fight have anything to do with the recently administered test for performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s)?

“First of all, I’ve not made any accusations,” Sexton clarified. “My own opinion is that her withdrawal from the fight could be regarded as suspicious. However, all I’m doing is making people aware of some relevant facts and allowing them to make up their own minds.

“Firstly, I’d point out that in her previous fights, Sheila has demonstrated quite extraordinary power for a female. The way she has manhandled even highly-ranked opponents is practically unprecedented in women’s combat sports, with the only similar example I can think of being Cris ‘Cyborg.’

Sexton (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“As far as I know, none of Sheila’s VADA tests came back positive. That leads me to suspect that she is currently clean. The issue of VADA testing was first raised back in June. Fighters being tested by VADA know that they will be subject to probably the most comprehensive anti-doping program in sport at the moment, so few would take the risk of using PED’s. This is precisely the point of the testing—to take the option of PED use off the table and to ensure clean fights.

“I was informed that Sheila withdrew from the fight primarily because she was experiencing symptoms of fatigue, lack of energy and difficulty upon physical exertion. As I understand the situation, she has been given no medical diagnosis and as far as I’m aware, no supporting test results have been provided. I’m aware that these symptoms are also commonly experienced by fighters when they stop taking performance-enhancing drugs, especially anabolic steroids, and can’t help wondering whether or not this is a coincidence.”

Sexton took to her Twitter account to voice her opinion on Gaff’s withdrawal and the reasons behind it, while also implying that the problem was widespread in women’s MMA.

Sexton’s comments regarding Gaff’s withdrawal didn’t sit well with Gaff’s coach, Andre Balschmieter, who took to German MMA website GroundandPound to explain that Gaff pulled out of the fight due to a case of the flu and that she was still not at 100 percent. He also insisted that Gaff is opposed to PED use.

“I think that’s precisely what I’d expect any fighter’s camp to say in that situation, whether or not s/he was using PED’s,” Sexton said.

Balschmieter also attempted to turn the tables on Sexton. He pointed to Sexton’s own withdrawal from a previous scheduled encounter with Gaff under the Cage Warriors banner in July 2011. Sexton, he said, was worthy of just as much suspicion for bowing out of that fight with what he called a career-threatening injury, only to return to grappling competition shortly thereafter.

“That was the first and only time in my ten-year career I’ve had to withdraw from an MMA fight,” Sexton explained. “Due to an accident in sparring a couple of weeks before the fight, I was hospitalized with a nasty concussion. I’m not sure where the term ‘career threatening’ came from—I don’t remember ever describing the injury that way (although, to be fair, there are a lot of things I don’t remember about that week).

“Standard practice for a concussion is to have a minimum of 28 days of no contact (including fighting or sparring). Even after this period, I still had some symptoms—and after discussion with a doctor, we decided that I should avoid striking or MMA sparring until these were completely gone. She also felt that grappling would be acceptably safe, and that I should focus on that for the time being. The injury happened in July, and I didn’t start training MMA again properly until after Christmas.

“I find Balschmieter’s remarks on this subject a little odd—perhaps it’s the language barrier, but it’s slightly disconcerting to think that an MMA coach is apparently unfamiliar with what a concussion is, or how it should be managed!”

Via Twitter, Sexton also suggested that, with such an epidemic of PED use among her potential opponents, she might be forced to walk away from the sport for good.

“My position is that I’ll consider fighting again if I can be assured of a clean opponent and a level playing field,” Sexton explained. “In practical terms, that means having a good level of drug testing in place—equivalent to that offered by VADA.

“I should also add that my post / tweet about female MMA having a drug problem wasn’t an accusation, or even targeted at a particular fighter. It was an expression of frustration about the situation in general. If it costs $6,000 to ensure that my opponents aren’t using steroids, only for them to pull out of the fight after the testing is done and the money spent, then that effectively prices me out of the game.”

Sexton has plenty of cause for concern in a day and age where athletes at all levels of sports are testing positive for banned substances.

“I think in the current climate, we’re all under a degree of suspicion,” Sexton admitted. “I think when it comes to PED’s in combat sports, it shouldn’t be a case of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ People are made to feel bad for having doubts about whether an opponent is clean. When there’s so much at stake—both in terms of our career and our health—we shouldn’t have to take someone’s word for it.

“I don’t want anyone to just take my word for it that I’m not using PED’s, even after all this. Be suspicious. Have doubts. Make me go out of my way to prove to the best of my ability that I’m clean. When I paid for VADA testing, we didn’t only ask for Sheila to be tested. We asked—and paid—for me to be tested too, because I firmly believe that that’s the only way to answer any doubters.

“Of course, in an ideal world I’d like to see full VADA testing for every fight. And of course, that’s not realistic. I think it’s something I’d have to look at on a case-by-case basis, but having at least some form of drug testing in place is a must.”

The only way to know for certain that an athlete is clean is to put a stringent drug testing policy in place. Even those fighters who appear to uphold the purity of the sport could have their own dirty little secrets. After all, temptation is always there—Sexton knows this from personal experience.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who’ve suggested to me—with varying degrees of seriousness—that it would be much easier and cheaper to just use steroids myself rather than trying to get proper testing,” Sexton revealed.

“I’d also be lying if I said I’d never considered it,” she confessed. “I’ve had times when I’ve thought to myself, ‘well, if everyone else is doing it, is it really cheating?’. I think a lot of fighters go through that process of justifying it to themselves. I guess there was a point where I could have gone either way with it, but I’m glad I made the choices I did.”

Taking an honest approach to the sport is something to be commended, and there’s no doubt that it might be the more difficult path, given the external pressure from those around her. But her own interactions with people suggesting that she get that extra edge can only fuel her suspicions and doubts. Then, there’s Sexton’s own prior experiences and insider knowledge, which also play their roles in validating her suspicions and providing further grounds for her insistence on strict drug testing procedures.

“I fought Carina Damm before her steroid ban, and knew there was something going on back then,” said Sexton. “I’ve got either direct or indirect evidence for a number of other female fighters using PED’s, and that’s without even considering the rumors.

“Ten years of experience in the sport gives a pretty good idea of what can be achieved naturally and what’s suspicious—and there’s a lot of it about!”

Sexton (top) rains punches (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

When Sexton hung up the phone after talking with Dean, frustration and disappointment dominated her thoughts. Those emotions were evident in her Twitter posts. A title fight had slipped out of her hands for reasons beyond her control. The money spent on VADA testing was wasted. She was angry at the state of PED use in her sport.

Once those emotions subsided, Sexton was still without a fight, and possibly looking at a future outside of the cage. She has since discussed the situation further with Cage Warriors, but states that no firm conclusions have been reached yet. Sexton would also welcome a trip to rising women’s promotion Invicta FC, though she insists that the same level of testing would need to be implemented regardless of where she fights. She even hopes Invicta will step up to find solutions to solving the problem.

“I would love to see Invicta bring in a comprehensive drug-testing program, perhaps together with VADA,” Sexton said. “I think there are ways of doing it to make it affordable and realistic. It has to be a combination of genuinely random testing, at least during the fight camp (and ideally off-season as well, for all contracted fighters), and meaningful sanctions when a fighter does test positive.”

It’s too soon to tell if this will be the end of the road for Sexton’s career as an active MMA fighter. However, if it is, Sexton is not without a plan. She already has an idea of what’s next.

“That’s an easy one for me,” Sexton said. “I already have plenty of other projects on the go—I already work as an osteopath, and in particular I do a lot of work with fighters and people who train in combat sports. I also want to get more involved in coaching and mentoring up-and-coming fighters.

“I don’t think I’m finished with competition myself yet. While I’m still young enough, I’d like to have a proper go at some high-level grappling competitions, and perhaps even some freestyle wrestling. (Though no doubt other sports have their issues with PED’s too, I think the potential risks are lower in grappling.)”

This is not the first we’ve heard of the PED epidemic in sports, nor will it be the last. But the problem has escalated to the point where honest athletes might see retirement as the more attractive option. Rosi Sexton might not be the last athlete forced to choose their health and honor over the sport they love.

Rosi would like to thank everyone who donated and contributed towards funding the VADA testing. “I wish I’d been able to give them a fight for their money,” she said.

Rosi also stated, “I’ve had the privilege of working with some fantastic people in training for these fights, and they’ve given me an understanding of the sport that I’ll always be grateful for. My coaches Paul Rimmer, Peter Irving, Mo Haghighatdoust, Danny Withington, Steve Campbell, my teammates at Next Generation; my conditioning coaches Sean and Z at Strength and Performance, Tim Budd at Global Therapies (my sports masseur); all of my training partners for this fight; my management (IntensitiFM); Cage Warriors for giving me the opportunity and for being a promotion that looks after its fighters; my sponsors – PhD Nutrition, London Fight Store, FunkyGums; all my friends, family and supporters; and my extremely patient boyfriend, Matt Olson, who put up with me while I was training for this!”

Top Photo: Rosi Sexton (Mick Bower/Sherdog)