USADA and the UFC – Attempting justice without the blindfold

Watch ‘Thompson vs Pettis ‘ on ESPN+! Stream all the fights LIVE from Nashville — don’t miss a single second of face-punching action! Plus,…

By: Barry Mitchell | 4 years ago
USADA and the UFC – Attempting justice without the blindfold
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Wednesday, March 20th, T.J. Dillashaw announced, via his Instagram, that he had vacated the UFC bantamweight championship. This move came following what the UFC’s drug testing partner, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), described as ‘an adverse analytical finding’ pertaining to a drug test performed on January 18th, 2019. Dillashaw, 33, was subsequently suspended for one year, by the New York State Athletic Commission, and fined $10,000.

The specifics of Dillashaw’s case are, as of yet, unknown. Many have pointed to his extensive supplement routine as a potential source of contamination, but conjecture aside, there has been no confirmation as to the specifics of these adverse findings.

Even sans details of Dillashaw’s case, however, my reaction was the same as it generally is to news of a USADA violation: disappointment at the prospect of a prolonged absence for a fighter whose craft I enjoy, and frustration at the monetary and athletic loss that said fighter will endure. I’ve never really seen USADA as dispensers of justice, nor positive-testing fighters as cheaters receiving righteous punishment. This could be construed as a pro-doping position, but it is not. It is, instead, anti-USADA.

Anti-doping is a topic of extremes, especially in regards to USADA. Many believe that substances capable of enhancing human performance have no place in a sport where the core objective is to inflict physical harm on another human being, and that extreme measures are necessary to prevent doping. Others believe that the war on performance enhancing drugs is a Sisyphean endeavor, and that the physical realities of top-level athletics prohibit individuals from maintaining both healthy bodies and peak performance simultaneously.

Photo by Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images

In a way, extremism in anti-doping ideology is only natural, because extremism is all we’ve ever had. In the PRIDE days, fighters were openly encouraged to take performance-enhancing drugs. In the pre-USADA days of the UFC, drug testing was largely a facade used for the sake of the organization’s public credibility: the promotion’s commission run early testing was largely too rudimentary and predictable to legitimately deter doping. It was not until the USADA era that any mixed martial arts organization had truly attempted to establish a framework for preventing the use of prohibited substances.

Rather than a step in the right direction, though, the UFC’s partnership with USADA has resulted in a hard-line anti-doping campaign – complete with lengthy suspensions and exorbitant fines – spearheaded by Jeff Novitzky. Novitzky is a man who has spent large portions of his career trampling on the basic rights of athletes in a quasi-militant quest to win the war on performance enhancing drugs. From digging through athletes’ garbage to performing raids of which the legality could kindly be described as ‘questionable’, Novitzky’s history as an authoritarian anti-drug czar is long and storied.

FDA agent Jeff Novitzky, left, attending Barry Bonds’ obstruction appeal in 2013.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Novitzky’s conduct in the infamous BALCO raid was described by presiding federal judge Susan Illston as ‘a callous disregard for Constitutional rights.’ Under the UFC’s Novitzky-led anti-doping system, all athletes are required to supply information as to their whereabouts at all times, and repeated inaccessibility for random drug testing is grounds for a policy violation, and all associated punishments. From Wild West to Big Brother is a jarring course correction, but it merits particular examination in an organization where athletes are allegedly independent contractors, denied any sort of collective bargaining rights.

This state of affairs is problematic on many levels. Policies put in place for the presumed benefit of natural athletes are enforced without fighter input, and without concern for privacy. And some of the results have been disastrous.

In 2016, Tim Kennedy recounted an incident where a tester approached him following a workout. In his own words,

”Last time I got tested, like a week ago, this guy came into my house and I’d just came back from a workout,” Kennedy said. “He was like, ‘We can’t take blood for an hour,’ and I was like, ‘Well, I just got done with a workout. Can I take a shower?’ He said he had to visually keep his eyes on me the whole time so I was like, ‘Well, I’m taking a shower,’ I walked into my bathroom, took my clothes off and he walked into the bathroom with me and watched me shower.”

Just months prior, Teruto Ishihara relayed a story on his Instagram about how a sample collector had stared at his penis for 40 minutes as he attempted to produce a urine sample.

Other consequences of this unilateral power distribution are less invasive, but perhaps even more egregious.

When Lyoto Machida disclosed to USADA that he had orally ingested 7-keto-DHEA, he was understandably flabbergasted at the resulting impact on his career. Machida, a first time offender, was handed an 18 month suspension for the use of a substance that he was unaware was prohibited. The fighter recorded a tearful apology at the time, assuring fans that while he took the blame for ingesting the substance, he “really didn’t know” that it had been recently banned. Ignorance is rarely a compelling argument in anti-doping cases, but as Machida stated...

”For me, USADA didn’t give us proper instruction, and I think they failed in giving us an education about everything,” Machida said. “So, they only sent me a proper list of banned supplements after they decided on my suspension. So, they sent me – maybe two-to-three days later – they sent me the list of the supplements so I could understand everything. But before it was where it was supposed to be, it didn’t happen.”

Sure, athletes must be vigilant as to what they ingest. But, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that 7-keto-DHEA does much of anything — least of all offer performance-enhancing benefits. 18 months of Machida’s career were lost because he willingly disclosed that he had taken a supplement that may offer no more benefit than a placebo.

These examples are all maddening enough, without even touching on the storied history of marijuana users being railroaded by drug testing efforts.

Privacy and sanctioning issues aside, both the science of USADA’s tests, and their integrity as an organization, have previously been called into question.

In his 2015 SBNation longform piece “Can Boxing Trust USADA?”, former BWAA (Boxing Writers Association of America) chairman Thomas Hauser highlighted USADA’s preferential treatment of its biggest stars.

Erik Morales, right, dodges a left hook from Danny Garcia.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

There he recounted the story of Erik Morales, who tested positive for clenbuterol ahead of a 2012 headlining show opposite Danny Garcia in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, writing…

”Under standard sports drug testing protocols, when blood or urine is taken from an athlete, it is divided into an “A” and “B” sample. The “A” sample is tested first. If it tests negative, end of story; the athlete has tested “clean.” If, however, the “A” sample tests positive, the athlete has the right to demand that the “B” sample be tested. If the “B” sample tests negative, the athlete is presumed to be clean. But if the “B” sample also tests positive, the first positive finding is confirmed and the athlete then has a problem.”

The fight was not called off. According to ESPN’s Dan Rafael, this was because Morales’s ‘A’ sample tested positive, but results for the ‘B’ sample would not be available until after the fight. Then, Boxing Scene writer Keith Idec reported that Morales had been tested at least three times. The ‘B’ result of the final test was not yet available, but the ‘A’ and ‘B’ samples of the first two tests had all tested positive. Hauser explained…

”Under the WADA prohibited list, no amount of clenbuterol is allowed in a competitor’s body. The measure is qualitative, not quantitative. Either clenbuterol is there or it is not.

According to a report in the New York Daily News, after Morales was confronted with the positive test results, he claimed a USADA official suggested that he might have inadvertently ingested clenbuterol by eating contaminated meat. Meanwhile, the New York State Athletic Commission issued a statement referencing a representation by Morales that he ‘unintentionally ingested contaminated food.’

However, no evidence was offered in support of the contention that Morales had ingested contaminated meat.

Nor was any explanation forthcoming as to why USADA kept taking samples from Morales after four tests (two “A” samples and two “B” samples from separate collections) came back positive. Giving Morales these additional tests was akin to giving someone who has been arrested for driving while intoxicated a second and third blood test a week after the arrest.”

For their part, USADA claimed inaccuracies in Hauser’s reporting. But, there are no shortage of stories suggesting that USADA has given preferential treatment when it is to their advantage to do so. Their handling of Jon Jones’s repeated test abnormalities has received generous scrutiny; that situation may be at least partially justified, but their handling of it has been murky enough to raise concerns of biased treatment.

Jon Jones at his January hearing with the NSAC concerning his drug testing irregularities.
Esther Lin|MMA Fighting

These men and women are, as both I and the UFC’s legal department would happily remind readers, independent contractors, not employees. A distinction that is difficult to affirm, but will continue to stand until challenged legally. If independent contractors are to be subjected to disturbing privacy invasions, long-term suspensions, and absolute accountability as to their whereabouts at all times, the very least that they can expect is a reliable and consistent arbitrator.

The primary motivation for intensive anti-doping efforts is, ostensibly, fighter welfare. Countless ‘what-if’ scenarios permeate these discussions, positing a hypothetical in which a roided up super freak – jacked to the gills on marijuana and 7-keto-DHEA – kills a clean athlete in a sanctioned MMA bout. This is unsubstantiated fear mongering, but it is persuasive, and many who espouse the necessity of anti-doping do so out of good faith concern for the athletes they adore.

To those who do believe in hard-line anti-doping policies, I want to say this in no uncertain terms: A legitimate anti-doping effort conducted in the best interests of the UFC’s athletes cannot exist in an unchecked bureaucracy headed by a man who has shown a flagrant disregard for due process and legal rights. Be it T.J. Dillashaw, or any other athlete found to have violated USADA protocol, the arbiters of his guilt or innocence hold too much power and too little accountability for me to find their judgments compelling. As it stands, the UFC’s partnership with USADA serves only to systemically victimize the individuals it purports to protect.

Share this story

About the author
Barry Mitchell
Barry Mitchell

More from the author

Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories