Doping in sports is a strange and twisty road. On the one hand, it’s clear we have to have something in place to prevent athletes from going full pharmacy—if not to protect the artifice of an ‘even playing field’ then just to protect them from themselves. On the other hand, the paper tiger of PED use has become an unwitting instrument of strongarm control over athletes and their legacies. A system that automatically defaults to ‘guilty until proven innocent’ makes it all too easy for people to see their careers significantly derailed by testing agencies, commissions, and promoters.
The result is something of a constant push-pull in the ever evolving conversation around PEDs in sports, what we’re testing for, and why. In the past half decade that discussion has turned in a couple of interesting results. Notably, the extreme relaxing of regulations around marijuana use, essentially removing it from consideration as an ‘in competition’ performance enhancer. But also, the establishing of thresholds in what would be considered a positive test for substances such as clomiphene, GW-1516, and the M3 metabolite.
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That’s a topic of special interest for Jon Jones heading into UFC 285, given his history with the UFC’s anti doping agency USADA.
“I feel officially cleared,” Jones wrote in a February 2023 post on Twitter, responding to USADA’s 2019 rule changes. “There will be no asterick [sic] next to any of my performances. It’s good the rest of the world can see what I’ve known this whole time. My only advantage over my competition has been pure Hard work.”
At the media day this fight week, he expanded on those thoughts, explaining how he feels the recent changes in drug testing policy reflect on his entire career.
“USADA has changed some of the rules regarding picogram levels and what’s allowed,” Jones told the assembled press. “And I’ve come to find out that all my findings were under the new legal limit, meaning that I would’ve been cleared from every test I’ve ever taken. And that means a lot to me.
“I’m grateful to be the athlete who fought the system, who could afford the lawyers and the scientists to prove my innocence. I do believe that I carried the cross or took the bullet for the rest of all the young athletes, but I was the first to have to go through it. And people considered me a cheater.”
“I’ve no ill will towards USADA or anything like that. It was just something that we needed to go through. I was the first one, and one of the biggest names to go through it, and I’m glad I did. Because some of these younger fighters wouldn’t have been able to survive something like that. They would’ve just been cut or not been able to afford the lawyers or whatever.
“I took the bullet for this sport, [as well as] for Major League Baseball, and I’m glad that fighters in the future get to avoid what I went through. It was hell, being considered a steroid cheat. And I’m glad that people can see clearly now that I never was. And I feel set free.”
Between 2015-2018, Jones had a string of issues surrounding drug test samples submitted to various regulatory agencies. The first was a suspicious testosterone/epitestosterone ratio found in a urine sample before UFC 182, later dismissed for a lack of any further evidence of doping. A 2016 failed drug test for clomiphene and letrozole (common steroid cycle recovery drugs) netted Jones a 1-year suspension, despite USADA’s determination that contaminated “dick pills” were likely at fault.
Between 2017-18, Jones came up positive over several tests for the M3 metabolite—a long-term remnant of the steroid Turinabol—known to cause a potential “pulsing effect” (disappearing/reappearing) for months or even years. While no source for the Turinabol was ever located, USADA released a statement saying that an independent arbitrator believed Jones “was not intentionally cheating.” Jones served an 18-month suspension after providing the agency “substantial assistance.”
It’s the kind of history that, even given the lack of more serious official allegations against Jones (there have certainly been plenty made unofficially), the former light heavyweight champion would very much like to rewrite.
“Now, if that same rule would’ve applied back then, it would’ve never even made the media,” Jones said of his past failed drug tests. “It would’ve never been a deal at all. My win over Daniel Cormier would not be a No Contest, it would be a knockout. So, I’m hoping that with these rule changes, maybe we could go back and make that No Contest a win. And that would mean a lot to me.”
I have some sympathy for Jones’ cause here. Technically, he’s probably not wrong. USADA doesn’t even make adverse findings public these days until past the point of arbitration or unless the athlete comes forward themselves. If he’d been flagged in 2023, the most we might hear of it would be whispers and rumors. To his last point, however, while history should unquestionably reflect that the standards have been changed, it shouldn’t be re-written.
A fight record has its own special significance. It’s a lot of what people talk about when they talk about ‘legacy’ and ‘dominance’. If Sherdog’s Fight Finder Files are any indication, many athletes battle relentlessly to have results changed, or scrubbed entirely. But the crux is right there in the name. First and foremost, it’s a record.
In 2017, when it was in no way allowable for Jon Jones to have potentially performance enhancing substances in his system, at any detectable level, he did. There’s never been a reasonable or thorough explanation of how those substances got into his system. The fact that an arbitrator did not believe he was intentionally cheating certainly helps his case, but it doesn’t fundamentally change it—since the unsaid piece of that statement would be that the Jones was at least unintentionally cheating.
The same rules, and standards of testing applied to Daniel Cormier at the time, and he never ran afoul of any drug tests. It would be no more fair to DC to overturn that result than Jones feels it’s currently unfair to him to let it stand.
Jones wants the asterisks erased from his fighting legacy. But the more likely outcome is that he’ll have to continue uncomfortably embracing them. After all, in this case, the asterisk next to UFC 214’s ‘no contest’ is that USADA cleared him of intentional wrongdoing and that rules have since been changed—likely, at least in part, as a direct result of this case. If he got his way and had the Cormier knockout restored, the asterisk attached would only need to be that much longer and more bold.
Time passes, perceptions change. What was wrong yesterday may be right tomorrow—and vice-versa—but in the interests of sporting history let the record stand.
About the author: Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. Host of the MMA Vivisection and 6th Round, he has covered MMA and the UFC since 2013.(full bio)
About the author