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Last Wednesday was a maddening day in the world of mixed martial arts. That was the day it became undeniable that the United States Anti-Doping Agency has different standards of justice depending on how big of a star you are. After fighters like Chad Mendes, Tom Lawlor and Fabricio Werdum have received two-year suspensions from USADA for first time offenses, Jon Jones was given just 15 months for his second offense when USADA standards are supposed to dictate harsher punishments for repeat offenders.
Other factors can of course mitigate against harsher punishment, even for repeat offenders. However, pretty much every factor imaginable cuts against Jones. There was the third incident separate from the two failures when Jones produced a highly suspicious T/E ratio. There was the catastrophic California State Athletic Commission hearing in which Jones was caught in repeated contradictions and at one point admitted to lying about completing USADA online training and instead having his management forge his signature on a USADA document.
This is all not to mention the cocaine, the hit-and-run and the countless other issues with which MMA fans are so familiar. There was then the matter of the arbitrator’s tortured reasoning, which basically amounted to, “He seems like an honest and reputable fellow despite all this evidence to the contrary.” In short, the arbitrator’s ruling made absolutely no sense in the context of how other Ultimate Fighting Championship test failures have been handled.
What’s most frustrating about the situation is not that Jones in specific needs harsher punishment. Certainly, that would seem appropriate. However, he has made a mess of his career and reputation regardless of whether he fights next this November or in November 2020. A stiff punishment is warranted, but there’s no joy in watching a generational talent sit on the sidelines rather compete in the sport at which he excels.
The biggest point of anger and frustration is also not about a general disdain for performance-enhancing drugs. Pride Fighting Championships was the Wild West when it came to PEDs, and it is remembered fondly by MMA fans because the rules for those drugs were the same for everyone. After so many athletes in the past 30 years have been revealed as PED users, it’s hard to muster the level of outrage that was once directed at proven cheats. If you threw every fighter out who cheated, it would be difficult to fill out cards. The issue isn’t about punishment; it’s about fairness.
The UFC did not need to step up its drug testing program. It could easily have carried on with the old system where there was less rigorous state-by-state testing that did not last year-round. It wasn’t like that old system generated outrage from fans, nor is much scrutiny given to the lax drug testing that exists in other major sports. However, when the UFC made the decision to step up drug testing and increase punishments, it had to accept that it meant star fighters were going to fail and face serious consequences. That was obvious and inevitable.
The reason for accepting this downside was that it would make for a fairer sport. When drug testing isn’t stringent, competitors who want to fight clean are at a disadvantage. They feel pressure to cheat in order to keep up, even if they don’t want to do so. By going after PED users vigorously, it should level the playing field. That’s the whole point. To go to stiffer testing but then to apply justice selectively makes a mockery of the whole purpose for doing that testing in the first place.
At least with the previous system of weaker or non-existent testing, everybody had about the same opportunity to try to game the system. Fighters could try to get the best of their opponents unfairly, but at least the administrators weren’t favoring some fighters over others in their efforts to gain a leg up. To set up harsher testing but then to treat stars differently if they fail the tests turns the very purpose of the enterprise on its head. They’ve instituted a new system that should theoretically make things fairer but instead have administered it in a way that in fact makes it less fair for the average fighter. It’s inequity in the name of fairness, corruption in the name of principle.
Other fighters have surely watched this situation with keen interest and learned the very obvious lesson. If you’re not a star, you better be extremely careful when it comes to what you put in your body. If you are a star, you can be slightly less careful in that regard. In this way, the Jones double standard not only benefits “Bones” over other fighters who have failed tests but encourages other stars to take advantage of USADA justice. It’s a precedent that will not go away.
Beyond the patent unfairness of the Jones ruling, it could end up backfiring even in its basic goal. Clearly, there is eagerness for the UFC to get one of its biggest stars back in the Octagon after he was only able to compete four times in the last five years. However, the reason Jones has fought so little at his athletic peak is because he keeps making more mistakes. A big part of Jones continuing to make these mistakes is that those around him constantly work to ensure he doesn’t face the full repercussions for them. He thus never learns his lesson and continues to get into trouble. The handling of this drug test failure will reinforce to Jones that someone will always protect him no matter what he does. He may be back a little bit sooner, but odds are he’ll be gone again quicker, too.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.