Sonnen doping suspension halved

Fri, 03 Dec 08:30:00 2010

After nearly three hours of at-times contentious debate, the California State Athletic Commission have voted to reduce Chael Sonnen’s suspension for doping.

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Sonnen tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone following his middleweight championship fight on August 7 in Oakland against Anderson Silva.

A number of questions, regarding disclosure, credibility and fairness of punishment came during the hearing before commissioners voted 3-1 to reduce Sonnen’s suspension from a year to six months. His $2,500 fine was upheld. Sonnen will be eligible to fight again in March.

The six-month suspension came about after a proposal to retain the one-year suspension deadlocked, 2-2. Commissioners DeWayne Zinkin and Dr. Van Lemon spoke in favour of retaining the one year-suspension, but were unable to get the needed third vote. Commissioner John Frierson then recommended cutting the sentence in half, to six months, as a compromise. Lemon seemed to go along grudgingly, as did Zinkin, giving the motion the needed three votes.

Another commissioner, Steve Alexander, seemed more sympathetic to Sonnen’s side and did not concur with the majority. A fifth commissioner, Eugene Hernandez, was present for most of the hearing but left shortly before the vote in order to catch a flight.

Sonnen, a heavy underdog, going against Silva, considered by many at the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, dominated the middleweight champion for four straight rounds. But victory in one of the most dramatic matches in UFC history was snatched from him as he fell victim to a triangle choke and armbar with less than two minutes left in the fight.

The complicated case came down to Sonnen, his lawyers, and Dr. Mark Czarnecki, who diagnosed him with a condition called hypergonadism on January 11, 2008, and prescribed him twice-weekly testosterone shots. Sonnen said he was diagnosed with this condition because he was having conditioning issues while training.

“He complained of extreme fatigue, extreme exhaustion and mental fogginess,” testified Czarnecki, who said Sonne’s condition was caused by a low production of testosterone. “We did tests to determine if there was pituitary involvement or a gonad deficiency. A second test showed Sonnen’s pituitary gland functioning normally, therefore he had a gonadal deficiency. … Testosterone is a common treatment for this condition.”

Czarnecki claimed it would not be healthy for Sonnen to compete in a sport that puts such intense stress on the body without such therapy. He said it was in the interest of Sonnen’s safety that he needed this treatment, which Sonnen said consisted of self-administered shots of testosterone every Monday and Thursday.

“Chael’s body would not tolerate the extreme stress associated with such a sport with the amount of trauma to the body,” said Czarnecki. “His healing would be deteriorated. His blood level would decrease He would not have adequate oxygenation. If he broke a bone it wouldn’t heal quickly. I wouldn’t authorize him to fight. It would not be safe.”

However, Czarnecki’s credibility was immediately called into question when asked if there were any drugs that could cause this condition and he said he wasn’t aware of them. Commissioner Lemon noted that use of steroids can result in tests showing a deficiency in testosterone.

There have also been claims that years of extreme weight cutting could possibly cause a similar condition. Sonnen, 33, had been competing in wrestling at a high level since childhood, and MMA since college, both sports in which significant weight cutting is part of the culture.

“At best this case is about Mr. Sonnen’s failure to alert officials to his long-term use of an injectable testosterone, at worst it is about his attempt to use a performance enhancing drug,” said Alfredo Terrazas, the senior assistant attorney general for licensing and litigation in California, who presented the case against Sonnen.

Terrazas went on to state that while Sonnen did reveal to the commission the day before the fight that he had used testosterone, he failed to disclose the info on his pre-fight medical questionnaire or the reasons for his usage. On Sonnen’s disclosure form, he listed Advil, multivitamins, vitamin C, iron and aspirin, but not testosterone.

“At no time did he inform anyone from the commission this drug use was part of a treatment, nor did the commissioner feel he had the authority to prevent the fight from going forward without a drug test.”

It has not been uncommon for athletes, particularly in non-drug tested sports, to get testosterone legally prescribed by doctors by rigging the timing of taking blood tests right after ending a steroid cycle. This would show evidence of low natural testosterone production.

Sonnen tested positive for testosterone at a 16.9-to-1 testosterone to epitestosterone ratio. Normal levels are 1-to-1, and allowable levels in most sports, including by the CSAC, is 4-to-1. Sonnen claimed he had a spiked ratio because he took a shot the day before he was tested. The commission has approved testosterone therapy, but only to get levels back to normal levels, not increased levels that would provide for enhanced performance.

In cases of this type that have been approved, it has been because the athlete informed the commission well ahead of time, allowing the commission, the commission’s medical advisers and the fighter’s doctor to go through records and examine the case, which didn’t happen in this case.

Sonnen’s team produced eight tests showing levels at lower than average to average levels, not levels that would indicate performance enhancement qualities. But those tests were not taken at the time of the Silva fight.

Dr. Gary Furness of the commission noted that he twice asked Sonnen if he was taking any other drugs, and both times Sonnen said that he wasn’t.

Sonnen claimed he didn’t list testosterone on the form because other fighters were around as he was filling out the form and felt it would cause him embarrassment, but noted that he did personally tell George Dodd, the executive officer of the commission, later in a private conversation.

The Oregon-based fighter also claimed he thought the condition had already been addressed in California when he fought Yushin Okami on October 24, 2009, in Los Angeles, citing a phone call from the commission to his manager, Matt Lindland, saying everything was OK.

He also claimed he believed Dr. Jeff Davidson, who he said he had been talking with about his condition, was a California State Athletic Commission doctor, so the commission was also aware from that angle.

Davidson is actually affiliated with the UFC. Marc Ratner, UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs said Davidson was formerly a doctor with the Nevada commission and is now an independent contractor who at times works with the company.

However, Dodd testified that they searched and could find no records or paperwork related to the claim of the commission’s awareness of Sonnen’s condition from the 2009 fight.

Dodd said Sonnen did mention it to him, but gave no reason as to why he would be taking the drug. Dodd said he didn’t have the authority to call off the fight, even though Sonnen admitted using a banned steroid without commission approval, without evidence from a positive test result, based on commission bylaws.

During the time frame Sonnen says he has been taking twice-per-week testosterone shots, he has fought seven times. But the Silva fight was the first during that period during which he tested positive. He fought three times in Nevada, twice in California, once in the U.K. (where UFC’s Ratner oversees testing), and once in Florida. Based on his position on the respective cards, he should have been tested on at least five occasions.

Sonnen claimed he had discussed this situation with Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, so it wasn’t an issue in that state, but Kizer told reporter Josh Gross in an email that such a conversation never happened.

Sonnen had been scheduled for a title rematch with Silva at the time his test came back positive. UFC president Dana White did not immediately respond to a message asking about where Sonnen’s title aspirations would stand now that he sentence was reduced. Silva is scheduled to face Vitor Belfort, Sonnen’s replacement, on Feb. 6 in Las Vegas. Yushin Okami, who Sonnen defeated last year, is scheduled to receive a shot at the winner.

White apparently had awareness of Sonnen’s condition, as there was evidence introduced showing a handwritten letter from White to Davidson, who sometimes works with the promotion and with whom Sonnen said he had discussed his condition, dated July 5, 2010, wanting to make sure to get the applicable data regarding Sonnen as quickly as possible because of his upcoming fight.

Earlier in the afternoon, Josh Barnett, who had tested positive for steroids in an attempt to renew his license in the summer of 2009, appeared before the commission to apply for a new license since more than a year had passed since his positive test.

Barnett, who recently signed with Strikeforce after serving out the past year doing pro wrestling in Japan, ended up having the issue tabled until the next meeting after the commission wanted evidence of rehabilitation. When noted probing questions would be asked of him, and they recommended he have counsel with him, Barnett agreed to wait until having a lawyer with him.

“I did not take anabolic steroids,” said Barnett at the hearing, which led to the commissioners responding that he would be heavily examined and they would recommend he have a lawyer present.

The positive test was the third of Barnett’s career, which forced cancellation of his scheduled fight with Fedor Emelianenko, and resulted in Affliction scrapping its show and folding its promotion days later.

Barnett, who left the hearing shaking his head, had tested positive twice in Nevada, both in 2001 and 2002, including after beating Randy Couture to win the UFC heavyweight championship, for which he was stripped of the title.

“I was asked to come here, to provide a sample, I do feel slightly unprepared,” said Barnett, when it became clear his getting licensed wouldn’t be a rubber-stamp affair. “I didn’t bring any counsel. I didn’t come here to appeal. I just came here as an individual.”

“The burden is on you of clear and convincing evidence,” Anita Scuri of the commission told Barnett.

Dave Meltzer / Yahoo

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