Even in the well-traveled territory of Western sports’ anti-PED crusade, veteran mixed martial arts heavyweight Mark Hunt has uncovered new territory. Last week, he filed a civil suit against the UFC, Dana White, and fellow fighter Brock Lesnar, who bested Hunt at UFC 200 in July before it was revealed that Lesnar failed two drug tests — one two weeks before the fight and one on fight night.
Hunt’s lawsuit, in addition to seeking monetary damages, questions the legitimacy of the sport. It accuses UFC leadership, through White, of establishing an uneven playing field by bending the league’s antidoping rules — which usually require fighters to undergo random drug tests for four months when they come out of retirement — to allow Lesnar to compete.
Most of the anti-PED hysteria in modern sports is a moral panic — legitimate concerns about the health of athletes or the fairness of sports get overstated and blown up into a weapon to be used selectively against athletes we just don’t like very much. Barry Bonds gets tarred, but Willie Mays doesn’t, for example. Hunt’s lawsuit is different, not only because of circumstances specific to Lesnar and UFC, but because it cuts through the baggage of PED controversy and questions the legitimacy of the sport.
On one side of the sports continuum lies professional wrestling, which is completely scripted to the point that it can’t really be called a sport at all, because entertaining and athletic though it may be, it’s not fair competition. On the other is spec auto racing, in which drivers race identical cars around the same track at the same time, which is extremely fair but extremely boring. All other competitions seek to find a balance in order to blend fairness and entertainment.
Athletes and teams attempt to find an advantage by improving their equipment, their in-game tactics, and their own bodies — the combination of which generates the differences that make each athlete and team unique. Set in opposition to one another, those differences reveal stories on their own: DiMaggio vs. Williams, Ali vs. Foreman, Mourinho vs. Guardiola. While the pro wrestling universe is created and managed by an interventionist god, sports are more deist, as storylines reveal themselves naturally over the course of competition. Because those stories are unpredictable, they often match any scripted fiction for drama. It’s really an incredible process, when you think about it.
In order to maintain that level of drama, however, the fans have to believe that the competition is real, legitimate. In political theory, legitimacy is the right of the government to exercise power (in other words, to govern), and liberal political philosophers from John Locke to John Rawls have grappled with the question of what grants a government legitimacy. Locke’s big breakthrough idea was that the legitimacy of the government comes from the consent of the governed. In other words, a government is legitimate as long as its constituents say it is.
In the same vein, sports don’t actually have to be fair in order to retain the mystery that differentiates them from scripted fiction; they just have get close enough that the viewing public collectively concludes that they look fair. That’s why things that kill the game’s entertainment value, like pace of the neutral-zone trap in hockey or the four-corners offense in pre-shot-clock basketball, are annoyances, not existential threats, and eventually get solved. The real existential threats, things like gambling in early 20th-century baseball, are forces external to the game that undermine the game’s legitimacy.
That’s where Hunt’s lawsuit comes in. Not only does he take aim at Lesnar — who would under normal circumstances be branded a cheater, sent back to WWE, and forgotten — he also calls to account the sport’s governing body.
As PED scandals go, the Hunt-Lesnar fight was a unique circumstance for several reasons. First, the UFC is an up-and-coming sport that lacks not only the history and tradition but the byzantine bureaucracy of an established league. Dana White holds more power — and certainly held more power at the time of UFC 200, which took place two days before the circuit was sold to WME-IMG for $4 billion — than his executive counterparts at the NFL, IOC, FIFA, or any other league or governing organization. That increases the stakes for White personally to make the league succeed, and so it is governed by his iron fist and capricious machismo.
Consider also the turbulent circumstances of UFC 200, when the scheduled headliner, a Conor McGregor–Nate Diaz rematch, fell apart when McGregor was dropped from the bout. Then the replacement headliner, a bout between light heavyweights Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, was called off when Jones himself failed a drug test. That left a milestone event with Lesnar and Hunt as one of the key fights. Losing Lesnar off the card at that point would have been humiliating for White and the UFC.
Then there’s Lesnar himself, who stands like the Colossus of Rhodes athwart the line between sports and sports entertainment. A national champion wrestler in college, Lesnar started out in WWE, then spent a training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, then went back to pro wrestling in 2005 before leaving the sport again in 2007 for mixed martial arts, where he eventually became the UFC’s heavyweight champion and headlined five UFC pay-per-view specials. Lesnar then returned to pro wrestling a third time in 2012, and his appearance at UFC 200 was supposed to be a one-off bout, with nothing at stake against Hunt but pride and money.
Lots of money. In addition to being an MMA champion in his own right, Lesnar has tremendous crossover appeal because of his WWE experience. But Lesnar has also floated between real sports — whose survival depends on the legitimacy of competition — and the scripted fiction of WWE, changing from one world to the other in a way few athletes ever have. That’s a problem. WWE tests for PEDs, but a 30-day suspension under the company’s “wellness program” is a parking ticket compared with the one-year suspension Lesnar is currently serving. If Lesnar needs steroids to bulk up and look good at WrestleMania, it doesn’t undermine a scripted television drama. But if he uses steroids to gain an advantage over Hunt, and does so with the league’s complicity, that means that the UFC is not the organic, deist entertainment product it purports to be.
This is a much bigger problem in individual sports than in team sports. If the setup man for the World Series champion tests positive for elephant Viagra, well, he’s just one of 25 guys. And how much does being strong help you with baseball, anyway? Bonds showed up in the Mitchell Report, but so did Nook Logan. Steroids can make you better at baseball, but there’s a lot more to the story.
Contrast that to cycling or MMA. There’s technique and strategy to both of those sports — put Lesnar on bread and water for a month and he’d still beat the devil out of any Brad at the local gym who has andro with every meal but skips leg day — but there’s a much more direct benefit to adding strength, speed, and endurance. And there’s no wiggle room — if Lesnar’s on the juice and Hunt isn’t, there’s only one person who benefits, and one person to blame.
The weird thing is that if sports were just entertainment for their own sake, this wouldn’t matter that much. Think back to the 1990s. The McGwire-Sosa home run chase continued to captivate the sports world even after a reporter found androstenedione in McGwire’s locker — in fact, he was criticized for even reporting it. In the eyes of most fans and media, the home run chase was legitimate because we enjoyed it so much at the time. That’s because legitimacy is about perception — it doesn’t matter if the playing field is actually level so long as most of us agree that it looks level.
There’s even a built-in tolerance for a little bit of crookedness. Every partisan fan is, to some degree, convinced that the refs or the league are out to screw his or her team specifically, for some unknown reason. It allows the fan to relish victory won at impossible odds against a perfidious enemy, or to excuse defeat as predetermined. Victory is only a little bit sweeter than a victim complex.
(I’m guilty of this, too. I’m a fairly level-headed, even cynical sports fan. But despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I believe with my entire heart that the NHL rigged the 2005 draft lottery so that Sidney Crosby would revitalize the then-moribund Pittsburgh Penguins. The outrage only makes me love hockey more.)
The reason we can’t have this sort of pseudo-legitimacy in sports — along with so many other things — is capitalism. After all, Hunt’s lawsuit isn’t about the result of the fight, which has already been vacated; it’s about money, or as Hunt put it to ESPN, “It’s hurt the business, so it’s even worse.”
There’s prize money. There’s sponsorship money — for example, Nike investing tens of millions of dollars in the idea that Lance Armstrong was a secular saint and not a cheater and a bullying shithead. And there’s gambling money. These forces made the UFC a $4 billion company, and they demand legitimacy, or else they’ll take their money to a sport that doesn’t look like it’s passing off a rigged contest as fair.
When athletes win championships and set records thanks in part to PEDs, one word gets tossed around liberally. That word takes on a more sinister tone when Hunt aims it at the governing body of the sport.