Jon Fitch. Hector Lombard. Anderson Silva. Three champion calibre fighters. Three top names who have all held or fought for championships in top MMA organizations. Up until 2015, they all had one thing in common: no failed drug tests between them.

Now, each has been labelled a cheat. A drug user. A performance enhancing drug user. Note that there’s a name missing from that list, as far as recent positive tests go: Nick Diaz. Diaz’s test for marijuana metabolites is something else entirely; a lifestyle and health issue (Diaz has a medical marijuana license in the state of California, and weed, frankly, is not a performance enhancing drug). An issue for the athletic commissions, and far less controversial. The other three, however… big names. Silva, of course, being the biggest.

Say it ain’t so, Silva. Say it ain’t so.

Yet before the chorus of doom and gloom grows any louder, ask yourself this: are the increasing number of drug test failures really reflective of an increasing performance enhancing drug problem in MMA, or are they reflective of better testing exposing an issue that has dogged the sport all along. Consider, if you will, the likes of Tim Sylvia and Josh Barnett, both former UFC heavyweight champions, and both of whom tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in their prime. Suffice to say, testing then wasn’t what it is today. The net now is wider, the tests themselves better, save the occasional flub (Cung Le’s botched test from last year, for example).

There is, sadly, a culture of performance enhancing drug abuse alive and well in the UFC, and MMA as a whole. Georges St. Pierre has spoken out about it, and when one of the greatest fighters of all time states just how bad it is, fans, and promotions, should probably listen. He’s not alone. Roy Nelson has pushed for a clean sport (and if there’s a single clean fighter active in the sport, it’s Nelson, at least until they ban cheeseburgers). B.J. Penn was quite vocal about Fitch’s failure, which wasn’t entirely surprising, given their history. Mark Bocek, who retired from the sport in 2014, told MMA Junkie shortly after his retirement that the PED issue in the sport was “worse than people realize” and made comparisons to the Tour de France.

Is Anderson Silva MMA’s Lance Armstrong?

Perhaps. Much will depend on how Silva’s case is handled. The Spider seemed genuinely surprised by the positive test that shocked the world following his UFC 183 victory over Nick Diaz, his first fight since a horrific leg break at UFC 168: Silva vs. Weidman II. This is a fighter, remember, that called for a lifetime ban for drug cheats as recently as last year. His second, later test, administered January 19, over a week prior to UFC 183, came back clean. Is that evidence of an athlete cycling off a banned substance, or of a false positive? Silva’s B-sample will still be tested, and that will likely be the most telling detail in all of this. Unlike Armstrong, however, don’t expect to see Silva stripped of his accolades and removed from the record books if the initial test findings are upheld. MMA simply doesn’t work that way. Nor is it ready to go down that road, at least not yet.

Whether Silva finds his image tarnished, and stuck with a late career suspension by the NSAC, possibly forced into retirement, or, against all odds, clears his name, unlikely as it may seem, it matters not in as far as the impact of the test goes. When one of the top fighters in the sport’s history fails a drug test, everyone pays attention. Rest assured that every drug cheat is having second thoughts right now, knowing that the focus will be on them more than ever before regardless of the outcome of Silva’s case. Rest assured that those on the fence about trying to get a leg up in a biological arms race may now choose the better path — and as far as the sport is concerned, that’s a good thing. Changing the culture of the sport will likely need to be forced, just as it was in cycling, just as it was in Major League Baseball. The athletes themselves are too invested in the sport; winning, at all costs, is all too often a necessity. Dragging them kicking and screaming towards a better world will likely be the only course of action.

And there will be other casualties along the way.

That is, perhaps, the worst part of it. These will be far from the last performance enhancing drug failures the MMA world will have to deal with. There will be another champion, former champion, top contender, etc. who tests positive. The march to a clean sport won’t be an easy one. At some point, however, fighters will come to realize that the advantage gained by PEDs is a short-term one, and every single abuser of them is sitting on a ticking time-bomb, waiting for the eventual destruction of the career he or she has worked to hard to build.

Still, this isn’t a new issue. It has been here all along, lurking just beneath the surface. We’re just now starting to get serious about addressing it, and it took the biggest name of all to finally open people’s eyes. And as much as the word “unfortunately” would look good next to that statement, the truth is, perhaps a positive test from one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport was the most fortunate turn of events ever; maybe it will spur not just angry talk among fans, and hesitance among fighters now worried after seeing even the best of the best caught, but actual, long-term change.

In the meantime — say it ain’t so, Silva. Say it ain’t so.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.