Making Sense of the UFC’s New Drug Policy

Written by @NickRiznerMMA

Let’s face it. Fully understanding the intricacies of modern day athletic drug policies requires an advanced degree in pharmacology, a photogenic memory, and years worth of daily research on the topic. As testing becomes more sophisticated and accurate, new drugs are developed to beat those tests; forever keeping the athletes ahead of the curve when it comes to using banned substances.

This is not a concern that is unique to MMA. In fact, nearly every major sport in the world has struggled with the issue of performance enhancing drugs, and while many strides have been made, nobody has found a way to completely fix the problem.

Where MMA differs from other sports is in the consequences of said actions.

In baseball, PEDs may help you throw the ball harder or hit the ball further. In cycling, you may be able to bike faster or maintain a certain pace for a longer period of time. None of these outcomes lead to an increased risk of injury. Hell, even football – which features the most physical contact out of the major American sports – has implemented rule changes and highly advanced equipment to help protect the players, thus limiting the effects of PED usage on the safety of the other athletes.

In mixed martial arts, however, the use of banned substances has a direct result on the well-being of the fighters; both in the short term and the long. The act of artificially increasing the abilities of a fighter creates a dangerous environment for their opponent, while increasing the likelihood that the same opponent will choose to use PEDs in the future, as a way of keeping up with the competition.

The only way to eradicate the problem is to launch a full scale attack on the use of performance enhancing drugs in MMA; a task that the higher ups at the UFC are taking very seriously. At the helm of said attack, we have one of the most well-qualified and accomplished experts in the field of anti-doping.

That man is Jeff Novitzky, an agent for the Food and Drug Administration who has led a number of high profile investigations into the use of PEDs in professional sports. Some of his more notable investigations include the cases against championship cyclist Lance Armstrong, olympic gold medalist Marion Jones, professional baseball players Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco and more.

Today, he is the Vice President of Athletic Health and Performance for the UFC, a position that focuses primarily on investigating and reducing PED usage within the UFC roster, and ultimately, MMA as a whole.

In an August 18th appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Novitzky began by expressing a high regard for the UFC’s willingness to make personal sacrifices for the safety of their fighters.

Dana (White) and Lorenzo (Fertitta), from the minute I had conversations with them before coming over (to the UFC), jumped fully on board to this.

I think everybody realizes that from a business standpoint, especially short term, this could hurt the UFC. But, in terms of long term and short term health and safety of their fighters – which, I’m telling you, these guys are on board with, they care about their athletes – it speaks volumes, what they’re doing.

Now, it’s not as if the UFC had never enforced a drug policy. For years, they have followed the standards set by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, as well as various athletic commissions around the world, to enact a policy that consisted mainly of urine tests on fight night. According to Novitzky, this is hardly an accurate way of determining PED usage during training.

Most of our athletes (have never been tested outside of competition). (Nevada, California, New Jersey) would do what we call enhance testing, where they would maybe take the top two or three fights on a card and go out four, maybe six weeks. That was the extent of any out-of-competition tests.

As we educate, we’re going out to different gyms. We’re educating the fight cards the Wednesday before a Saturday fight. We usually ask the question, “who’s been tested other than a day-of-competition test?”

Very few hands go up; maybe a couple per session.

(A day-of-competition test) is really just an IQ test. As long as you’re smart enough to know how fast a drug will clear your system, you could easily use drugs in the past, get off them a week or two ahead of time, have them clear your system and maintain the benefits of those drugs through the fight.

The limitations of the old system do not end with the timetable of testing. There are big differences in the effectiveness of blood tests vs. urine tests, which provide an indication of possible PED usage, but do not necessarily prove guilt.

Urine results depend on your excretion level. Different people will excrete out, in urine, different levels of testosterone. It depends a lot on your metabolism. It’s not necessarily a representation of your true testosterone levels. Blood tests would be way more accurate there.

I think the urine test is done because it’s a little bit cheaper. They can initially look at the testosterone to epitestosterone ratio. That is a pretty true marker in urine. The amount of testosterone you have to epitestosterone, the levels can vary depending on how you’re excreting out, but that ratio will be very accurate of what’s in your body.

Under the UFC’s new drug policy, this testosterone to epitestosterone ratio will only be used as an indicator to determine whether further testing is required. This will provide a much more accurate reading of a fighter’s testosterone levels.

The ratio is looked at to determine whether or not you go to a more accurate backup test called the carbon isotope ratio test. So in all cases, if the test proves high over whatever the number is – 3 to 1, 4 to 1, 6 to 1 – then the determination is usually made to go to the definitive test to determine whether or not that’s foreign based testosterone.

While the UFC’s drug policy is still relatively new – first implemented in July, 2015 – it is, by all accounts, the most comprehensive and restrictive anti-doping effort in the history of professional sports. We are yet to see how much damage will be done to the current MMA landscape, but the longterm outcome should be one of a cleaner and safer sport. The ripple effect of this new policy could be vast, spearheading a movement towards similar policies in other MMA promotions, as well as other sports organizations around the world.

It is (the gold-standard program in professional sports). There’s no other professional sport that has a truly independent authority administering it. And what that does is it shows you that there’s not going to be any business interest carrying out the program. USADA (U.S. Anti Doping Agency) doesn’t give a shit if it’s our number one earner. If they test positive, they test positive. They don’t care. All they care about is clean sport.

There’s going to be no allegations of favoritism. USADA doesn’t care who the athlete is, where they live. They’re all about clean sport, again. Three hundred and sixty five days of testing. Other professional sports, at least in the United States, they can’t say that. Urine and blood tests at any point. The biological passport is huge. Even if you don’t find a specific drug, we can go over time and look at variances.

So you throw all those things together, and in my experience – both dealing with sports in the U.S. and worldwide – there’s no other organization that touches what this thing is.

Sometimes a step back is a step in the right direction. Especially when it leads to a leap forward.

What do you think about the UFC’s new drug testing policy? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

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