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Enhanced drug testing not nearly as easy as it sounds

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The situation involving Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks, and having it be the most drug tested fight in UFC history as St-Pierre would like, has led to mistrust and complications in a sometimes sordid world where there are not only no easy answers, but maybe no answers at all.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre badly wants to remove all speculation he's using performance enhancing drugs after it became a hot-button issue with claims made by Nick Diaz before their fight in March.

His next opponent, Johny Hendricks, has stated numerous times in recent weeks he's also got nothing to hide.

So on the surface, it sounds simple. Both say they've got no issues with subjecting themselves to the inconvenience of being drug tested, with no warning, at any time, between now and their Nov. 16 title fight in Las Vegas. It should be the most-heavily tested fight in UFC history.

If only things were so simple.

As it stands now, St-Pierre has been subjecting himself to unannounced and random blood and urine drug testing through VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Association) for several weeks. Unless he withdraws from the program, which is exceedingly unlikely given the backlash it would cause, he will continue to do so until the fight.

St-Pierre was not only willing, but has already put up the money to pay for Hendricks to do the same. But based on a series of perceived red flags, Hendricks has stated he will not test with VADA. His representatives opened the door for other options after discussing things with UFC and the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC).

A conference call was held last month, with the idea of getting both fighters on the same page for enhanced testing.
What happened next was a series of things that resulted in mistrust from the Hendricks side, and then a lack of communication from the St-Pierre side, to where no agreement has been reached. The deadline has long since passed for a 12-week program that would run through the entirety of both men's training camps.

Beneath it all is the politics of competing organizations in the drug testing business and a subject that remains as much a frustration in sports today as it has been for a half-century. The gist of the subject is the competitive disadvantage that clean athletes face today in sports that involve a high degree of athleticism, and the potential of long-term health issues that may result from long-term usage of certain performance enhancing drugs.

In any sport where speed, explosiveness, aggressiveness, stamina, power and even cosmetic looks are involved, you are going to find performance enhancing agents. Exactly how prevalent they are in MMA is subject to debate. Those who want to justify usage will claim everyone is doing it, and the playing field is already even. They will say it's only the dumb or very unlucky ones get caught.

Other fighters vehemently deny usage, say users are cheaters, but most concede it's a very significant problem.

Camps at times base game plans around the belief certain fighters are using substances, trying to avoid strengths from that perceived usage, and attack weaknesses based on those beliefs.

Testing is a hit-and-miss game. The UFC insists on testing at all its events, in most cases by the local commissions. When UFC runs in places like Japan or the United Kingdom, where there is no commission, they will test themselves, and historically those shows seem to result in more positives than commission testing. Some commissions only test a few fighters. Others test every fighter on the show.

In other organizations, testing is not necessarily there for every show. Few other promotions insist of testing if the local commission doesn't require it on its own.

But even though UFC has consistently pushed for more testing, it has been often criticized for not implementing stringent testing of its own, as most major sports organizations these days do. UFC President Dana White has always argued UFC, along with boxing, is tested by the government, an outside independent agency. He claims that's superior to testing by the sports themselves, because of the credibility of the organization itself having no hand in the results or the punishment, except in those cases when UFC does its own testing.

But few believe tests that, except on rare occasions are only done at fight time and when fighters know and expect them, represent much more than an IQ test.

White hasn't been publicly supportive of fighters, like St-Pierre in this instance, who is demanding of himself a far more stringent testing program.

"I think it make them both look stupid," White said on Thursday in his Google+ Hangout chat when the subject of the St-Pierre/Hendricks steroid testing back-and-forth volleying was brought up. "These guys are going to get tested by the athletic commission. This is something that Georges St-Pierre wants to prove to everybody, because for years people have been saying (he's doping). When he fought B.J. Penn, B.J. talked smack about him. Other people have talked stuff. The kid, not only is he another guy that's been with us since day one, he's never tested positive for anything even remotely close to anything bad. He's never tested positive for anything.

"He's always been a straight shooter and always professional, yet people keep talking smack about him. I just think it's crazy for him to even do this. I just think it makes everything cloudy, man. There's a system in place by the government for combat sports, and it's just a pain in the ass for them. They can do whatever they want. They want to do it. They don't want to do it. I could care less."

Testing that is limited to urine tests taken the weekend of the fight leaves an incredible amount of leeway to use PEDs in the off-season, or during the hardest part of training camps. Commissions do have the right to test licensees at any time. For financial reasons, such testing is rarely done, although unannounced training camp testing of fighters in major main events in Nevada does happen these days on occasion.

Still, there are issues. Some fighters claim all drug testing does is give the rich fighters the edge, because they can afford the best drugs and most expensive programs for beating the tests. While there is a blood test for human growth hormone (HGH), it almost never catches anyone and most in sports believe the drug can be used pretty much with impunity. In MMA, athletic commissions don't test for HGH, even though it is a banned substance.

There are also all kinds of issues with testing for testosterone. Victor Conte, who designed programs for notable athletes including Barry Bonds and Marion Jones to beat drug testing, has been an outspoken critic of the current system.

Conte, a strong proponent of VADA, has been heavily critical of using the testosterone to epitestosterone ratio to determine whether athletes are using testosterone. VADA is a newcomer in the drug testing battles, and in July announced that Dr. Donald Catlin, had joined on as its Scientific Adviser. Catlin is the biggest name in the U.S. when it comes to sports drug testing, which is a significant industry given the amount of money spent by various different sports and athletic commissions.

Conte and Catlin are strong proponents of CIR (Carbon Isotope Ratio) testing, which VADA uses, and can tell the difference between natural and artificial testosterone. The problem is, such tests run from $700 to $1,000, four to five times what the current T:E tests cost. This makes them cost prohibitive for most commissions.

But CIR testing has become more popular over the past year. A number of sports and sports entertainment organizations, including both the Nevada commission and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), use CIR testing as a secondary test if the T:E test shows borderline or high levels. Still, like when any new test comes in, those who advise athletes to beat the tests, are constantly studying the tests with the idea of devising ways to beat it.

The public, after decades, is largely burned out on the story, even if they are quick to turn on athletes who test positive.

In fighting, the problem becomes that everyone with a top level physique, like St-Pierre, is put under suspicion, and even more so when they excel in their sport. If someone is genetically gifted when it comes to physique, the nature of fight training and eating healthy is going to give one a very impressive look. Others, without that genetic disposition, like Tim Sylvia and Josh Barnett, have failed steroid tests without having bodies that remotely look like one would imagine a fine-tuned steroid-aided athlete would look like.

St-Pierre evidently realizes the response muscular fighters give when questioned, that they have never failed a drug test, only works as being foolproof evidence to those naive.

Nick Diaz is hardly the first person to accuse St-Pierre of doping, which explains St-Pierre going to significant expense before this fight to clear his name. His aggressiveness in this manner can be applauded. But no matter how many tests he passes, the fact he's wealthy, has a great physique, his success, and the limitations of testing will not change the minds of those who believe him to be using HGH or other hard-to-detect substances. Recent revelations involving high-level athletes who beat tests for years, like Lance Armstrong, only underscore St-Pierre's dilemma of public and professional opinion if he is what he claims he is.

Just the fact St-Pierre is going through this testing at this point without Hendricks seems to indicate it's more about clearing his own name than him worrying about whether his opponent is cheating. Perhaps it will remove some of the suspicion based on all the comments by Diaz, but those who believed Diaz for the most part, still will even if St-Pierre goes through this program with flying colors.

Representatives for both fighters came together with Michael Mersch, the Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs and Assistant General Counsel of the UFC, and Keith Kizer, the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, last month, for a meeting to agree on drug testing protocol.

It turned into a situation where Hendricks' side felt there were too many red flags with St-Pierre's side wanting both fighters to agree to VADA testing. St-Pierre's representative, Rodolphe Beauliue, asked numerous questions about an enhanced testing program that the commission would set up with the WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) accredited lab in Salt Lake City. Beauliue was trying to specify what would be tested for, in particular bringing up EPO and HGH, and more details about when, how and how much. Kizer thought some of those questions shouldn't be answered given the unannounced nature of the proposed testing.

"I am happy to answer any questions (and have - see my answers to your latest questions...)," Kizer wrote in an e-mail to Beauliue on Aug. 16. "However, the commission does not allow any licensee to dictate or craft the testing. Not only is this inappropriate, it is not something the commission would even consider."

The program brought up to both fighters would be one where each would get three to ten unannounced tests, both blood and urine. They would have to inform the commission where they would be at all times between now and fight time, and have someone with a cell phone with them for immediate contact. Testers would fly in to where each fighter is training, with no warning. The fighter would have one hour to meet with the tester and provide whatever samples were requested.

After Kizer answered an e-mail by Beauliue about procedure, Beauliue, on Aug. 17, wrote that if Hendricks doesn't want VADA testing and prefers the system Kizer proposed, St-Pierre would submit to both sets of tests. But after that point, Beauliue, nor anyone from St-Pierre's camp, had anymore communication with the commission or with Hendricks' camp. This left Kizer to believe the issue is now dead, and Hendricks' camp going under the same assumption.

A few weeks later, it was reported that Hendricks hadn't agreed to the VADA testing that St-Pierre was already getting. Hendricks' side, feeling thrown under the bus, complained that when they had the conference call, they had agreed to enhanced testing and it was St-Pierre's side never agreed to the deal.

According to Dr. Margaret Goodman of VADA, St-Pierre had enrolled in the program and paid $16,000, which would have been the cost for both he and Hendricks to a full battery of tests for the last 12 weeks before the fight. As things stand right now, VADA will be refunding to St-Pierre half of that money, since Hendricks is adamant he will not be enrolling in the VADA program.

"GSP is currently enrolled in VADA and continues to be subject to unannounced random testing through November 16, 2013," said Goodman via e-mail.

Firas Zahabi, St-Pierre's longtime trainer, suggested on Twitter this past week that the fighters do both programs. Ted Ehrhardt, Hendricks' representative at the commission conference, said at this point said there is no good in his side's mind that can come out of testing. He said Hendricks is clean and open to testing, and Hendricks has been under no suspicion from anyone. He said St-Pierre failing would cancel the fight that Hendricks and his Team Takedown organization have been working to get for years.

"I don't know," he said regarding a potential new deal being put together for enhanced drug testing. "Like we've always said, none of this does anything for us. GSP fails a drug test, that kills us. We don't get a title fight. We have nothing to gain from drug testing."

"The brief version is, he (St-Pierre) announced he wanted to do drug testing and Johny said, `Yeah great, I'm all for it,'" said Ehrhardt. "He's got nothing to hide. He doesn't care. GSP said he wanted testing by VADA. I'd never heard of it. I thought VADA stood for Nevada. After doing some research and talking to some people, you've heard other fighters badmouth them like (Matt) Mitrione, I told Johny that they don't even submit their results to the Nevada commission. Before he does anything, we have to ask the UFC for their permission. We're not going to do anything to p*** the UFC off.

"So we wrote them, which led to the conference call, with me, the commission, the UFC and GSP's reps on the call. It was very obvious the UFC and the commission both felt if we want to do it (enhanced drug testing), we should do it through WADA. They're more stringent. They (the commission) use it. Everything's positive."

WADA is actually a misnomer. The actual program talked about was an enhanced program Kizer put together with Dr. Daniel Eichner, the Director of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, a WADA accredited lab in Salt Lake City. At that point, Ehrhardt said Zahabi stated that they wanted VADA because they were sponsoring the testing and it would be free.

In actuality, WADA is an international sports agency responsible for coordinating and monitoring the battle against doping in sports. It's a regulatory body, not a testing agency. But they do accredit various labs around the world. The lab VADA uses, the UCLA Olympic Analytic Lab, was the first WADA-accredited lab.

Kizer confirmed things went that way.

"Firas said, we can get it for free, why pay $20,000 when we can do it for free," Kizer said.

Kizer said that St-Pierre's rep on the conference call, Beauliue, later informed the commission and Hendricks' reps that VADA was sponsoring a portion of the bill but that St-Pierre was personally paying for most of it. But that was another red flag for the Hendricks camp, after seeing GSP on VADA's web site listed as one of the athletes using its program.

"We don't know GSP or VADA and I don't want to trust that both are on the up-and-up, and the commission and UFC both said WADA," said Ehrhardt.

"We have all our policies and procedures readily available for review," said Goodman. "Any fighter undergoing stringent unannounced PED testing has rights, and if they don't know all the policies and rules--especially as it relates to collections, how are they able to determine if they were treated fairly should there be abnormal results? This is especially true if they are volunteering. Collections are so much more than sending someone to draw blood and have the right pee in a cup."

VADA, which aside from St-Pierre, has Roy Nelson and Ben Askren as MMA fighters listed on its web site, does CIR testing and EPO testing in every test. It also test for HGH and monitors blood counts. VADA does not test for marijuana, believing it not to be a performance enhancing drug.

Ehrhardt also claimed that on a Canadian television show, they were filming St-Pierre when VADA showed up for the first random drug test, which he admitted may have been a coincidence, but it concerned him.

"VADA is trying to get as much recognition as possible," he said. "It felt really suspicious. They showed up and filmed them coming to drug test him. To me, it was another red flag. It may all be legit. I don't know. Some guy said it's free, then another guy says it's discounted, and then we hear it's not discounted."

"Like my attorney says, if it smells fishy and tastes fishy, it's probably fish."

Hendricks appeared on Inside MMA on Friday, for what Ehrhardt said would be the last time the challenger would discuss the subject. Hendricks noted that nobody has ever accused him of being on performance-enhancing drugs. He said he didn't have the chiseled physique and said if he was on such drugs, he'd probably be a heavyweight. He noted being tested throughout his pro career, and long before that, dating back to his days as a two-time NCAA champion wrestler at Oklahoma State.

He spoke of the WADA testing as superior to the VADA testing, and that both the UFC and athletic commission recognized that testing and don't recognize VADA testing, so even if there is a failure, it won't necessarily count.
Kizer said that wasn't the case, and that they will support whatever enhanced testing the athletes want to do. He said a failure of a VADA test would be handled the same way a failure of a test ordered by his commission would be handled.

Last year, when a VADA test found boxer Lamont Peterson to be using artificial testosterone from his CIR test, the commission nixed the fight. Kizer noted in that case, they got the result less than two weeks before the scheduled bout with Amir Khan, resulting in the entire show being scrapped.

Kizer noted what a disaster it was because fans had already made reservations from England to come in for the weekend and the promotion had spent its money to promote the show. But the commission would have been crucified by the media if Peterson was allowed to fight after failing his test.

New York was heavily criticized for allowing Erik Morales to fight Danny Garcia this past October, after Morales had failed two tests a week apart for Clenbuterol, a banned performance-enhancing agent. Morales was then suspended from competing in the U.S. for two years,after the fight took place.

UFC has a deep lineup for its scheduled 20th anniversary show, with Chael Sonnen vs. Rashad Evans, Frank Mir vs. Alistair Overeem, Rory MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler and Josh Koscheck vs. Tyron Woodley already announced for the undercard. Even the worst case scenario of St-Pierre not being able to fight wouldn't threaten the card going on, although it would be an enormous blow.

"Ted (Ehrhardt) said, `We're happy to do it, but we're not paying for it,"' said Kizer as the last thing he's heard from the Hendricks side. "He said, `We know we're clean, but we want it from a legit third party,' and that's how it ended."

But the door isn't completely shut.

"I don't know how long WADA needs," Ehrhardt said. "If GSP gets with Kizer and figures how to get WADA testing going, we're all for it. But VADA, absolutely not. Every time I turn around, something's different."