UFC lightweight champion gets six-month ban instead of one year and can fight again Jan. 6 after positive steroid test.
His possible one-year suspension for a positive steroid test was cut in half Tuesday, but Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion Sean Sherk said the California State Athletic Commission's decision was "not a victory at all."
Sherk, 34, will be able to fight again Jan. 6, but the UFC already has scheduled an "interim" lightweight title fight between former welterweight champion B.J. Penn and Joe Stevenson on Jan. 19 in Newcastle, England.
Sherk said he expects to fight the Penn-Stevenson winner sometime next spring, but has yet to be told by UFC President Dana White whether he'll retain the lightweight belt.
White and a UFC spokeswoman did not immediately return messages left by The Times.
In a brief address to the commission, Sherk maintained his innocence after a positive test for the banned steroid nandrolone before his successful title defense over Hermes Franca in Sacramento in July.
"There's no way I'd risk it . . . being UFC champion means the world to me," Sherk told the commission, noting the positive test has cost him endorsement deals, appearance money, fight purses and "over $20,000" in attorney fees. "I've done everything I can to prove my innocence."
Sherk's attorney, Howard Jacobs, questioned the handling of Sherk's urine sample in July, and also noted that the testing of Sherk's "A" and "B" samples by the same team at a private lab failed to meet standards approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency that require separate individuals to analyze the two samples.
A lab representative countered that his facility is under no obligation to follow the strict WADA standards.
Sherk's attorney told the commission that the fighter also had passed a lie detector test, answering "no" when asked if he had ever knowingly used nandrolone or any prohibited substance. Sherk, who said he suspects he accidentally ingested a nandrolone-tainted health supplement, also paid to have some supplements he was taking independently tested.
One product tested at Los Angeles-based Anti-Doping Research was Xyience's Xtreme Joint Formula. In testing supervised by Don Catlin, the head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab, one of the five Xtreme Joint Formula capsules was found to contain the steroid precursor androstenedione, Catlin reported in an Oct. 28 letter to Jacobs.
Xyience is one of UFC's major sponsors, and the company formerly sponsored Sherk.
"This shows contamination does exist," Jacobs told the commission.
"It's scary . . . this can happen to anyone," Sherk said after the hearing. "You can't not take supplements. You have to take those."
A Xyience spokeswoman said the company temporarily delayed all shipments of Xtreme Joint Formula to stores in early November before conducting independent tests where, "everything came back negative, so we resumed shipping," Maggie Feldman said.
Meanwhile, Jacobs' most powerful argument centered on the "precedent" the commission has set this year in reducing year-long suspensions to boxer James Toney and mixed martial arts fighter Phil Baroni to six months after their positive steroid tests.
"You have to be consistent," Jacobs told the commission. "None of these people took a lie detector or tested their supplements. The absolute longest [sanction] is six months."
Sherk worried before the hearing that the commission would "make an example of me." In October, the commission heard from drug-testing experts who addressed, among other subjects, the knack for those who test positive to cast blame elsewhere, such as tainted supplements.
Executive Commissioner June Griffith-Collison moved to uphold Sherk's one-year suspension and $2,500 fine and Commissioner Mario Rodriguez seconded the penalty, but no other commissioner backed them. Commissioners Timothy Noonan, Howard Rose, Peter Lopez and Julio Ramirez then voted as a majority for the six-month reduction.
"The commission did what they thought was correct by the evidence that was presented," said Armando Garcia, the commission's executive officer.
Sherk, meanwhile, threatened legal action against the commission after he said he was denied a "fair opportunity to defend myself," by calling witnesses or cross-examining experts such as the drug testing lab official.
"This is about saving my dignity," Sherk said. "I don't want this on my record."
He said the first part of attempting to restore public confidence is attending the Penn-Stevenson fight next month in England.
"I have to make a statement by going, like I'm asking, 'How come I can't fight? I didn't do anything wrong,' " Sherk said. "I'd like to sit in the front row."
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