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LAS VEGAS — In many ways, despite a stellar record and two stints as the UFC’s bantamweight champion, Jan. 19, 2019, stood to be the pinnacle of T.J. Dillashaw’s mixed martial arts career.
It was on that night in the Barclay’s Center that Dillashaw would attempt to complete a rare double: He was trying to become just the fifth double champion in UFC history, but the first to do it by winning the heavier title first and then cutting weight to go for the lighter title.
Dillashaw entered that bout against Henry Cejudo as the bantamweight champion. He was challenging for Cejudo’s flyweight belt. A win would have turned him into one of the biggest stars in the sport.
“I was chasing a dream, and paydays and wanting to be the biggest next best thing since sliced bread, you know?” Dillashaw said.
The dream ended in 32 seconds, when he was knocked out by Cejudo, but it might well have ended weeks earlier when Dillashaw opted to take a banned substance to make himself feel better and to make it easier to make the weight.
Dillashaw took Procrit, a prescription medication that is used to treat anemia. It contains the banned substance EPO, which is the drug that cyclist Lance Armstrong was using.
Dillashaw was feeling horrible in training camp, trying to work his way down to 125 pounds for the fight with Cejudo, an Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler.
His hematocrit — which is the percentage of red blood cells in one’s blood — was in the low 30s. According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal hematocrit level for men is between 38.3 percent and 48.6 percent. Elite athletes range on the upper level of that scale.
Dillashaw was well below, at 32 percent.
“If you wake up in the morning and your hematocrit’s in the 30s, I want you to tell me how you’d feel,” Dillashaw said. “I was supposed to fight for a world title and I was supposed to make weight.”
And so he succumbed. Someone offered him hematocrit as a way to help him. By that point, UFC fighters had been in a 24/7/365 anti-doping program for four years and knew well what substances were banned.
Dillashaw admits he took the substance knowing it was banned.
“I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it as I’ve said in my videos, but I decided to make that choice and I decided to gamble,” Dillashaw said. “I was chasing something that wasn’t reachable. My body didn’t want me to do it. I was at 4 percent body fat and I was crashing.”
The use of PEDs in MMA is insidious because it’s not like in baseball where home run records may fall, or in golf, where drives pick up 40 or 50 extra yards. When the body is aided artificially to go beyond its normal capabilities, it creates the very real risk of significant harm to the opponent.
Dillashaw, like all PED abusers, will have to live with the knowledge that he made a choice that quite literally could have had fatal consequences.
Once he made the decision to cheat, he also was confronted with a new concern.
“It was scary, because I’d wake up and wonder, ‘Oh, wow, is USADA going to show up today and test me?’” he said. “It was a nerve-racking thing. I think I lost years off my life just for that. I wanted to chase this … To be honest, it was a big payday. It was a big fight. It was a big opportunity. I wanted to take the opportunity.”
Dillashaw repeatedly said he was wrong for making the choice he made. He was caught and received a two-year suspension from USADA for the violation.
The irony is that he cheated to chase a dream and, hopefully, make a big payday. But virtually all of his sponsors abandoned him and a UFC source said Dillashaw lost at least a million dollars, perhaps much more, in fight purses he missed.
He’ll have to live with the shame that comes with being a PED abuser. All of his future accomplishments, fair or not, will be viewed skeptically because of the choice he made to cheat.
But if you want to boo him, have at it. Dillashaw was blunt: He has been through so much, he’s numb to what people think of him at this point.
“I’ve never been the good guy, I really haven’t,” Dillashaw said. “I’ve always been the villain. I’ve always been the bad guy. I went too hard at practice. Hard personality to get along with. I’ve never been a super nice, easy guy so I don’t really give a s*** what anyone thinks of me.
“I fight because I want to. I want to be the best in the world. The paydays that come with it are nice, but ultimately, it’s just getting out there and having fun.”
Dillashaw should be tested much more carefully than the average UFC fighter because of what he’s done. But he’s no different than a bank robber who served his full jail sentence. Be aware of the past, but don’t constantly pound him over the head with it going forward as long as he does the right things.
There has long been suspicion around Team Alpha Male and, specifically, Dillashaw, for PED usage. In addition to Dillashaw, Chad Mendes was busted and served a suspension as well. Former teammate Cody Garbrandt yelled long and loud that Dillashaw was doing PEDs prior to him being caught.
So he merits added scrutiny. And if you don’t want to cheer for him, by all means, don’t.
But after fully accepting responsibility — which many cheaters don’t do — and serving his entire sentence, Dillashaw at least deserves the opportunity to compete without constantly being hit over the head with it.
He’s brought all of this on himself. It’s going to be up to him to prove that his previous excellent record was based on hard work and talent and not on having an in with a top-notch chemist.
But until he betrays the trust again, he’s done his sentence and served his time. Other than extra scrutiny, he deserves to be treated no differently than any other fighter.
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