Bobby Lashley was all set to take the next step in his MMA career, ready to test himself against the faded legend Ken Shamrock on the May 21 MMA/pro boxing card in Pensacola, Fla. The former college wrestler and WWE talent left Vince McMahon's world of sports entertainment for the MMA arena, where the contests' results are not preordained, because he wanted to again taste the flavor of undiluted competition. No scripts, no called finishes. Just the last, best man standing at the end of the night.
But if Lashley, 32, thought his MMA life would be free from beyond-the-ring drama (a regular element in his pro wrestling stint from fall 2005 to winter 2008), the events surrounding his second MMA bout have blown that belief sky-high.
Lashley was poised to move up in caliber from his inaugural tussle, a Dec. 12, 2008 fight against fellow first-timer Joshua Franklin. His next opponent: Shamrock, a UFC Hall of Famer and 45-year-old first-generation icon from way back when they used to call the sport "extreme fighting." Then word came down from on high -- the California State Athletic Commission -- that Shamrock had tested positive for three banned substances in his previous bout, a knockout win over Ross Clifton on Feb. 13 in Fresno.
The commission released word last Thursday that Shamrock's sample showed traces of one anabolic steroid, one steroid precursor and one testosterone metabolite. The fighter, who was 1-7 in his past seven outings, and had lost by KO in six of those matches, was suspended for one year by the commission and was scratched from the Lashley fight. He maintains his innocence, and will offer a defense in a hearing before the commission, which has not yet been scheduled.
But as with any circus, the show must go on. So a replacement for Shamrock has been found: heavyweight Jason Guida, 17-19 and winless in his past three matches.
The specter of the Shamrock positive will linger a bit over the fight, but Lashley told ESPN.com he's ready to show fans -- and prospective foes Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture -- that he's the real deal, and has more MMA chops than his record indicates.
The subject of steroids came up in interviews with Lashley and Shamrock, which were conducted before the news of the dirty specimen came out. Shamrock touched on the subject of illegal performance enhancers in the context of discussing a proposed bout with his brother Frank Shamrock. Last March, Frank stirred the pot -- with a radioactive ladle -- when he charged that Ken "did steroids his whole life." Ken fired back that Frank was full of it but let the matter drop quickly instead of working to compel his brother to retract that slanderous broadside.
Last week, Ken said he was tired of talking about a brother-versus-brother match and was just about ready to put the subject to rest. He told ESPN.com that the charge came about because Frank was looking for publicity.
"I'm through with the drama," Ken Shamrock said. "Frank said all these things about me using crack, using steroids …" The fighter didn't explicitly deny that he used steroids or other illegal performance enhancers at the time, however.
The scarlet "S" is something that has also been attached to Lashley, in a much more subtle fashion. The WWE has been known historically as a den of pharmaceutical fun, as the WWE owner himself was indicted in 1994 for steroid distribution, though found not guilty.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigated the company's testing policy after the murder-suicide involving Chris Benoit in June 2007. Lashley, who resides in Colorado and was a stellar wrestler at Missouri Valley College, has boasted one of those physiques that is almost cartoonish in its immensity. During his WWE days, his deltoids stood out for their mass even among a group of resolute gym freaks. ESPN.com asked Lashley how he reacts to insinuations from doubters who don't believe a person can construct a physique like his without illegal aids.
"I take the accusations as a compliment," he said, offering a family athletic history as testimonial that the Lashley stock is quite sturdy. Lashley owns his own online supplement company, says he has been an XL since he was 10, and swears his muscles have been inflated the old-fashioned way: via the pumping of iron, not needles.
"I do things the right way, the smart way, the legal way," he said. "I train my ass off. I will pee in a cup right now!"
When ESPN.com followed up with Lashley for his take on the Shamrock positive, he said he was sad he wouldn't be fighting the icon. He also said he thinks it is plausible that Shamrock took a legal supplement that triggered a positive test, and doesn't think someone using steroids would gain an unfair advantage over someone who is steroid-free because, he said, muscle mass doesn't make an athlete a better fighter. It might help them train longer and harder, he conceded, but steroids won't help a chin absorb a thunderous strike.
Fair or not, Lashley has been herded into a boat with every other jacked athlete, considered by many to be guilty until proven innocent. He says he will control what he can, which is his performance in the cage. He would take a fight with Brock Lesnar or Randy Couture ASAP, with the understanding that his window as a fighter is always closing.
Lashley's wrestling chops should be too much for Guida, who is a willing soul but will be overmatched in the strength department. The ex-WWEer has been working on his jiu-jitsu and boxing in week-long junkets at the American Top facility in Florida.
Lashley is confident that his own specimen, come testing time, will attest to his shortcut-proof training regimen, and he's just as confident in his MMA skill set. So much so, in fact, that he won't bother tracking down tapes of Guida to look for holes.
"I don't even want to watch anything," Lashley said. "I want to go in and let it all hang out."
Michael Woods, the managing editor of TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.