In October of 2023, it was announced that the UFC and USADA will be ending their partnership as of December 31st, 2023. While such a drastic move seems out of the blue, it culminates after USADA CEO Travis Tygart, “went full Britney Spears and lost his mind,” according to Dana White. He continues, “Get ready, you’re probably gonna see him on Instagram dancing with knives.” Dana White doesn’t spare his tongue when it comes to business deals gone sour, and this is no exception. While this did seem out of the blue, there were many factors that the two entities disagreed on, and more than enough reasons to warrant a split.
A Brief History of USADA
The United States Anti-Doping Agency began operation on October 1st, 2000. Since 2003, USADA has been controlled by a board of directors that is, “10 independent, experience, and professional individuals who are free from any conflict of interest, and who share the ideals and principles associated with USADA’s vision, mission, and core values,” according to usada.org.
USADA and Lance Armstrong
USADA became part of the mainstream sports lexicon when in June 2012, they brought anti-doping charges against retired cyclist Lance Armstrong. Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after losing a contested lawsuit against the anti-doping agency. USADA charges Armstrong with violations dating back to August of 1998.
Armstrong’s violations included a range of charges involving EPO, exogenous testosterone, cortisone, and corticosteroids. He was convicted of the use, administration, trafficking, and covering up of these banned substances and many more. Most importantly, for USADA, this arbitration put their name in the mainstream consciousness of the sports world.
USADA and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative
An anonymous tip phoned in to the USADA in Summer of 2003 sparked the US Attorney’s office of Northern California to began investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. ThiS lab was responsible for supplying hundreds of athletes illegal steroids and growth hormones spanning two decades. Notable athletes snared in this sting include MLB stars Barry Bonds and Benito Santiago. Boxer Shane Mosley was also caught being supplied illicit steroids. A number of Oakland Raiders were named as recipients, including Bill Romanowski and Tyrone Wheatley. Victor Conte, owner of BALCO, was also prosecuted for supplying “vitamin supplements” to the 1988 men’s olympic Judo team.
Illegal steroids and human growth hormone were found in boxes and cabinets labeled “steroids” and “human growth hormone,” while Victor Conte’s home and office were being raided.
Partnering With The UFC
In June 2015, USADA CEO Travis Tygart and UFC President Dana White initiated the first independent anti-doping program in combat sports. This was supposed to lay the groundwork in making MMA a safer, more mainstream sport. As much as Dana White has cultivated an image of, let’s say casual indifference, the company itself has tried many times to garner widespread acceptance. From working with John McCain in adopting the unified rules, to escalating TV and sponsorship deals, the UFC has not hidden its ambition as a company. They sought USADA to lend them the same credibility that any other sport would garner, given fair rules and cheat free play. However, this is MMA and if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.
The Case For Better Testing
With State Athletic Panels doing all of the drug screening before USADA, consistency was lacking. One of the initial appeals was that USADA was bringing much needed unity to drug screenings. UFC 183 was hailed as a great comeback for Anderson Silva. He fought Nick Diaz to an unanimous decision. After the fight, the Nevada State Athletic Commission found enough substances to fail both fighters’ drug tests. Nick for marijuana, and Silva for anabolic steroids.
Image – MMA Weekly
From here, the story gets weird. Nick Diaz is known to be contentious, and had been on the NSAC’s radar for bad behavior. They gave him a fine and a five year suspension.
Aderson Silva was suspended for one year. This is despite the fact that anabolic steroids are far more performance than the devil’s lettuce. The idea that personal grudges from governing officials could impact a fighter for five years seemed like arbitrary overreach.
Third Party And Unified
When USADA took control of the UFC’s drug testing in June of 2015, they put in place a clear marker of before and after. MMA fans call everything before the “pre-USADA” days. After some initial hiccups in the system, an order presented itself. Fighters in the top ten seemingly dropped off the radar overnight. The power left hand of Johnny Hendricks vanished over a summer. The end of 2016 saw Jon Jones and Lyoto Machida both served suspensions. The UFC achieved consistency, or so they believed. Established stars, as well as up and comers were all subject to the same rules throughout the organization. Rather than having varied lists between states, all banned substances were clearly listed and talked about by USADA.
Image – Bleacher Report
The harsh truth is that wherever there are systems to game, athletes will game them. Steroids are no different. However, the streamlined and trustworthy testing serviced USADA provided were out the gate a great success.
A Great Failure
Brock Lesnar wanted to make a huge comeback in the UFC at a time when they were riding the high of a massive viewer jump due to Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. Lesnar was active in the UFC heavy weight division between 2008-2011. In 2016 he hoped to regain his former glory, but one roadblock in his way were the new USADA rules requiring six months in the testing pool and two negative drug tests. Dana White didn’t have that kind of time. The rules were waived for Lesnar’s fight with Mark Hunt on UFC 200. Brock spent a month in the testing pool and after his fight, he tested positive for clomiphene. Clomiphene is a drug used to restore natural testosterone to the body after a cycle of anabolic steroids. This makes it a banned substance as per USADA. It can also enhance fertility in women.
Lesnar had his win over Mark Hunt overturned and received a one year suspension. USADA’s testing was interfered with for the sake of a PPV for the first time. But would it be the last?
Image – Aces Jiu Jitsu Club
No, It Wouldn’t Be The Last
I don’t know how one could write an article about failed drug tests without mentioning Jon Jones at least twice. There was the rumor about hiding underneath a training cage to hide from the test taker that turned out not to be a rumor at all. Jon Jones had multiple failed drug tests, some with the best excuses as to why. The one event I want to focus on came with UFC 232. Jon Jones failed several tests for turinabol in the lead up for his rematch against Alexander Gustafsson. The Nevada State Athletic Commission refused to license Jones after the test. The California State Athletic Commission agreed to grant Jones a license because of the microscopic amount of turinabol, but that meant moving the entire card in less than a week.
Image – Sporting News
Dana White being at odds with the USADA findings isn’t the crux of this story. The UFC accommodating Jones after failing drug tests shows preferential treatment to star athletes. To contrast, Jon Jones tested positive for 60 picograms per milliliter in his drug test. Jones’s exoneration was immediate. Tom Lawlor tested positive for ostarine at 17 picograms per milliliter. Lawlor’s suspension received no fanfare. Dana White didn’t take to twitter to justify Lawlor’s actions. Other athletes share similar troubles.
The PED’s That Broke The Camel’s Leg
Conor McGregor snapped his leg almost off in July of 2021. Consequently, after his surgery McGregor removed himself from the USADA testing pool. His duration outside of the testing pool lasted almost two years. Subsequently, when McGregor attempted to enter the testing pool again, it broke the UFC. USADA disagreed on the timeframe McGregor should be granted to be able to fight. Considering that a situation like this had happened before with regards to Brock Lesnar, everyone involved needed to let cooler heads prevail. A sport known for violence isn’t the place for that to happen.
Image – MMA Mania
What McGregor, Jones, and Lesnar have in common is that they are all huge earners for the UFC; also steroids. Dana White is more than willing to bend whatever rules are in place to make room for their main events. The Bottom Line is king, and whatever interferes has no room in the UFC. Moreover, the UFC existed before USADA’s drug testing. In my own opinion, it was USADA’s mistake to allow a bending of the rules in the first place. There is no living or dying by a sword with money heavily involved.
USADA made the promise of fair arbitration and evenhanded steroid monitoring. However, while they delivered this promise to a majority of the fighters in the UFC, it wasn’t all. There are things beyond what I’ve described that bothered me about USADA. They had no collective bargaining with fighters, despite having immense control over their career trajectories. USADA set times to drug test that interfered with fighter health and training. Their methods of enforcement stunk of favoritism. These gripes all lean towards a system slanted in favor of the company, and not the fighters. What I like about the UFC isn’t the UFC itself, it’s the fighters that make up the roster, and even then all but one. If an organization isn’t serving the fighters first, then I’ll shed no tears for its departure.
The UFC will be partnering with the DFSI after January 1st, 2024. The UFC also hired George Piro to head their new anti-doping program. George Piro is a BJJ world champion, former FBI agent, and the lead interrogator of Saddam Houssein after his 2003 capture. When looking to drug test Jon Jones, it’s safe to say he might look under the cage.
A Cautious Optimism
I am not a purist when it comes to steroids. Catastrophic injuries warrant some kind of allowance. I’m also a realist when it comes to athlete use of steroids. I know that there is a level of elite athlete that doesn’t test positive because of advanced evasion techniques, not because of a sense of equity in gamesmanship. I’m also aware that the new organizations and individuals in charge of UFC’s anti-doping are subject to the same fallible circumstances as USADA. There is no possibility of a completely clean sport. Ideally, I’d like to see a relaxation of what constitutes cheating and an end of preferential treatment to star athletes. I would like to see more fighter bargaining when it comes to arbitration. This is the UFC, though. It’s still ‘get what you get’.
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