Examining Anderson Silva’s legacy

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For Michael Bisping, the story going into his fight with Anderson Silva was one of legacy. If he could defeat Silva, he would erase (or at least somewhat mitigate) the driving narrative of his career of never winning the big fight. And while yesterday’s fight was a big one in a promotional sense, but there’s something to be said about fans and pundits propping up a win over a diminished, 41-year-old Anderson Silva as Bisping’s career redemption.*

* – Bisping’s win over Silva doesn’t change my opinion of his career, which was that he was a very good UFC fighter for a very long time. 

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Examining Anderson Silva’s legacy

But for many people, yesterday’s fight was also a referendum on Anderson Silva’s legacy. Silva earned a year-long suspension last year after failing a drug test. The integrity of his entire career, to those many people, was under question. That he blamed his test failure on a sexual enhancement pill (infamously, “the blue vial”) only served to further suspicion.

Silva joins an growing club of athletes who’ve had questions raised about their career following evidence of drug use: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and so on.* Some go as far as suggesting their accomplishments be completely wiped from the record books, which is essentially the case for Armstrong. For Silva, you wouldn’t have to ask too many people before finding someone who believes his failed test disqualifies him from “greatest of all-time” talk.

* – It’s worth noting that hockey, basketball, and American football have escaped the PED witch-hunts which have taken place in baseball, cycling, MMA, and the Olympics. It seems that the team nature of the former sports provides some sort of cover for PED use (especially in American football, where there is plenty of documented use). 

This reaction is childish and insinuates that sports are some hallowed institution. Sports have always operated in shades of gray, with its morality ranging from colorful to outright dirty. We can start with the exclusion of non-white athletes at the beginning of the 20th century and move to the East Germans using their Olympic athletes as walking drug trials and then to the well-known steroid use of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and then to fighting in hockey before arriving at the concussion epidemic permeating contact sports today. And that’s just cherry-picking a handful of events to span the last 115+ years.

Of course, that isn’t to suggest that the ills of sports’ past justify or condone today’s PED use. But it is an attempt to frame PED use in the proper context. An athlete consuming a substance to improve his or her performance is hardly the moral bankruptcy it’s often made out to be, and that some view it as a “shortcut” betrays a limited understanding of just how these substances work. PEDs are not items in a video game boosting all your attributes by 10%; rather, they allow an athlete to train harder and longer, to reduce the recovery time of various injuries and ailments. If they are indeed “shortcuts,” it seems odd that users would wind up taking a longer route.

It seems especially sinister to demonize these athletes given the cultures they operated in. Baseball turned a blind eye to steroids when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped the sport recover from the 1994-95 labor stoppage. Thanks to doping, cycling is arguably viewed as a sport more corrupt than boxing. And that leads us to MMA, where not only was testing openly-viewed as an IQ test but where athletes were given PED permission slips from the state. Silva’s UFC run includes victories over at least nine fighters who were known to be taking substances at some point in their careers, legally or otherwise, including: Chris Leben, Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson, James Irvin, Forrest Griffin, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort, Stephan Bonnar, and Nick Diaz. Seven of those nine were found to be using some sort of PED.

If the argument is that “Oh, well of course Silva passed before when the testing wasn’t any good,” then should we not apply this same argument to every athlete who fought in his era? This has been the case in baseball where players like Jeff Bagwell have been kept out of the Hall of Fame on mere suspicion of use. Does Georges St-Pierre get a pass for fighting his entire career (to date) in the pre-USADA era? Is it fair to punish athletes who fought under testing regimens that failed to effectively disincentivize use?

In Anderson Silva, we have a fighter who returned to the cage following a devastating knockout loss and an even-more-devastating injury. He failed a drug test, which may be indicative of a history of use or may simply be circumstantial. But like Bonds and Armstrong, if Silva was using this whole time, he was doing so against a field who were largely, if not unanimously, guilty of the same thing. Or, as Silva might say, “is normal.”

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