So Cro Cop was suspended by USADA when he became the first fighter to violate the UFC’s anti-doping policy in 2015. So he went right ahead and fought for Rizin FF anyway, essentially ignoring the two-year ban that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) didn’t have the authority to enforce over in Japan. So Bellator signed him to debut against Roy Nelson at Bellator 200 in May. So what?
“Look, Mirko fights in RIZIN in Japan, and USADA has a relationship with the UFC, and they’re in Japan all the time,” Coker told Jim Edwards of MMANYTT.com. “Why didn’t they go after him two years ago when he started fighting for RIZIN? Why is this a question? This pops up because he’s fighting for Bellator at our 200th event? … When we booked him, we didn’t even know there were going to be any issues. He’s already fighting, so we thought he was going to be able to fight.”
These are fair questions, and they deserve answers. Here, let me see if I can explain it, one issue at a time.
Why didn’t they go after him two years ago when he started fighting for Rizin?
The first thing we need to know is who is the “they” here? Because if it’s the UFC and USADA, the answer is simple: because there was nothing they could do. The UFC released Cro Cop after his suspension, which ended its contractual authority over him. And USADA may have pull with various athletic commissions in the U.S., but it has no power to tell anyone in Japan what to do, and neither does the UFC.
But maybe the “they” isn’t them – maybe it’s us, the MMA media and, to a lesser extent, fans. Why didn’t we take issue with Cro Cop ignoring his USADA suspension to fight in Rizin FF?
The answer there is also pretty simple: because we didn’t expect anything else from that promotion.
Rizin FF is where Gabi Garcia can fight a senior citizen she outweighs by 50 pounds, and we don’t even bat an eye. It’s where we expect every weigh-in to include a person in a giant Cup O’ Noodles costume and at least a little bit of elaborate cosplay. It’s where we don’t even bother asking about drug tests, or about what medical authority clears people to fight three times in three days. In other words, it’s a whole different deal over there, and we all know it.
That’s why, when Cro Cop resurfaced there in 2016 looking like the “after” picture in an ad for P90X, we weren’t terribly surprised.
Sure, this was the same guy who, less than a year earlier, had declared his “martial times” officially over, due to injuries. But seasoned observers could do the math on the muscles and the recent doping admission and the fact that he was now back in Japan in a tournament that included a 400-pound sumo wrestler and we knew pretty much what to make of it.
Why is this a question? This pops up because he’s fighting for Bellator at our 200th event?
It has nothing to do with the 200th event (though congrats on that milestone), and everything to do with what we expect of Bellator. Take it as a compliment.
If Cro Cop were fighting in London for some local promotion, we wouldn’t think much of it. We’d regard it as another stop in his post-UFC exile tour, where he competes only in places where there’s no official authority to ask him about that suspension he never served.
But Bellator is different. It’s one of the few major fight promotions that really matter in this sport. It’s also one that typically doesn’t shy away from oversight and regulation, which is why Bellator hires the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation to work its overseas events like this one. That’s where the tricky part comes in, though.
Most state athletic commissions follow USADA’s suspensions. That’s why the California State Athletic Commission recently held a hearing on former UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones’ failed drug test prior to UFC 214, even though it was only USADA’s tests and not the CSAC’s that detected the presence of steroids.
If Jones gets suspended by USADA and then successfully petitions for his release from the UFC, he will almost certainly not be welcome to fight for Bellator in Nevada the following weekend. The Nevada commission wouldn’t allow it, because commissions typically uphold USADA suspensions.
When we booked him we didn’t even know there were going to be any issues. He’s already fighting, so we thought he was going to be able to fight.
Let’s stick with this logic and see where it goes. Let’s also return to the Jones hypothetical.
Say Jones really does get a four-year USADA suspension, and then really does get his release from the UFC. (Both are unlikely, but not impossible scenarios.) Rizin FF would probably love to have Jones over there on New Year’s Eve, clocking sumo wrestlers and headkicking puffed up bodybuilders.
So OK, now Jones is fighting again, albeit in Japan. Does that mean he’s cleared to fight everywhere? Nope. Basically every state athletic commission would likely honor his USADA suspension. Just because he can get a fight somewhere on the planet, that does not mean he’s suddenly free and clear.
Cro Cop seems to be getting away with it in part because enough time has passed that the heat has all died down. It’s been more than two years since he was hit with a two-year suspension, after all. It’s just that he kept fighting and getting paid during the suspension, so there is a legitimate question about whether or not he suffered any real consequences for using human growth hormone while preparing for a fight.
This brings us to the bigger question: If Bellator doesn’t care about USADA suspensions, and if it sometimes operates in places where regulation isn’t quite as strict, does Bellator start to look like a sweet deal for dopers busted in the UFC? Is it the new game plan for anyone on the business end of a USADA suspension to push for a UFC release, fight at least once in some unregulated part of the world, then turn right around and sign with Bellator?
Because if that’s how it works, then Bellator essentially becomes the primary beneficiary of the UFC’s stringent anti-doping program. It gets rewarded for having a weaker stance on performance-enhancing drugs. It also helps make it possible for fighters to avoid any actual punishment for cheating.
Maybe a lot of fans wouldn’t care if it did work that way. Maybe they’d reason that the drugs would lead to better fights, fewer injuries, and longer careers.
But it is the rare instance where you’d have to feel sorry for the UFC, because if we don’t care about drugs, then we should at least not care about them everywhere.
The UFC instituted an anti-doping program not because it really, really wanted to, but largely because of public pressure. It’s not that steroids are immoral; it’s that if you get to use them and your opponent doesn’t, it’s unfair.
The UFC, in an effort to look more like a legitimate sport (and to get fans and media off its back), coughed up the money to put the USADA program in place. It’s been a headache, and it may end up knocking some of the company’s biggest stars out of commission, but it probably also made it harder to cheat your way to victory over an honest opponent in the UFC, so that’s a good thing.
Bellator’s largely gotten a pass on these same issues. We haven’t expected the No. 2 promotion in MMA to spend money, time and resources all just to make things harder on itself.
Maybe that’s why Bellator is now apparently surprised to find that we hold it to a higher standard than an unregulated Japanese fight promotion. If it wants to compete on the same level with the UFC, though, maybe this shouldn’t be such a shock.
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