UFC’s Anti-Doping Policy: A Turning Point for Fighters and Fans

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Today marks the beginning of an unprecedented move in mixed martial arts. July 1, 2015 will be remembered as the day that the UFC commenced it’s relationship with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). The partnership between the UFC and USADA was announced on June 3, 2015 and it was met with near unanimous praise by virtually everyone in the MMA community. Hard not to be enthusiastic about such groundbreaking news if you’re a supporter of clean sports, as is the seeming cultural norm, but this practice will bring much baggage, and can also change the face of the sport as we know it.

BREAKING DOWN THE CHANGES

There will be big changes from here on out, the biggest of which undoubtedly being out-of-competition drug testing. Under the new USADA policy, (which can be read HERE) every UFC fighter will be randomly tested several times throughout the year. This is the most obvious attempt to eradicate performance enhancing drug use altogether.

The penalties are much harsher, two to four year suspensions for a first failed test and exponential time added for subsequent failed tests. The Nevada State Athletic Commission has already discussed three year suspensions and ramped up fines, and California has already implemented it by suspending Bellator MMA fighters Mike Richman two years for a failed steroid test and Alexander Shlemenko three years for obscenely high levels of testosterone, in addition to discoveries of steroid metabolites.

The measures that are being taken to test athletes and punish cheaters are good, stricter testing and career altering consequences are great for leveling the playing field and disincentivizing combatants to even entertain the idea of using performance enhancers. However, no good deed goes unpunished, and the potential negatives are quite substantial.

It’s not exactly a bold prediction to think the physique of many fighters will change, it’s practically a given, but what about performance? It recently came to light that IV bags may no longer be permitted in assisting a fighter to rehydrate after a weight cut, this is seriously troubling news for fighters. It’s quite commonplace for fighters to cut ten percent or more of their body weight prior to a bout. 24 hours is a sufficient amount of time to get a fighter to put some weight back on, however it is not an ideal time to put weight back on healthily. IVs help a person rehydrate and is one of the most optimal methods at replenishing water back into the brain, which is critical for preventing concussions. Without the help of IVs, head trauma can be compounded and more brutal. Travis Tygart head of USADA, stated that the ban on IVs is a precautionary measure to avoid some forms of blood and gene doping, but Tygart is only one side of the doping cop coin.

Jeff Novitzky is the other side of the doping cop coin. Novitzky was hired as Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance by the UFC. Novitzky is the man who had a large part to do with busting several big name Major League Baseball players like Barry Bonds, and he also vigorously went after many cyclists including Lance Armstrong. Novitzky is also a man who’s had allegations of breaching privacy rights during his investigations with the MLB. Needless to say, Novitzky is a man that for better or worse, has the knowledge, credentials, and mad drive to catch PED users.

Aggressive Measures Will Force Change

The drug testing business will all take place behind closed doors and the mere idea of the year-round out-of-competition drug testing should be enough for the rampant drug test failures to halt, so why worry about any potential road bumps along the way? Because those bumps may in fact be ravines

The fact is fights, fighters and spectators will all suffer to some degree. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs have been part of the MMA culture for decades. The sport was a pure spectacle for the bloodthirsty when it started, there were no judges, commissions or drug testing of any kind. It was, in essence, a tough man competition between guys that happened to know a thing or two about fighting. Things have evolved since the “No Holds Barred” days, but this drug testing and Reebok deal have quite emphatically put the coffin nails to the old school mentality.

We’re fresh off the news of pound for pound king Jose Aldo pulling out of his title fight with Conor McGregor, in what was the most heavily promoted card of the year. Expect the injuries to keep mounting, for legitimate, and some ambiguously nefarious reasons. It’s common knowledge that PEDs help with injuries and aid in recovery. The UFC has built a training and rehabilitation center as part of their Athlete Marketing and Development Program, and though it’s a commendable and thoughtful move, a rehab center can’t cure you as quickly as some of the prohibited drugs might be able to.

Fights may not be as exciting. If fighters truly are as banged up as many of them claim to be, and have no assistance from the sauce, is it very likely we’ll see acrobatic feats, high amplitude slams, and devastating knockouts? We will not truly know until the fights play out, and with the added element of tougher weight cuts, endurance can be an issue as well. And this is all of course to be assumed, that all fighters stay clean.

The ugly truth is, the UFC is moving into the major leagues of drug testing and that comes with higher paid athletes being able to afford higher-end designer drugs. There will invariably always be cheaters in every sport, now it’s just trending towards the elite being able to afford the luxury of cutting corners.

The Independent Contractor Facade

The UFC is in a precarious position right now, the drug testing policy in addition to the Reebok deal has many questioning how long this facade of the title “independent contractor” will keep going. It is quite clear that the athletes resemble employees much more than independent contractors. Legal troubles are here and they will surely continue with policies such as these.

The UFC has the money and man power to take people to task for these issues, but what about the consumer? The fans will undoubtedly get tested as well. Are you here to watch splendid levels of violence or are you here to witness the ultimate level of competition? The latter will most likely stay, but don’t expect the same product you loved ten years ago. Mixed martial arts is changing, and we must change with it, just as the traditional martial arts learned to adapt to the secret weapon that was Gracie Jiu-Jitsu 20 years ago, we must also learn to adapt to those test tubes and plastic sample bottles. We don’t have to like them, but they are not our enemies, we must learn that they are here to help competitor and spectator alike.

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