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Top MMA storylines of 2016: 3. USADA’s impact

UFC 198 Open Workout Photos
Cris Cyborg tested positive for a banned substance in a December USADA drug test.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If anyone was still wondering if the UFC’s new anti-doping program was going to have any teeth, those doubts went out the window in early July.

Just three days before UFC 200, one of the promotion’s banner events of all time, it was announced that Jon Jones — the card headliner and best fighter in the world — had failed a USADA out-of-competition drug test.

Jones was yanked from his title fight against Daniel Cormier and the UFC had to shuffle the UFC 200 deck at the 11th hour.

brock lesnar Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From the outside, it looked like a black eye for the sport. How could a gigantic UFC card just fall apart like that, on fight week no less? But remember what former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said almost two years ago now: the performance-enhancing drug issue in MMA was going to get worse before it got better.

Fertitta probably wasn’t envisioning the collapse of the UFC 200 main event when he said that, but this is what he, UFC president Dana White and his brother Frank wanted. The UFC’s anti-doping policy under USADA — for better or worse — is arguably the most stringent in sports.

USADA began testing UFC athletes in July 2015. The big news then was that IV use for rehydration would be banned in October 2015. The UFC hired former federal agent Jeff Novitzky, known for taking down BALCO and Lance Armstrong in doping cases, to be its vice president of athlete heath and performance. That was a sign to those in the industry that the promotion meant business.

jeff novitzky
jeff novitzky
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

This year, the program really ramped up and many big names tested positive.

Jones was the best fighter on the list of those who failed drug tests. He tested positive for clomiphene and Letrozol, both anti-estrogen agents, and was eventually suspended one year — the maximum for those types of drugs — after arbitration. Jones will be able to fight again in July 2017.

Brock Lesnar, another top name at UFC 200, failed an out-of-competition test before his fight with Mark Hunt on July 9 and a fight-night screen as well. Lesnar popped, like Jones, for clomiphene. His case with USADA is still ongoing.

The controversy around the Lesnar positive was two-fold and will (and has been) be a marker for future actions by USADA and the UFC.

First, Lesnar was granted a waiver for a rule in the UFC anti-doping policy that says a former UFC fighter returning to compete for the promotion must spend four months in the USADA drug-testing pool before doing so.

Lesnar signed about a month before UFC 200, so the UFC waived the rule, which is its right, citing extenuating circumstances. Lesnar was tested eight times prior to UFC 200. Five of those were negative. But the former UFC heavyweight champion failed an out-of-competition test stemming from a sample taken June 28, 11 days before his bout with Hunt.

Brock Lesnar lands punches on Mark Hunt at UFC 200
Brock Lesnar lands punches on Mark Hunt at UFC 200
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

USADA did not expedite those results, so they did not come back until after the fight, which Lesnar won by unanimous decision.

Lesnar has since been suspended one year and fined $250,000 by the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC), which also had jurisdiction over the positive result. But Hunt is still fuming mad over the whole situation, threatening the UFC and Lesnar with a lawsuit.

Lesnar’s “four-month rule” exemption and USADA not expediting some of his out-of-competition results were major growing pains for a program that boasts correctly about its toughness.

Along with Lesnar and Jones, former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida was hit with an 18-month suspension for 7-keto-dehydroepiandrosterone (7-keto-DHEA) and perennial featherweight contender Chad Mendes was suspended two years for growth hormone-releasing hexapeptide.

B.J. Penn was banned six months for admitting to IV usage, which was widely criticized. Yoel Romero and Tim Means were also suspended six months for substances they said were in supplements that were contaminated. USADA agreed with Romero and Means after testing the supplements itself, cutting down what would have been two-year suspensions. The precedent with both fighters showed that USADA would exercise leniency when it came to the very real issue of tainted products.

Right before the turn of the calendar, USADA took two more high-profile scalps. Cris Cyborg, the best women’s fighter on the planet, tested positive for a diuretic drug called spironolactone. She is facing a one-year suspension. On Tuesday, the UFC announced popular heavyweight Josh Barnett had failed an out-of-competition drug test. It’s unclear as of press time what he tested positive for.

When the UFC committed to USADA in 2015, executives said they wanted the most comprehensive anti-doping program in athletics. After failed drug tests by the likes of Anderson Silva in Nevada, brass felt, most would agree rightly so, that a real PED problem existed in the sport.

While USADA has had its ups and downs in the last 18 months, the UFC is certainly getting what they paid for — a system with plenty of bite. Some have argued that it’s too strict and infringes on fighters’ rights, with a whereabouts system that requires athletes to fill in where they’ll be at essentially all times and 6 a.m. wake-up calls for drug tests.

This is what the UFC wanted, though. Big cards and drawing fighters be damned. USADA made some of the biggest MMA headlines of 2016.

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