USADA proving to be biggest player in MMA’s GOAT discussion

Jan 31, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Anderson Silva (red gloves) reacts after defeating Nick Diaz (not pictured) following their middleweight bout during UFC 183 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports MMA
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With the exception of professional hockey, every modern-day sport has, at one point or another, entertained the idea of crowning one athlete as the greatest of all time in its respective history. The NBA has Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James. The NFL has Tom Brady vs. Joe Montana. MLB has Willie Mays vs. Barry Bonds. Boxing has Sugar Ray Robinson vs. Muhammad Ali.

MMA is no exception, long welcoming arguments from all sides to further determine the sport’s greatest fighter of all time. At time of publication, there are no names more prevalent in the discussion than the following: Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Fedor Emelianenko, Jon Jones, and the most recent addition, Demetrious Johnson.

Though there were a number of opportunities at hand for one fighter to thin out the GOAT discussion (re: Silva-St-Pierre, Jones-Silva), none of those superfights ever materialized. The sport’s most avid fanatics were then forced to establish a hierarchy based on resumes and resumes alone.

Or so we thought.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency — the UFC’s official partner in drug screening since 2015 — has been as impactful in clearing out the GOAT options as any superfight ever could. That has become increasingly true in the latter half of 2017, when two on that list of five — and arguably Nos. 1 and 2 — have been flagged for potential doping violations during drug screenings both in competitions and beyond them.

Silva, the former middleweight champion who made brief cameos at 205 pounds as well, is the latest legend whose aura was pierced by a potential doping violation… again. Scheduled to face Kelvin Gastelum in Shanghai at UFC Fight Night 122 later this month, Silva will now be forced to prepare arguments in defense of his honor as a clean fighter.

Unfortunately, Silva’s possible positive test doesn’t come as a major shock. Not after seeing the sheer number of potential violations across the UFC roll in by the handful, and especially not after Silva tested positive for anabolic steroids just 2.5 years ago. “The Spider” failed to make a convincing argument to prove his innocence in 2015, claiming some of the banned substances found in his body stemmed from an off-brand male-enhancement supplement. He was forced to the sidelines for one year.

That didn’t seem to deter many from growing excited when his return to the Octagon neared in February of 2016. Despite a clear violation of the rules, Silva returned to the UFC as a man celebrated — both by the promotion and its fans. But if we’re to accept the “fool me once” narrative, one can assume a second return from a doping violation won’t come with as many streamers as the first. That’s assuming, however, that Silva returns to MMA after a suspension that could stretch as long as four years. The Brazilian legend would be 46 in that plausible scenario, reducing whatever chances the fighter has to sustain success at 42.

But, as noted, Silva isn’t alone in this boat of GOAT castoffs.

Jon Jones, a former two-time UFC light heavyweight champion and the clear front-runner as the No. 1 fighter of all time in the eyes of many, also took another hit in 2017.

His most recent bout, a rematch against longtime rival Daniel Cormier in July of 2017, marked Jones’ first fight in well over a year. He was forced to watch from the bleachers after he was suspended for 12 months for a violation of the USADA anti-doping policy in July of 2016. Jones, coincidentally, also argued his failure resulted from an improperly labeled male-enhancement supplement. That, again, didn’t have much of a negative impact on his popularity as a fighter. Headlining what will likely stand to be the second-biggest pay-per-view event of the calendar year at UFC 214 in July, Jones defeated Cormier to win back the 205-pound crown.

A few short weeks after Bruce Buffer’s “AND NEW!” echoed through the T-Mobile Arena, Jones once again tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He’s done nothing but claim his innocence since. Much younger than Silva at 30, Jones has already stated he would likely return to MMA no matter the length of a potential ban.

This inevitably goes beyond the four drug tests, extending all the way to the validity of Silva’s and Jones’ legacies, and their places in the all-time discussion. Though they tested clean for a majority of their time as the greatest fighters in the sport, a majority of their success came before USADA came into play in mid-2015.

Whether Silva and Jones were fighting dirty but testing clean, or fighting clean altogether, is a truth we’ll never know. But mysteries of this nature may ultimately prevent either one from attaining GOAT supremacy.

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