Stephan Bonnar had been enjoying a nice little run as a fan-favorite in the last few months. After the scheduled UFC 153 main event fight between Jose Aldo and Erik Koch was scrapped just a few weeks before the event, “The American Psycho” emerged from semi-retirement to accept the monumental task of fighting Anderson Silva, the greatest MMA fighter of all time.

Viewed by many MMA fans as one of the most pure representatives of the sport—moving forward, swinging hard, and always going for the finish—Bonnar’s all-out style was on full display against “The Spider.” At the end of the night, Bonnar was just another name on Silva’s list, losing in rather spectacular fashion after being kneed in the solar plexus. Despite the result, though, Bonnar’s willingness to take the fight in the first place was more than enough to earn the respect of almost everyone in the sport.

That respect might have been bumped down a few notches today when it was announced that Bonnar tested positive for an anabolic-steroid following the loss to Silva. This is Bonnar’s second positive test for performance-enhancing drugs during his UFC tenure and will certainly be a bump in Bonnar’s otherwise smooth road into retirement.

For those MMA fans who continue to preach physiological purity as the only way to “truly” be viewed as a successful athlete, Bonnar’s second positive test for PEDs will surely be met with the expected criticism. Steroid users are cheaters, undeserving of any recognition they receive as a result of their tainted sporting accomplishments, they’ll argue. It’s the same song we’ve heard many, many times before, but there are a lot of people who never get tired of singing it. These are probably the same people who equate something being illegal with something being inherently wrong and/or immoral, and it’s on that point I simply cannot agree.

After 20-some years of following sports, I’ve more or less resigned myself to the fact that the majority of professional athletes are probably using some sort of performance-enhancing drug. This resignation was more or less cemented for me after listening to Mac Danzig so casually predict that 90 percent of professional MMA fighters are fighting or training dirty, and so maybe that’s why I’m not going to get all bent out of shape because of Bonnar’s positive test. Some people enjoy the theatrics of outrage when it comes to PEDs in sports. After all, how many Congressional hearings have we had just to discuss the matter? (The answer, no matter the actual number, is too many.) At this point, the biggest reaction a positive PED test is going to elicit from me is a shrug.

(If you’re one of those hard-liners against performance enhancing drugs, I urge you to check out the documentary Bigger Stronger Faster*. It provides much-needed balance to the one-sided conversation about PEDs that is perpetuated in sports media every day and totally changed my mind about a subject that has become as intertwined with professional sports as the athletes themselves.)

What a lot of people who aren’t involved in professional sports often forget is that no one at that level is playing for fun, no matter what they tell you. Professional athletes are business people. They might conduct their business in gyms and arenas instead of office buildings and conference rooms, but at the end of the day, they probably wouldn’t be putting their increasingly fragile bodies at risk if they weren’t being paid.

These athletes’ success in their careers, that is, their success in their chosen line of business, is judged solely by their physical performance on game day. A football player could be the smartest, nicest, most stand-up guy in the world, but those qualities don’t mean anything if he can’t make it happen on the field. As a result, athletes are willing to do a lot to either increase their chances of professional success or prolong the success they’ve already achieved. If using PEDs is the difference between being a reserve and being a starter, and the potential financial windfall that comes with the latter, the purity of the game is often sacrificed at the altar of the almighty dollar.

Professional athletics is capitalism and competition in their purest forms. The physically dominant rule. They amass more wealth, attract greater fame and secure a brighter future for themselves and their families (provided they don’t blow all their money). So why wouldn’t athletes do every single thing they could to give themselves an advantage over their opposition?

Let’s try two scenarios.

First, you’re a 27-year-old professional running back who was formerly known for his punishing running style. After a few years in the league, not to mention all those hits you took in high school and college, your legs just aren’t what they used to be. You’ve tried to train harder, but your body just doesn’t recover like it used to. If there was a drug you could take that would allow you to train at a level commensurate with your desire and therefore gain back some of what you’ve lost and continue to earn a higher income than you would otherwise, wouldn’t you at least consider it? Again, this is your job we’re talking about here, not your ability to best your friends during the Saturday afternoon backyard game.

Second, you’re a 35-year-old MMA fighter who has become known for a straight-forward, never-say-die style of fighting. You’ve been out of the title picture for a while and have started to contemplate life outside the Octagon. Suddenly, you get a call to fight the greatest mixed martial artists ever on somewhat short notice. You’re probably going to retire after the fight, and you’re never going to see this caliber of opponent ever again. In short, this is your one last shot at MMA glory. Why wouldn’t you juice up?

The immediate post-fight retirement negates the threat of suspension, so that’s not a reason to fight clean. You’ve really got nothing else to prove to anyone, your legacy having long-since been cemented thanks to your role in one of the greatest fights of all time. Perhaps most convincing, however, is the fact that your success against your opponent will be all that really matters, even if you end up testing positive for PEDs after the fight.

Recall that Chael Sonnen tested positive for a 16.9:1 testosterone to epitestosterone ratio after his first loss to Anderson Silva and was suspended as a result. The irony is that Sonnen probably amassed more fame after his positive test than he ever did before it. Why? Because for four-and-a-half rounds, he was winning against Anderson Silva.

Despite his loss, positive test and suspension, Sonnen’s second fight with Silva was among the more anticipated in the sport’s history. What’s more, every person watching knew that Sonnen was using testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), because he was allowed to do so by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Even after that fight, which he lost, Sonnen’s fame has continued to help him in his MMA career, as he now inexplicably finds himself in line for the light heavyweight title.

If Bonnar would have somehow beaten Silva, the victory would be all that mattered after enough time. Yes, some people would have mentally negated Bonnar’s win after the positive test, but more people than some would care to admit would still think “OK … fine, but he beat Anderson F**king Silva.” After all, Sonnen wasn’t even able to do that, despite the pharmacological enhancements. Bonnar could have traded on that victory for the rest of his life—The Man Who Squashed The Spider.

I don’t want this to come across like I’m promoting steroid use. I’d love an idyllic, substance-free sports world as much as the next person. (I don’t think such a thing has ever existed, but that’s neither here nor there.) In the case of Stephan Bonnar, however, there was really no reason not to use PEDs. Sure, some people are going to look poorly upon Bonnar’s decisions, but those people don’t pay his bills, so Bonnar probably couldn’t care less what they think.

In the end, with the combination of the impending retirement and the enormous potential for future success that would have come from a victory over Anderson Silva, the temptation to give himself as much of an edge as possible was simply too strong for Bonnar to ignore.

Put yourself in his shoes. What would you do?

Photo: Stephan Bonnar at the UFC 153 workouts (Josh Hedges/Zuffa, LLC)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.