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UFC takes a necessary step out of fighting’s ‘Stone Age’ with anti-doping policy

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Oh boy.

If large sections of the UFC roster were peeved by the Reebok deal, imagine how the roster’s smartest cheaters must feel after Wednesday. The UFC isn’t messing around. It doesn’t want cheaters competing in the promotion. It is staking millions of dollars to weed them out, regardless of name, age, gender, nationality, religious belief, state of erectile dysfunction or celebrity status.

It’s a lot to digest all at once, all this cold turkey.

If the press conference to unveil the its new anti-doping program told us anything it’s that loopholes are fast becoming extinct, and the consequences of doping are about to get extreme. Fighters will be tested for performance enhancing drugs (approximately) five-and-a-half times a year out of competition. Wednesday was the notice for the upcoming Day of No Notice. As of July, first-time offenders are going on a long hiatus (two years, or possibly more for aggravated circumstances). Second-time offenders are essentially being furloughed for good (double the sanction of first-time offenders). Third time offenders, well, they might as well go off to live in Dostoyevsky’s Siberia (double the sanction of second-time offenders).

Sobering stuff, this new push-broom policy. And it was the game-changer in the sport, Anderson Silva, who helped change the game to what it’s about to become when he popped hot for a medley of drugs back at UFC 183. Enough was enough. Now the thing has gotten serious enough to take prohibitive action.

A panel of five starched-collared gentleman (and Dana White) held court in Vegas to explain that if you are taking PEDs if the UFC, you’ll be caught and 86’d. There was COO Lawrence Epstein and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta from Zuffa, and the men they are paying to implement the program -- former Olympic athlete Edwin Moses and Travis Tygart, both of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

The USADA is the third-party administrator we kept hearing about. They’ll conduct 2,750 random tests a year on everybody under contract with Zuffa across the globe. That means no preferential treatment, because they are being paid to not give a damn about who’s who. The generic talk of cleaning up the sport to using phrases like "biological passport" and the "robustness of the policy" went from zero to a hundred in something like three seconds.

And wait…we haven’t even gotten to the chief whip-cracker himself.

Jeff Novitzky, the former BALCO investigator who was introduced as the Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance by the UFC in February, was also on hand. He’s overseeing the whole program, which extends to a relationship with the Cleveland Clinic to monitor brain trauma and the forthcoming UFC Lab, where fighters can rehab injuries and learn to train properly on the new UFC campus in Las Vegas.

In MMA circles, three sweeping words keep popping up when the name Novitzky is mentioned: "That dude’s legit."

What Wednesday’s conference made clear is that careers in the UFC just became a little more like porcelain. Fighters will need to handle themselves with care. It’s a bold new world with a very stern face. Better know exactly what's in the protein shakes and supplements. And this no-nonsense program is a drastic measure for a sport that has a problem. If it didn’t have a problem none of this would be happening.

If it all feels a little accusatory, it’s because it is. Bloodhounds are typically brought in to pick up a scent. The UFC is accusing itself of having a problem. That's a hard look to give to the mirror.

And here’s the thing that people who follow this sport should be saying about it all: Good. Good for the UFC. Good for the sport. White said that "fighting has been living in the stone age" and you know what, in ten years that comment will appear absurd in its obviousness. At least the UFC brass has the big picture in mind enough to do something about it. Criticize the UFC for screwing the fighters out of income in the Reebok deal, but give them credit for trying to create a level playing field in a sport where the goal is to physically impose your will on another human being.

A death or serious injury in a UFC fight is the flip switch to shut a lot of things down. 

It isn’t just a positive step, but a necessary one that no doubt will come at great cost. Fighters will be lost. Reputations. Fights will be canceled. Cards will be altered. Events will stay fluid until the touching of the gloves. Stars will fall from the sky. It’s a hell of a thing, volunteering to hurt your own bottom line.

But this anti-doping policy is more about fairness than it is convenience. If a fighter is clean, he shouldn’t mind the inconvenience of peeing in a cup or having his (or her) blood drawn at the odd hour. If he is guilty, let him (or her) sweat the knock on the door. And if being bothered (approx.) five times a year appears inconvenient for the fighters, imagine how inconvenient it is for the UFC, who is aiming a loaded gun at its own foot and ordering itself to dance.

"I’m hoping, I’m praying…that our guys aren’t using drugs," White said. "We’ll see how this thing plays out."

We will see how it plays out. But that it’s playing out at all is really the story.