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Without a clear appeals process, questions surround Cung Le's positive drug test (updated)

Victor Fraile

The court of public opinion came down swiftly on Cung Le, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion who tested positive for excess levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) following a recent fourth-round loss to Michael Bisping at UFC Macau. In the minds of many, the positive test confirmed suspicions voiced by both Bisping and fans after a strapping photo of the 42-year-old fighter circulated around the mixed martial arts community in the event's pre-fight lead-up.

The UFC suspended Le for one year as a result of his failed test. In a subsequent statement, Le denied all culpability and expressed frustration with the "unreliability" and "inaccuracy" of the testing procedures used by the UFC, as the promotion self-regulates events held in a region without a governing athletic body.

And while it's easy to brush off Le's denials as the claims of a cheater, several anti-doping scientists have since called the procedural methods of the UFC's testing process into question, including Dr. Don Catlin, the former director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory and leading researcher in the field who has overseen testing for the Olympics, NFL, and MLB's minor leagues.

"The testing procedure is more than just the actual testing," says Gary Ibarra, Le's manager who, chief among his complaints, cites that the testing facility employed by the UFC in this instance -- the Hong Kong Functional Medical Testing Center -- is not a lab approved and operated under the standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which remains a crucial point in the realm of HGH testing, as only WADA-accredited labs have the capabilities to accurately test for the drug.

Ibarra reasons that the Hong Kong Functional Medical Testing Center did not have the means to administer an accurate drug test for HGH, and confirmed that the UFC informed him that the lab did not conduct an IGF-1 test -- the only test trusted by Catlin. Requests to corroborate test Le's failure by administering an IGF-1 test and/or testing a B sample were futile, as the lab destroyed Le's samples less than two months after his fight.

To compound matters, Ibarra claims that the UFC drew a blood sample from Le just minutes after the conclusion of his fight with Bisping.

"I found, just in my preliminary research, four studies done, one was by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the American Journal of Sports Medicine, as well as some other highly accredited studies, peer-tested studies done by doctors, saying that HGH levels tested post-exertion show up to a 500x increase naturally," Ibarra says.

"That's the big issue for Cung, they saw his level so high and they figured, ‘well he must be on something.' But the problem is that the laboratory, I could pretty much guarantee you, their level that they listed as being the normal range is what's called a rested HGH level. What that is, you fast, you come in first thing in the morning, you lay down on a gurney, they make sure that your heart rate is at a normal rate, and then they draw your blood. You don't do it after somebody's just warmed up for an hour and then fought for 20 minutes."

As the UFC continues to expand globally, promotion officials have taken a hardline effort to curb the suspected rampant PED use in the sport. The UFC ultimately hopes to randomly test all 500-plus of its athletes "multiple times per year," according to CEO Lorenzo Fertitta -- although situations like Le's provide a curious case study for recourse in instances when the promotion is functioning as its own governing body, as despite the validity of Le's complaints, there appears to be no precedent to appeal Le's suspension to the governing body that ordered it, which in this case in the UFC itself.

At the time of this writing, UFC officials have not responded to's requests for comment.

"They have not informed us that they have any appeals type of a process," Ibarra says. "It's difficult, because this is a unique situation. It's a situation that has not happened previously, and so it's very difficult for us to figure out courses of action, because anything that we'll be doing will be done for the first time.

"I know it's very easy for me to say Cung is probably the only innocent man who's ever said he's gotten a raw deal, but it's true. And I'm not the only one saying it. Dr. Catlin ... said ‘Cung Le's test should not be taken into account. They are wrong.' This is the foremost authority in the world, who says that Cung's tests are no good, that they should not be given any thought.

"People need to be very sure (when an athlete fails a drug test), because, taking Cung for an example, this is a man who's been a professional martial artist for over 20 years, his reputation has always been one that he's a very honorable person, he's a family man, he's a true martial artist.

"Now his reputation is possibly irreparably damaged. If you're going to do that, then you better make sure that the test was correct."

UPDATE: The UFC confirmed on Wednesday (via ESPN) that Le will be granted the right to an appeal overseen by a third-party arbitrator. As expected, Ibarra plans to appeal.

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