Brock Lesnar. Jon Jones. B.J. Penn. Lyoto Machida. Frank Mir. These are just a handful of the marquee names and former champions in the UFC to face USADA violations since the promotion started year-round, in- and out-of-competition drug testing on July 1, 2015. But is the program truly cleaning up the sport?
It would be misguided to say that the program hasn’t had an impact. Since its inception, the program has slowly ramped up the volume of its testing. After just 81 tests in its first quarter, it increased to 272 in the fourth quarter of 2015. In 2016, those numbers have continued to climb, as the USADA tested 450 times in the first quarter and 535 in the most recent three-month period. During that time, it’s flagged over a dozen competitors both in- and out-of-competition for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). So everything’s great, right?
Not so fast.
When the partnership between the UFC and the USADA was originally announced, USADA CEO Travis Tygart claimed that the agency wanted to conduct 2,750 tests annually. That breaks down to just under 700 tests per quarter. After a full year of the program, that number has yet to be reached. In fact, the 1,338 tests conducted over the last 12 months is less than half of what was targeted. Even at the 2016 rate of testing, the current calendar year may not reach the 2,000-test threshold.
It’s not just the total volume of testing that indicates there is still room to improve, however. The 2,750 target equates to roughly five tests per athlete, per year (based on the current UFC roster of approximately 600 athletes). Yet, if the first year of testing data is any indication, some athletes will be tested much more frequently, whereas some will not be tested at all. This is where the red flags start to appear.
Let’s take a quick glance at the upcoming fight cards between this weekend’s UFC on Fox 20 event and the currently announced fights through September. There are a total 156 athletes competing. Of those, 126 have been subjected to at least one USADA test over the last 12 months. That’s 80 percent. The remaining 30 fighters consist of 14 newcomers and 16 veterans. Certainly it’s understandable for promotional newcomers to not be tested with regularity before ever stepping in the Octagon, but what about the athletes that have never been tested at any point during the program?
The biggest name on the list is former middleweight challenger Thales Leites. The 34-year-old Brazilian has fought twice since the program was implemented, but he has yet to be subjected to a single test. This includes his headlining fight against Michael Bisping at UFC Fight Night 72 in Glasgow and his co-main event clash with Gegard Mousasi at UFC Fight Night 84. What’s special about Leites that has the USADA spending its resources elsewhere? Apparently Leites must pass the mythical “smell test” as described by Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s VP of Athlete Health and Performance.
Another name that catches the eye on the list of fighters not tested is The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil winner Rony “Jason” Mariano Bezerra. The Brazilian was flagged for diuretic use in 2015 and was suspended by the Brazilian commission for nine months. Jason’s suspension ended in early spring, but even though he’s scheduled to compete at UFC Fight Night 92 on Aug. 6, he’s yet to be tested by the USADA.
And what about fighters associated with gyms with known PED users? Some gyms, such as Blackhouse, American Top Team and Jackson-Wink MMA have had multiple fighters flagged for violations. Guilt by association be damned, but shouldn’t the smell test become a moot point after a clear problem/source is identified?
The other fighters that have not been tested in the last 12 months that are not making their promotional debuts on the upcoming cards include James Moontasri, Godofredo Pepey, Cesar Arzamendia, Damien Brown, Fredy Serrano, Horacio Gutierrez, Teruto Ishihara, Sultan Aliev, Enrique Barzola, Damir Hadzovic, Yusuke Karuya, Joey Gomez, Jose Quinonez and Alan Patrick.
It would be easy to group some of these fighters with the debuting fighters, as many were competitors on the various iterations of The Ultimate Fighter reality series, but what about the fighters that have competed multiple times over the last year? If the average is supposed to be five tests per year, per athlete, how does 10 percent of the above group avoid testing altogether? This is the exact question that I posed to the USADA through its media contact and at the time of this post, I had not received a response.
Bear in mind, this isn’t a witch hunt for Leites, Jason and the group above — or any athlete, for that matter. I’m just pointing out the inconsistencies in the current process. Many fighters have been tested in the double digits since the testing began, including fighters that failed tests in the past, like Vitor Belfort and Anderson Silva. But if the goal of the USADA and UFC partnership is to rid the sport of PED usage, then that means that every fighter has to be tested. Catching the big names is certainly a step forward and vindication for the clean athletes in the sport, but there’s still work to be done.