The place bustled with some of the fittest Indians I had laid eyes on. Men and women, Adonis’ and Xenas, swaggered around wielding their most prized weapon: a ripped body, glistening with sweat, crafted to near perfection. Their eyes betrayed a laser-sharp focus on the task ahead; the competition, the win.
I felt out of place, uncomfortable almost. No, the bodybuilders did not intimidate me; having covered the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) in India for six years, I was no stranger to being around humans that wielded the power to take a life with their bare hands. I had, in a sense, developed a sense of familiarity with the combat community, and by related extension, the bodybuilding circuit in India.
It was, however, this familiarity that seemed to be a hindrance. This situation was appropriate for the meeting I set up, but I’d be lying if the thought did not cross my mind: it could be nothing less than career suicide to reveal what is perhaps the worst kept secret in the sport today.
It took me nearly two months to find someone willing to talk about a subject that is as much a taboo, as it is divisive. Appointments were made, but were canceled or postponed; often for arbitrary reasons.
It took me a few weeks to convince him, but the bodybuilder-turned-MMA fighter agreed to meet me in confidence and answer my queries and address my concerns about the use of steroids, and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the sport today.
The competition arena felt like the proverbial lion’s den; I knew fully well that I was touching upon the ineffable subject at a premier bodybuilding competition. We were quickly and quietly ushered behind the bleachers by our common friend, to ensure we were out of sight. Competitors and staff walked past us without realising the two shadowy figures engaged in conversation. I perched myself on a stool as I waited for him to speak.
“Five more years,” he requested.
“Five more years, and then I’m done. I swear you can reveal my identity then.”
Finally, I was nearing the truth.
“Martial arts began in India and left the country. We are trying to bring them back”
Over the past two and a half decades, the sport of MMA has seen incredible growth and success. Thanks in large part to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and its audacious visionary president, Dana White, the sport continues to climb viewership charts. The biggest professional fighters stand to make up to $5 million a fight, a thousand times more than what a rookie fighter makes.
The popularity of the sport has also earned it a cult-like fan following around the globe. MMA gyms have sprung up in several corners of America and Europe, not only to train fighters with professional ambitions, but to cater to the vast and growing numbers of amateur men and women taking up the sport as a path to fitness and discipline.
In India, too, the sport had a quiet following for the same two decades. It, however, came into the limelight with the Super Fight League (SFL). Launched in 2012 by Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt and businessman Raj Kundra, the league sought to give “a great opportunity for Indian athletes who have great ability”. Dutt believed that “Martial arts began in India and left the country. We are trying to bring them back."
Today the SFL, which features women fighters as well, is under the new management of British-Indian businessman Bill Dosanjh and celebrity Olympian boxer Amir Khan. It boasts of having completed nearly 70 fights nights and featuring nearly 350 fighters. The SFL has also signed a broadcast deal with MTV India to push the sport and the brand to younger audiences.
Experts peg the number of professional fighters in India at about 300, and amateur fighters at about 500. With the new SFL season on the horizon and Indian fighters in training, I was curious to learn about the state of PED use in MMA in India. Professional fighters often train twice a day, six days in a week. There is only so much one can put the body through, before the strain results in injury. PEDs, when correctly administered, help the body in recovering faster.
However, MMA in India has yet to be given recognition by sports governing body, leaving it largely unregulated. Unlike in North America and European countries, where the state athletic commissions oversee MMA events and act as sanctioning bodies, there isn't a system in place in India.
I asked an official from a leading MMA outfit if they had a system in place for testing the athletes.
“Akhilesh, you know the reality. You know it’s way too expensive for us.”
“They have no idea what they are doing!”
Ratna Diptee Shimpi, who serves as an executive member of the Sambo Federation of India (SFI), has painfully watched her teammates fall into the vicious PED cycle. Shimpi has also worked with fighters that have transitioned into MMA. She paints a grim picture - one that explains why the athletes, especially the teenagers, look at PEDs as an attractive proposition, rather than as a last resort to gain a competitive edge.
“The biggest thing is the pressure. Before the fight, fighters are scared about the beating they’re about to take. But if they take steroids, then they are at a completely different level of aggression. The pressure that comes with performing, that’s why they prefer taking steroids or PEDs.”
Shimpi has, for years, helped fighters fight the lure of PEDs. And while fighters are responsible for the decisions they take, she believes the onus to be more responsible with PEDs, falls on the coaches, trainers and physicians. There are pros and cons to steroids, both of which need to be explained to the athletes.
“It does give you an edge [competitively]. But there won’t be any long-term benefits; it’s the contrary. No one is informed about these things [PEDs], and it’s just by word of mouth that, if someone is taking it, then the others go, ‘Yeah, even I want to try it’.
“They have no idea what they’re doing,” Shimpi continues. “Absolutely not. When I went to the Asian Indoor games in 2009, there was someone who was about to inject something. I happened to go to the washroom at the same time. When I opened the door, I saw the syringe in his hand [at the amateur levels, it is common for male and female athletes to use the same dressing rooms]. I asked him what he was doing. He said ‘No. This is for better cleaning, and I get better stamina because of this.’ My reaction was, ‘Stamina for what? You’re doping, and you will be out of the competition. The entire country will be out!’ He responded by saying, ‘No, I’ve done this before at the nationals, and I’ve never been caught!’ I told him to shut up, and I called the coaches, and they told him to stop.”
“There are certain organisations abroad that “allow” you to dope. For instance, when I went to WKN (World Kickboxing Network), they were allowing athletes to dope [editor’s note: Shimpi was referring to the lack of testing at these tournaments], and I wasn’t aware of it then.”
Goldman's dilemma - named after physician, osteopath and publicist Bob Goldman - asked top-level athletes if they would choose a drug that would guarantee them success in a sport, but cause them to die after five years. In the ensuing research, just as in a similar experiment by Gabe Mirkin, where the timeline of death was one year, about half the athletes responded that they would take the drug.
Shimpi empathises. “Honestly speaking, if I did [know about the lack of testing], I would’ve doped as well. It’s unfair.”
It wasn’t the first time I heard someone regret not taking in PEDs to succeed in competition.
Over the course of the six years that I have covered the sport, fighters often lament of how, because of the lack of regulation and testing, fighters playing fair often end up losing their careers to those cheating by using PEDs.
“It’s not only the MMA organisations. Most of the [martial arts] organisations based in India don’t go for dope tests,” says Shimpi. “In fact, our association [SFI] is the first to invite the NADA for our national event. I’ve never heard of any other organisation inviting NADA or any other [anti-doping] agency for national events. This is a problem. The dope tests are a major consideration in the amateur circuit, because for the Asian Games and the Olympic games, under IOC and the Olympic Council of Asia. They do not allow the athletes to go untested.”
I asked Shimpi, what goes through the mind of a fighter who, without a shadow of a doubt, knows the opponent has, ‘done the deed’?
“I once watched my opponent inject herself in the washroom. My coach saw this as well and explained what she was doing. I was in two minds. On one hand, I thought I had lost 10% [of the fight] right there. I thought she would be more aggressive, and I would have to match her aggression. At the same time, I thought ‘maybe she isn’t good enough, and that is why she had to take PEDs’. It was a difficult situation to assess.”
“No matter the level - whether it be state, national or district; the management needs to educate the athletes about the cons of doping. From why it is taken, to why it shouldn’t be. When it comes to international competitions, the athletes know they cannot dope. However, for the district tournaments, everyone dopes. The athletes don’t know what they’re doing, or what they’re taking.
“In fact, even paracetamol is banned. Large amounts of caffeine is banned. Cannabis is a Schedule-1 substance. The athletes don’t even understand what substances are banned because they cannot understand the scientific names. Even for someone like me, who comes from a science background - even I cannot understand what is written.
“Unfortunately, the coaches themselves have no idea about any of these things. The coaches aren’t competent; they have no idea about the training methods either. Even a simple fact as aerobic and anaerobic breathing - the coaches aren’t aware of any of it.”
Given that steroids are administered by, or at least under medical supervision, Shimpi delved into therapeutic use exemptions (TUE), and why the athletes need to smarten up.
“Coming to the TUE’s, the athletes have to take it from an M.D. Not from an M.B.B.S or someone who practices Ayurvedic medicine. On top of that, you require more tests, including an E.C.G, and if that turns out to be okay, then you can provide the medical certificate, stating your illness, and the drug you were prescribed by the doctor.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anyone producing a TUE in India.”
“Do I need to look like that?”
Iain Kidd is considered by the MMA community be an authority on PED use in the sport. A regular contributor to bloodyelbow.com - one of the most respected websites covering MMA - Kidd has close to a decade of work and research in combat sports, en route to assimilating the role of PEDs in MMA.
“The cultural aspect - that’s something that is overlooked a lot,” says Kidd who has worked closely with leading MMA organisations and international anti-doping agencies.
“The fighters [believe they] should look larger than life - they should look super-human. In India too, WWE is really big, and they pushed the idea that to be larger than life characters, you need to look like Hulk Hogan, or The Ultimate Warrior - these huge guys that are bigger than you can naturally get.
“People look at them and think that’s what being tough looks like. You have guys growing up wanting to be mixed martial artists, but when they look up to their role models, people who they think are like fighters, they see these big guys, puffed up on steroids, and they think, ‘Do I need to look like that?’
“The problem with doing anabolic steroids is what it does to your body’s natural production of, for example, testosterone. When you’re in your teens, that’s when your natural production of testosterone is going to be high. If you take steroids at that age, it can permanently retard your growth, and mess with your growth hormone, which means you cannot attain the height you should. It messes with your bone formation; it messes with your endocrine system; if you’re in your teens, you do not want to be touching any of this stuff. Do not touch steroids!”
Steroids produce two effects: an 'anabolic' effect, relating to muscle growth - helpful in quicker recovery - and an 'androgenic' effect related to virilisation or masculinisation - like the growth of body and facial hair, a deeper voice. When steroid use is unchecked, it is the excess in androgenic development and the subsequent imbalance of testosterone that is a cause for trouble.
The human body, through the endocrine system, has a natural feedback mechanism which stops producing testosterone once it senses the body has enough. Excessive steroid use weakens the endocrine system and makes slow to adjust to changes. That’s when “post – cycle therapy” comes into the picture.
“With post - cycle therapy, the idea is two-fold,” Kidd resumes. “The first thing you want to do is take an oestrogen blocker while you’re on steroids, and that’s because the vast majority of the anabolic steroids will make your testosterone levels to rise. When your testosterone level rises, your body converts a certain percentage of that into oestrogen. The ratio is important for the body to function properly.
“Again, with the use of oestrogen blockers, if the proper ratio isn't maintained, it could lead to the body producing lower amounts of oestrogen. Low oestrogen in men can lead to weakened bones and increased body fat. Taking anabolic steroids for longer periods, without proper cycling can lead to permanent physical changes, especially in teens. The pituitary gland can malfunction and can lead to low testosterone, luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone levels for the rest of a fighter’s life. Testicles can shrink, hormones and the endocrine system can be permanently damaged.
“Testosterone isn’t just needed to build muscles,” Kidd explains. “It also affects your mood; men with low testosterone get into depression, for example. If you have low testosterone, you tend to put more fat on than muscle. You don’t get erections, so if you’re dealing with steroids, you may find yourself unable to put muscle on properly for the rest of your life, an unable to have sex again.”
“You think it helps, but the truth is it doesn’t”
Steroids are particularly hard on the liver, and if mixed with a cocktail of drinks - it is common athletes to down oral steroids with alcohol - or painkillers, could lead to liver failure. Long-term steroid use can make someone a poor candidate for liver transplant, thus condemning them to a lifetime of liver issues.
“The long-term effects outweigh the potential short-term benefits,” Kidd warns. “I say short-term benefits because, people who get caught [using PEDs] in MMA, their win records aren’t significantly higher than their opponents’ for the most part. There hasn’t been anyone in MMA who got caught using steroids, who had an undefeated record or who is doing incredibly well. It only gives you a slight edge. So if you’re risking this for a slight edge, it’s probably not worth it.”
Kidd also busts that myth that HGH - ‘marketed’ as a way to heal quicker - is as useful as most people claim.
“The research, as it pertains to athletic benefits suggest that it is not that useful. Human growth hormone has slight benefits when it comes to recovery when it is combined with insulin growth factor 1 (IGF-1). When mixed with insulin, it seems to help muscle recovery a little bit. But outside of that, there’s not a huge benefit to an athlete.
“You can only take as much growth hormone that your body can utilise. But when you’re taking anabolic steroids, your body can use more growth hormone. But otherwise, HGH won’t help. It may have a placebo effect. You think it helps, but the truth is it doesn’t.”
“Steroids are much cheaper than supplements”
It is no secret that professional athletes in India have a hard time earning a decent, respectable living. This reality is starker in the case of MMA fighters. Most promotions - a term used to define companies that promote MMA competition - in India are unable to provide lucrative contracts, while some haven't paid the fighters years after they fought for the promotion.
It is also no secret that the bigger and fitter a fighter looks, the better his chances of landing a sponsor. A sponsorship in Indian MMA, though still small - i.e. not enough to pay for a fighter's training and supplement costs - can certainly ease the financial burden that comes with preparing for a professional career. However, no matter how trivial the amount, the probability of attracting a sponsor tempts young fighters to dive into the grimy world of anabolic steroids.
Jitendra Khare, who has worked with All India Mixed Martial Arts Association (AIMMAA) and the All India Mixed Martial Arts Federation (AIMMAF) – the two regulating bodies overseeing MMA in India - elaborated on the system the fighters have to deal with.
“There are a couple of things involved,” says Khare. “Firstly, the glamour angle. It is about who the people want to see. The fad in bodybuilding carries into MMA. On a fight card, if there's a guy who is completely ripped, and then you have someone who is lanky, the bigger ripped guy gets more sponsors. The promotions here promote the bigger guy because of his physique. They don't promote someone because of their skill level.”
“The question I have to ask you is, are you ready, or are the people ready to see two athletes, who aren't in the best of shape, fighting?” asks Khare. “If we're being honest, we want to see two super humans battling. That's what gladiators did. That's why we watch superhero movies. We want to see guys bigger than us, better than us fight it out. That's an image that even the promotions have to live up to.”
A prominent figure in the Indian MMA community, Khare owns Evolution MMA - an MMA training centre - and founded the Yoddha Fighting Championship. Since its inception, YFC has conducted around 10 events, giving the amateur fighters the platform they require to gain invaluable experience. Among other things, he discovers, nurtures and trains some of India’s top international fighters.
Naturally, Khare has had multiple discussions with his fighters about PEDs. When asked about the number of clean fighters he thinks India currently has, his the answer sums up the sorry state of affairs.
“None. Look at the pro athletes in our country today. Look at the pressure being put on them in terms of delivery. They're supposed to look like models, and they're supposed to fight like gods. I don't blame them. Where do we have a promotion that would invest in training them? If we're being honest, steroids are much cheaper than supplements. I can get a supplier to get me Deca Durabolin or testosterone for 2,500 – 3,000 Rs. But if I want to fuel myself with supplement for a month, then I have to spend Rs. 8,000 – 10,000.”
Promotions would do well to spend on a full – screen urine test for one fighter. A full – screen urine test costs Rs. 40,000, whereas one combined with a test Human Growth Hormone (HGH) would cost Rs. 65,000. That money is, instead, diverted to paying an athlete for three fights.
Then again, even if the financials weren't a hurdle, would promotions tie-up with an anti-doping agency to ensuring its fighters sign up to be tested?
Khare poetically quips, “If something has to happen, then it would have happened. So obviously if it hasn't happened, then they [promotions] don't look at it as something that has to happen.”
“I was angry all the time”
“I had to get into sports, and I wanted to get into fitness,” the fighter from earlier began earnestly. “I did not want to play football or cricket. I started powerlifting and weightlifting, and I could see the changes in my physique. And then, I got into bodybuilding, but I wasn’t happy with the results. I wasn’t getting the shape I wanted.
“So I asked a few people, and that’s when I was introduced to steroids. I started taking them at a very young age and included a lot of proteins in my diet. I started injecting; I started taking them orally. I could see the changes, and that’s when I decided to take up martial arts.
“I was interested in MMA, so I took up jiu-jitsu, and I started competing in pro and amateur fights. And this is where I learnt my biggest lesson: you don’t win fights just because you take PEDs.
“When you take steroids, you feel invincible”, he continued. “But at the same time, your body starts going out of control. When I had issues, I couldn’t share them with anyone. You may look like an Adonis, a behemoth, but from the inside, you’re hollow.”
So why did he continue taking them?
“Because I started depending on them”, he reasoned. “PEDs gave me courage. I felt I could beat anyone. And when I did not take them, I started losing fights.
His voice cracks, but his message is clear.
“I would never tell anyone to do PEDs.”
He also believes that advice and guidance can only go so far.
“If I gave you a manual on how to ride a plane, you wouldn’t be able to do it. There are doctors, more experienced athletes, who can tell someone how to cycle [PED cycle] properly. But that will not make you a better fighter.”
I enquired about ‘roid rage’, believe to be one of the most common side effects of extensive anabolic steroid use. Our fighter agrees it is an issue.
“I used to have mood swings. My brain used to work on its own. If I had made up my mind to do something - even if I did not want to fight, my brain used to tell me to fight someone. I was angry all the time.
“I take comfort in one thing - that I’ve stopped doing them. Anabolic steroids, no matter how you take them damage your organs. You may look fit and healthy on the outside, but from the inside, it will eat you away. And unfortunately, there isn’t much awareness about the negative effects of PEDs in India. If someone tells you that they’re on anabolic steroids, you would also be interested in taking them, without any information about its effect on your health”.
Now a married man, our fighter has been clean for a little over four years. “I can think clearly. Now, I can differentiate between the good and the bad, and even when I’m going through a negative phase, I can understand that life has both - the good and the bad.
Fully aware of the adverse effects the unchecked use of steroids has caused to his health, the fighter warns those coming after him. He is an advocate for clean competition and often takes younger fighters under his wing to guide them.
“There was no one to guide me. I have a family now, and I know from experience that, once you start taking PEDs, you become dependant. I know that if something happens to me in the near future, it is my family - my wife, that would face the consequences,” he says.
“I did not want to die like this.”
Credit: Bipasha Mukherjee / Trip Creative Services