A couple of days ago, Cung Le was being framed once again, and this time in a not so flattering light. The 42-year old Le popped positive for human growth hormone (HGH) in his fight with Michael Bisping at UFC Fight Night 48. The fight itself left him swollen, empurpled and spouting leaks. But the aftermath has been worse; Le was suspended by the UFC, who acted as its own regulatory body in Macau, for a year.
He wasn’t fined, but he’s now permanently asterisked. For all the people who saw him flexing before his fight looking like the fantasy art of Boris Vallejo, it wasn’t a shocker. But to Le himself it was.
“I was completely surprised at the results of my recent drug test,” he said in a statement after the results were made public and the suspension was handed down. “I was informed by the UFC that I passed my pre- and post-fight drug test as well as the majority of the blood tests with the only abnormality being an elevated level of hGH being determined to be present. I tested negative for Anabolics, Stimulants, Diuretics, Masking Agents and my Testosterone levels were within World Anti- Doping Agency and Nevada State Athletic Commission approved limits a total of three times over two urine tests and a blood test collected both before and after my fight which is what makes these hGH result so difficult for me to accept as correct.”
Le went on to challenge the “suspect testing procedures,” while assuring fans that he has always been a consummate professional.
Unfortunately, Le follows a long line of offenders who’ve pleaded innocence as to how banned substances showed up in their systems. At some point, it takes a special kind of gullibility to go along with what the red-handed have to day. As Chad Dundas of Bleacher Report tweeted right after, “We can all rest assured that no MMA fighter has ever knowingly ingested PEDs. And if they did, they had a perfectly reasonable explanation.”
It’s true, too. Very few people, other than maybe Sean McCorkle, gleefully go into their freefall into PEDs. (And even McCorkle is mostly kidding).
But what’s sad here isn’t just that Le got caught cheating, it’s that the fight game — for all its instances of glory — more often than not comes to a sad end. Le, who is an action hero in movies, is a prize ring statistic, just another guy whose career is ending with a thud. In fact, very few fighters check out of the game gracefully.
For every Gene Tunney, who retired Jack Dempsey, made a couple of million dollars, and then walked away from the game to pursue a life of bookishness, there’s a leaning tower of Tim Sylvia. There’s Jens Pulver hanging on too long. There’s Chuck Liddell getting chinny, and B.J. Penn having the sad truth beat into him. There’s Krzysztof Soszynski who lost time after Igor Pokrajac, and the great Muhammad Ali, who showed up a tragic shell of himself against Larry Holmes in 1980.
It’s just that nowadays there are more ways to be meet the dour end. There are more traps. For one of MMA’s pioneers, Wanderlei Silva, it was running out a back door to avoid a Nevada Athletic Commission drug test, for which he was given a lifetime ban. For Chael Sonnen, the man who taught people how to sell a fight, it was popping hot for the whole gamut of banned substances right after blasting Silva for running out that back door.
Drug tests, it turns out, are cold and arbitrary towards the game’s greatest icons. And in 2014 those tests — blood, urine, random, planned — are kicking people into the twilight faster than the willingness to comply. It’s a great thing for the sport, even if it’s tainting a few legacies along the way.
The truth is, very few people get out of the cage or ring as gloriously as they entered it.
And for Le, the Sanshou kickboxer who debuted in MMA at 35 years old in 2006, it looks like a similar fate. When he’s eligible to come back he’ll be 43. Who knows what his plan will be, but after what happened in his last fight — before, during and after — all the paths for a graceful exit look blocked.
No, it’s not a shocker. How can it be? The photo of a yoked 42-year old man with veins the size of cables wasn’t going to produce an innocent kind of awe. It was going to arouse suspicion. It wasn’t good lighting, it was interrogation lighting. It was shedding light on a problem.
And because of it, Le is the latest to get gonged off the stage, instead of taking a graceful bow.
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