The UFC held a press conference on Wednesday that could, potentially, be either historically significant or historically phony.
The recent onslaught of performing-enhancing perpetrators in the world of MMA has been alarming for pundits and fans, but not so much for the UFC, who sits as the clear front-runner in the mixed-martial arts landscape.
As long as pay-per-view numbers were up, arenas were filled, and sponsors were on board, the promotion didn’t seem to show much interest in what fighters were injecting into their bodies. If this sounds familiar, see late-90’s Major League Baseball
As MMA creeps ever closer to mainstream legitimacy (away from the ‘human cockfighting’ stigma), including a three-quarters of a billion dollar deal with Fox, the young sport’s lackadaisical view on steroids and PEDs (not to mention illegal street drugs) has finally caught up with them.
With UFC stalwarts Jon Jones and Anderson Silva testing (out-of-competition) positive for cocaine and anabolic steroids, respectively, to begin the 2015 fight season, MMA looks dirtier than ever. The sport’s top promotion needed to take action to save face.
On Wednesday, several changes were announced to the UFC’s drug-testing policy. I will attempt to draw attention to the highlights, and play Devil’s Advocate when appropriate.
Random Out-Of-Competition Drug Testing For ALL Fighters
Effective July 1, the UFC plans to implement a program to randomly drug test all nearly 600 fighters on its roster. Presumably, this would mirror cycling’s program, where athletes are required to provide their whereabouts to testing authorities at all times, so they can be easily and efficiently reached for testing. All main event and title fighters will be subject to ‘enhanced’ testing.
This seems like a logistical nightmare for the company. Keeping track of nearly 600 athletes seems impossible, not to mention the frighteningly-high cost of the actual testing process (flights/hotels for testers, transportation of samples, etc.).
Out-of-competition testing is the surest way to catch a cheater. Only 1.3% of UFC fighters have tested positive for PEDs in their fight night screenings. Conversely, 26.3% have tested positive when assessed in the out-of-competition format. Cleaning up the sport requires a diligent commitment to year-round testing. However, many are worried that the UFC simply doesn’t have the resources (or the true desire) to following through.
And can the UFC, legally, place these expectations on fighters who are considered ‘independent contractors’, without also providing actual employment benefits such as retirement, Social Security, etc?
A Harsher Penalty For Offenders
UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta is asking for an increase in punishment time to discourage PED use. Currently, the Nevada State Athletic Commission (one of the more influential athletic commissions on the planet) only hands down a nine month suspension for first-time users. Fertitta is asking that the NSAC (and other state regulatory bodies) consider adopting a two-year ban for first time offenders, similar to the current standards used by the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA is also in the midst of discussions for potentially increasingly the two-year ban to a four-year period.
UFC President Dana White said, “Fighters are going to look at risk vs. reward. If I can make a couple million dollars, I’ll take the risk. Two or four years [suspension] could be career-threatening. Now you look at the risk vs. reward, and it’s a lot more dangerous. If you’re 28 years old and you get busted for PEDs and you’re off four years — that might be the end of it.”
Who Will Administer The Tests, What Types Of Testing Will Occur, And Who Will Enforce The Suspensions?
The UFC will need to decide on a third-party agency to handle the actual test administration. In the past two years, Fertitta claims that the promotion has spent $500,000 on its anti-doping efforts. That money was paid to state athletic commissions, to handle the testing.
However, these were the same commissions (particularly the NSAC), that took over a month to reveal Jon Jones’ positive cocaine test results, and nearly the same timeframe to report Silva’s positive steroid assessment. Both announcements came days AFTER their huge Vegas fights, raising eyebrows and red flags as to possible corruption in both the promotion and the athletic commission, since both badly wanted those two marquee matchups to occur inside Nevada’s borders.
Both the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) are possible suitors.
As far as the actual testing, will blood and/or urine samples be collected? If blood tests are used more frequently (the seemingly more accurate of the tests), will it be for out-of-competition testing only, or is there a logistical (and medically-safe) way for it to occur on fight night as well?
Finally, ESPN’s Brett Okamoto wrote of the actual enforcement of potential UFC-mandated suspensions: “One potential snag the program faces is the willingness and legal ability of athletic commissions and federal organizations to honor UFC-mandated suspensions that result from its independent program. Francisco Aguilar, chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, applauded the UFC’s announcement Wednesday, but stated his agency would naturally have a concern regarding a licensed fighter’s due process, in relation to a company-mandated suspension.”
Basically, some within the NSAC are questioning the legality of the promotion suspending a fighter, preventing him/her from making a living, while the state that initially licensed that fighter sits back and fails to give their ‘client’ any power to appeal the decision.
Hopefully, in the coming weeks/months, the UFC’s vision will become clearer. In the meantime, while there are holes in the anti-doping plan, it is positive to see initiative being taken to clean up the sport, before PEDs can destroy it.