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Click Debate: UFC's USADA era casts spotlight on sketchy world of supplements

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jeff Novitzky fields dozens of questions from the 500-plus fighters on the UFC roster on a weekly basis. That is a significant part of the job for the promotion's vice president of athlete health and performance.

The bulk of those e-mails, text messages and phone calls revolve around one thing: dietary supplements. Almost every athlete in the UFC takes them in some form or another. With the UFC's new anti-doping program led by USADA, supplements have come under the microscope.

"Of the inquiries that I get during the week from fighters -- and I get a lot of them -- 75 percent of them are on supplements," Novitzky told MMA Fighting.

Recently, two fighters flagged by USADA for potential anti-doping policy violations, Tim Means and Yoel Romero, have blamed test failures on tainted supplements. While pundits have called that a convenient excuse -- and maybe it is -- supplements containing illegal drugs not found on the label is relatively commonplace, according to experts.

The dietary supplement industry is largely unregulated. Certification badges put on product labels could mean just about anything or, more likely, nothing. A big part of what Novitzky has done since being hired by the UFC last spring is educate fighters, so they understand that just because they buy something at GNC does not mean it is free of substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.

"It is really the Wild West," Novitzky said. "There's no pre-market review by the government for supplements. ... No one is required to test it before it's going on the shelves. So literally, the consumers in this country are sometimes the guinea pigs. Not until somebody gets hurt or there's an issue does the FDA kind of react."

Novitzky has unique experience with the supplement business. As a former federal agent for the Federal Drug Administration, he lived it every day for almost eight years. Novitzky calls the use of dietary supplements and the potential consequences one of the most pressing issues facing UFC fighters in this new USADA era.

"I explain to people that this [vice president] position is almost like being a father to 500-plus kids, looking out for them and making sure they don't get in trouble," Novitzky said. "And when it comes to supplements, it really scares me, just because of what I know about the industry and the prevalence of the use of supplements by our fighters."

Means admitted to testing positive for a substance called ostarine in February. That falls under the category of drugs known as selective androgen receptor modules or SARMs, which have effects similar to those of anabolic steroids. Means said he didn't knowingly ingest ostarine, that it must have been in one of the supplements he was taking. He was pulled from a main event fight against Donald Cerrone after failing the out-of-competition drug test.

Romero's manager Malki Kawa said on The MMA Hour in February that his client was in the same boat. Kawa said Romero took a supplement that contained a banned substance, but did not wish to divulge the name of the supplement or drug due to a pending investigation. Kawa claimed he and USADA had the supplement tested and results came back that said supplement was tainted. Romero said he never knowingly took any kind of performance-enhancing drug.

If Means and Romero are telling the truth, it would not come as a total shock to Oliver Catlin, whose company BSCG tests supplements and certifies them if they are drug free. Catlin said there is a widespread issue with tainted supplements as well as a growing bait-and-switch scheme with manufacturers dressing up SARMs as if they were legal supplements.

"The issue of dietary supplement contamination is certainly real," said Catlin, whose company tests supplements for nearly 400 drugs, focusing on the WADA list. "More specific to SARMs, you're not actually talking about contamination. You're talking about the illicit, overt addition of illegal ingredients that are put in dietary supplement packaging and masquerade as legal dietary supplements. Those shouldn't be on the market in the first place, so athletes shouldn't even have the option of finding those and having a possible drug test result."

Catlin, whose father Don is a pioneer in the anti-doping industry, said there was a certain culture that developed over the years in MMA, an industry he and many believe clearly had -- and arguably still has -- a "problem" with performance-enhancing drugs. Part of that culture was the use of supplements that contained things like pro hormones and other PEDs, he said.

"Obviously, that is what prompted the UFC to take the steps that they have as of late," Catlin said of the hiring of Novitzky and USADA. "And they have taken some very powerful and aggressive steps."

There are now severe consequences for committing a USADA anti-doping policy violation. Mirko Cro Cop and Gleison Tibau have each been suspended two years since the program began in July. Cro Cop admitted to taking human growth hormone. Tibau eventually owned up to using erythropoietin (EPO) after testing positive for it.

Means and Romero could face similar punishments, but is that fair? If they both mistakenly took illegal substances and were duped by a supplement manufacturer, should they be given the maximum sentence? That's an ongoing question in the anti-doping field and a difficult one since it's so hard to prove that a positive test came from a tainted supplement rather than something more sinister.

"Sadly, there is often little way for anyone to differentiate for certain between a positive analytical finding from a supplement versus the actual consumed substance," said Margaret Goodman, the president of the Volunteer Anti-Doping Agency (VADA). "I believe at this time fighters must be responsible for anything they consume. Athletes must take that responsibility and ask questions. It's their body. They must investigate on their own what they consume and not delegate that responsibility to others."

USADA and VADA both provide help for athletes who are seeking answers about whether or not they are taking clean, legitimate supplements. USADA has a pharmacist on staff for that very thing. Novitzky himself fields plenty of questions about that very topic, often getting e-mails with pictures of supplement bottles from curious fighters hoping what they are taking is on the up and up.

The answer Novitzky gives is not always one the athlete likes, because there is so much uncertainty. While he has more resources and contacts at his disposal than almost anyone else, supplements can be mislabeled or even cross-contaminated with a banned substance from another supplement at the place in which they're manufactured.

"Unfortunately, the best answer that I can give back is, 'Hey, it appears to be low risk,'" Novitzky said. "I can never give the answer, 'Hey, 100 percent you're good to go with this supplement.' There's frustration there.

"It's just the nature of the industry. You never know. You can literally have 99 bottles of a supplement that are good to go and would have in it what it says on the label, but that [100th] bottle is tainted or contaminated with something. I saw that routinely in the industry with my experience there."

Novitzky believes clean supplements really should not provide any more of a performance boost than a "well-balanced meal," though he acknowledges something like a protein shake is more convenient for a fighter on the go than cooking some chicken breasts and vegetables.

Meanwhile, USADA's advice for fighters is simple: take supplements at your peril.

"The current regulatory framework in the supplement industry creates a serious risk for athletes, in both potentially testing positive or having major health consequences as the result of contaminated or adulterated supplements," USADA said in a statement to MMA Fighting. "We have provided education to all UFC athletes about supplements and the supplement industry, and our advice to athletes is always that if they choose to use supplements, they do so at their own risk."

Telling fighters not to use supplements doesn't seem like the most practical advice. Athletes in mixed martial arts put themselves through some of the most grueling, rigorous physical activities in sports. If they believe that something will give them an edge legally, they're going to do it.

Supplements also provide a revenue stream for fighters. Many endorse supplement manufacturers. The UFC itself has a sponsorship with MusclePharm.

Novitzky urges fighters to be as careful as possible with their selection of companies, if they choose to use supplements. There is a UFC athlete summit coming up and Novitzky said the very first presentation will be about supplements. This is a serious issue and one that is very much on the promotion's radar.

Myles Jury, a UFC featherweight, said he has used supplements throughout his career and is adamant about making sure they are all natural without any chemical additives.

"Needing chemicals is reaching too far," Jury said. "Natural is the way to go. That alone eliminates all risks unless some horrible company was spiking their products, but you avoid that by researching the company as much as the product's ingredients."

It sounds simple, right? And the adage about athletes being responsible for what they put in their bodies remains valid.

But fighters at the highest level have a lot to worry about, a host of obligations and plenty of people in their ears. Mistakes do happen and the penalties are stern and theirs to serve alone.

It's likely we've only scratched the surface of this issue in the UFC as the promotion and its fighters adapt to this new era of anti-doping. The learning curve is a steep one.

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