SACRAMENTO — A month after mixed martial arts came to Los Angeles and left with an embarrassing trail of three positive tests for performance-enhancing or street drugs, the sport is returning to California tonight in the form of its most popular organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
With pressure to stage a clean show in Arco Arena, UFC 73 will offer a main-event middleweight title fight between champion Anderson Silva and Nathan Marquardt, who is less than two years removed from a positive test for a metabolite of the anabolic steroid nandrolone.
"All the fighters in the UFC know what our position on steroids is," UFC President Dana White said. "You can't use them, you're not supposed to use them. I certainly hope none of my guys are using."
It's a point worth reinforcing.
The California State Athletic Commission, which introduced tests for anabolic agents in March, took positive performance-enhancing drug tests from mixed martial arts legend Royce Gracie and former NFL player Johnnie Morton, and found pedestrian fighter Tim Pursey had methamphetamine in his system at last month's Coliseum show, which was promoted by Japan's Fighting and Entertainment Group. All of the fighters were suspended for one year and fined.
In a subsequent blow, the newly formed MMA organization Elite XC had its main-event loser Phil Baroni test positive for the steroids boldenone and stanozolol at a June 22 card televised by Showtime in San Jose.
"It's sad when the goal is to have a clean show, but they need one for legitimacy," said veteran MMA fighter Frank Shamrock, who defeated Baroni. "The sport's still real young and immature. Positive tests are a problem. It's not safe, and, like it or not, the guys have to follow the rules.
"This is about money. It's a hard sport, and a real young sport, where you can still jump in and become a superstar in a short time. People are taking the risk and going for it."
White, riding a wave of strong and mostly positive publicity for his emerging fighting organization, said UFC leadership has recently discussed conducting a mandatory steroids seminar for its fighters. UFC officials also have e-mailed their fighters about California's upcoming pre- and post-fight tests.
"There's talk among the fighters now, that [California] is strict, that they'll test every participant, and that the commission will follow you around, and sit there and watch your [urine] test," Marquardt said. "If you're going to test, you better do it right."
When White learned that Gracie, the winner of UFC 1, 2 and 4 under different ownership, had tested positive, he was "shocked."
"Everyone in the country knows you shouldn't take steroids, and everyone understands the reasons for a strict [drug-testing] policy," White said.
He made his UFC debut in August 2005 in Las Vegas after becoming the first seven-time winner, or king, of Japan's Pancrase fighting competitions.
The 6-foot-1 Marquardt said that while he was never subjected to drug screening in Japan, he remembers "crumpling up and throwing away" UFC literature informing fighters of drug testing in Nevada.
"I never thought it'd be an issue," said Marquardt, 28. "I'd been taking some over-the-counter supplements at a Max Muscle store. It was something like what Mark McGwire took, androstenedione. I never thought of that stuff being tested. It was a stupid mistake."
Marquardt had won a slow-moving, technical fight by unanimous decision over veteran middleweight Ivan Salaverry. He said he'd been told a middleweight title shot was likely with a victory, but the fight was lackluster, and within a week he learned of his positive drug test from White.
UFC officials directed Marquardt to take immediate follow-up drug tests, both near his Denver home and in Las Vegas. The results were negative, and Marquardt argued that proved he "wasn't on the hard steroids that stay in your system for one and a half years."
He then pleaded his case before the Nevada State Athletic Commission in January 2006 and was cleared to fight again in March, with no fine.
"People are going to believe what they want to believe, but I've been clean in my last three fights -- I'm not taking anything that's not independently tested anymore -- and I'm fighting just as well as I ever have," Marquardt said.
With a 25-6 MMA record, including 14 victories by submission, four knockouts and a 4-0 UFC mark, Marquardt said he's counting on his training and athletic ability -- "I don't gas out in fights" -- to conquer Silva's punching accuracy and penchant for landing disabling knees, elbows and up-kicks.
Hearing White talk of a drug-testing seminar, Marquardt said he'd like to be invited as a guest speaker.
"I know some guys just knowingly take steroids, but there's not enough [information] about what causes false positives, about contamination risks, all that," he said. "You have to watch out for things. We don't always know what not to take. That's the real gray area. That's my story."
* Where: Arco Arena, Sacramento.
* Time: 7 p.m.
* TV: Pay-per-view, $39.95.
* Middleweight champion Anderson Silva vs. Nathan Marquardt.
* Lightweight champion Sean Sherk
vs. Hermes Franca.
* Tito Ortiz vs. Rashad Evans, light-heavyweights.
* Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
vs. Heath Herring, heavyweights.
* Kenny Florian vs. Alvin Robinson, lightweights.
Check latimes.com for live fight updates.