Opinion: Why the UFC Won’t Give Up On USADA, Even When They Get it Wrong

By Patrick Auger Oct 31, 2019


The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 244 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The mixed martial arts world was thrown into turmoil on Oct. 24 when Nate Diaz stated he would not be competing at UFC 244 in Madison Square Garden a little more than a week out from the event. Posting a rant on his Twitter account, the younger Diaz brother stated that he would not be headlining UFC’s 500th event because “[The United States Anti-Doping Agency(USADA) says] I tested with elevated levels that they say might be from some tainted supplements…I call false on that cause I only take Whole Food or natural food supplements. I don’t even eat meat.” Although Diaz was not provisionally suspended, he felt the need to get ahead of the situation to protect his reputation, something that’s helped him gained a cult following after successfully upsetting Conor McGregor back at UFC 196. Two days after Diaz started the ruckus, USADA expedited their testing of the welterweight’s samples and cleared him of any wrongdoing, keeping the BMF title headliner intact.

The weekend’s whirlwind of events left many questioning USADA’s effectiveness at doing their job. While Diaz was exonerated exceptionally quickly, may other fighters have suffered a far worse fate due to adverse USADA findings, even if they were ultimately absolved of malpractice. Josh Barnett spent 15-months battling the non-profit, non-governmental agency in arbitration over a failed out-of-competition test for the banned substance Ostarine back in December of 2016, insisting that he was flagged due to unknowingly ingesting a tainted supplement. Despite the arbitrator ultimately siding with Barnett and reducing his punishment to a public reprimand, the 41-year old heavyweight was unable to compete during the process and did not recoup his costly attorney fees to prove his innocence.

USADA seems to have an ever-changing punishment policy as well. In February 2017, UFC middleweight/light heavyweight Tom Lawlor was banned from competition by USADA for the same issue as Barnett, but because he was unable to prove that the positive test was a result of a tainted supplement, he received a two-year suspension from the organization. The following year, however, Augusto Mendes, Marvin Vettori, Sean O'Malley and Nicco Montano all served suspensions of six months for the same violation as Lawler, with USADA admitting that Lawlor’s suspension been handed out in 2019 instead of 2017, he would have been eligible for a shorter sentence length due to more accurate scientific procedures. The 18-month difference in eligibility may have had a very significant impact on the career of “Filthy,” as during his suspension Lawlor was released from the UFC.

These recent examples, along with the most recent UFC 244 misstep, have led some fans and pundits to call for the UFC to end their relationship with the anti-doping organization altogether. Given the numerous inconsistencies with fighter suspensions and questionable decisions made by the non-profit organization regarding what is and isn’t allowed, it’s hard to deny that the UFC’s partnership with USADA has been rocky since it started over four years ago. With fans and media sour on the relationship between the two companies and the UFC having to deal with the headaches of implementing the program, why doesn’t the promotion just drop the USADA partnership altogether?

For two reasons: It helps insulates them from a catastrophic event, and it gives the UFC a key brand differentiator.

Having the most mainstream visibility of any MMA promotion, the UFC uses USADA as an insurance policy in the event that a catastrophic injury should occur inside the Octagon -- including death. While no UFC fighter under contract has yet to die from complications relating to a bout, there have been instances of athletes receiving permanent damage as a result of a fight. In 2013, UFC hall of famer Michael Bisping suffered permanent eye damage as a result of a head-kick knockout at the hand of Vitor Belfort, who was controversially using Testosterone Replacement Therapy, better known as TRT, with the explicit permission of the promotion. While TRT was banned the following year and Belfort was never quite the same in the cage, Bisping’s injured eye remained with dismal 20-200 vision, just barely good enough to pass the UFC medicals and allow him to continue his fighting career.

By forging a partnership with USADA, the UFC is able to shift the responsibility of drug testing procedures and dictating which supplements fighters can and cannot take to an outside organization while showing their commitment to a fair sport. In doing this, they are able to maintain that they have taken precautions to ensure fighter safety. Should severe injury occur as the result of a fight, the promotion is protected from claims of negligence on its part. For this reason alone, it makes sense for the UFC to keep their deal with USADA, as the last thing the UFC wants is a fighter getting badly hurt or killed and the public blaming the promotion for not doing enough to protect them.

USADA is also a key brand differentiator for the UFC. As a result of numerous performance-enhancing drug (PED) scandals in various sports over the past two decades, the mainstream media is focused on keeping athletes clean now more than ever. By hiring USADA, the UFC has differentiated itself from other MMA promotions in a way that the general public embraces and understands. If the UFC were to end the partnership with USADA now, the perception would be that they are no longer in support of a clean sport and are OK with the idea of athletes taking steroids.

For those who want the UFC to discontinue their relationship with USADA, things don’t appear to be trending that way. Despite the issues the program has had, UFC President Dana White has stated that he believes the program is working, and that recent fight cancellations and headaches have been a small price to pay for cleaning up the sport. As USADA’s testing techniques evolve and policy regarding suspensions continues to change, it may be some time before fans and media deem the joint venture a success, if ever. Although the idea of keeping the sport of MMA clean is a noble one, it is far from perfect, and as for Diaz, he believes the whole process is made up anyway. Advertisement

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