The use of performance-enhancing drugs has become a hot-button topic in MMA. Leading U.K. promotion Cage Warriors Fighting Championship will stage its inaugural 125-pound women’s tournament final this Fall and the bout may be overseen by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA).
The CWFC final pits veteran British standout Rosi “The Surgeon” Sexton against rising star Sheila “The German Tank” Gaff. Sexton recently spoke at length with MMARising.com about the use of VADA testing, which comes with a hefty price tag, and her possible retirement at the end of 2012.
While the issue of steroid and PED use has been predominantly confined MMA’s men’s divisions, female mixed martial artists have occasionally faced fines and suspensions for failing pre- or post-fight drug tests. Despite a limited testing regimen among female fighters – many of whom compete for small promotions or in states which do not test for PEDs – Carina Damm (steroids in 2008) and Jessica Rakoczy (painkillers in 2010) are two names on a short list of female fighters who have tested positive for banned substances. Most recently, Strikeforce champ Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos was fined and suspended after testing positive for a stanozolol metabolite in December.
With that in mind and with arguably the biggest fight of her ten-year career looming on the horizon, Sexton (13-2-0) wishes to ensure that she and Gaff (10-4-1), a powerful striker who is renowned for her knockout power, are competing on a level playing field. The fighters are expected to face off in the CWFC tournament final in October, where the promotion’s first 125-pound women’s champion will be crowned. The historic fight may also be Sexton’s last as a professional mixed martial artist; a key factor in her decision to push for the use of VADA testing.
Complete lists of the policies and procedures employed by VADA are available on the organisation’s website. Testing for mixed martial artists typically runs for eight weeks prior to a fight and utilises both blood and urine tests to check for the presence of anabolic agents, growth hormones, diuretics, stimulants, narcotics, cannabinoids and other banned substances. Athletes must first be accepted to the VADA program and must follow VADA protocols at all times during the testing period.
Sexton spoke with MMARising.com regarding the issue of PEDs in MMA this past week.
“I’ve spoken before on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in MMA. Looking at the female side of the sport, specifically, I believe that with the growth of the sport and the increased opportunities for women to compete at the top level, the issue of steroids [among women] is increasingly becoming a problem. My opinion is that Cyborg’s positive test is the tip of a much larger iceberg.
“There are risks inherent in any combat sport,” she adds. “We all know that when we step in the cage, there’s a chance that we might be seriously injured. This is something that we accept as part of what we do. When one person is using steroids or other drugs to improve their performance, however, it increases those risks dramatically. To me, that’s something that’s not acceptable; that’s not a risk that any of us should have to take. At the moment, because of the limited testing that does take place in MMA, there’s a sense that ‘everybody’s doing it.’ Sometimes fighters who suspect their opponents are using PEDs feel they have to take them, too, just to get a level playing field.
“I think, in the minds of many people, we’re all under a degree of suspicion,” Sexton continues. “I have never used any form of PEDs, but I don’t expect anyone to take my word for that. Especially not my opponents. I want there to be testing in place that is rigorous enough to put it beyond reasonable doubt in anyone’s mind.”
As the debate continues regarding the effectiveness of testing methods used by athletic commissions such as the NSAC in Nevada and CSAC in California, attention has turned to independent testing bodies that offer an alternative for competitors who wish to ensure that their opponents are not using PEDs that could potentially provide an unfair advantage.
“This is where VADA come in,” Sexton says. “It’s an organisation that’s dedicated to providing effective anti-doping tests and procedures for MMA and boxing. They work together with the world anti-doping agency and the national organisations to provide full random testing that is the gold standard for Olympic athletes in other sports. For eight weeks before the fight, fighters let the VADA know of their whereabouts. The tests are unannounced and carried out on the spot, including both urine and blood samples. This kind of testing is a world away from a single urine test after a fight.
“The fight is a big one for me; perhaps the biggest of my career,” Sexton adds. “I’m planning to retire soon, and it’s possible that this may also be my last [fight]. It’s for the Cage Warriors world title and I believe it will also determine the #1 female flyweight in the world. Sheila is a great fighter, and she has a wonderfully aggressive style, and people have already been making comparisons to Cyborg. I think this testing works to everyone’s benefit. It means that whatever happens in this fight, there won’t be any question marks left hanging over it. We’ll know that whoever wins that #1 spot did it cleanly.”
Sexton is pleased that the idea of VADA testing has been well-received by the other parties involved, including by Gaff’s team and Cage Warriors management.
“Cage Warriors has been very helpful,” she says. “[Director] Graham [Boylan] explained to me that, as much as he would like to, they’re not in a position to introduce this kind of testing across the board for everyone at this point in time, and that it wouldn’t be fair to treat this one fight differently, so it wasn’t something that the promotion could arrange [directly]. I respect that. Graham is a complete professional and insists on making sure that all the fighters are treated equally.
“Graham also said that if we wanted to organise it ourselves, then he was happy to support that. He’s liaised with Sheila’s camp and received their agreement to go ahead. To their credit, Sheila’s camp has agreed to everything and have said that they have absolutely no problem with any kind of testing.”
While VADA testing is planned for the tournament final, one primary obstacle remains before an official agreement can be reached. That obstacle is the cost of the eight-week testing, which is expected to total in the neighbourhood of $3000 per fighter. Obtaining sponsorships to offset costs will be key, Sexton says, but she believes that it will be worth it.
“The only real obstacle left to overcome is the cost. That’s money that we’re going to have to raise for this to go ahead. We’re looking into sponsorships to cover the cost of the testing. I think this fight will attract a lot of attention, and it’s a great opportunity for any companies that want to show their support for drug-free athletes and to help to make our sport safer and more legitimate. I’d like to think that this will set a precedent that other fighters will follow, and hopefully be something that will one day become standard practice.”
The Cage Warriors 125-pound women’s tournament final between Sexton and Gaff is tentatively targeted for mid-October. An agreement with VADA must be reached at least eight weeks prior to the fight in order to ensure that testing can be fully incorporated. Sexton hopes that the necessary sponsor support can be obtained well in advance to put the plan in place.