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UFC’s Jeff Novitzky discusses USADA, weight cutting in wide-ranging Q&A

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Jeff Novitzky has been with the UFC for nearly two years as the vice president of athlete health and performance.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — It has been nearly two years since the UFC hired Jeff Novitzky, mostly for his expertise and involvement in high-profile anti-doping cases involving famous athletes like Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong.

In the last 22 months, though, Novitzky has taken on numerous roles as the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance, most notably becoming a major proponent of earlier weigh-ins and weight-cutting reform. In May, the UFC will open a Performance Institute for fighters and Novitzky has played a key role in its development.

In this wide-ranging Q&A, Novitzky, a former U.S. federal agent for the FDA and IRS, discusses the UFC’s anti-doping program with USADA, the promotion’s commitment to weight-cutting guidelines, brain-health studies and much more.

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the USADA decision came down in Cris Cyborg’s doping case. The interview has also been edited for brevity.)

Marc Raimondi: Is there anything about working here that coming into it you didn't know you would be doing or things that are different than what you expected? Or just the sport itself, anything that you’ve learned about it?

Jeff Novitzky: If you look at it, my role has expanded exponentially. I initially came in and the anti-doping program was my focus. Since then, I’ve inherited a whole department: athlete health and performance, which includes the post-fight medical department, pre-fight medicals to insure these fighters are clear to fight. Obviously, the whole weight management thing came under my umbrella. I’ve been working now with brain-health issues. So really, it’s an encouraging and a positive development, because I think from a fighter perspective, the more they can see that, ‘Hey look, Jeff is here not just as the anti-doping police, he’s looking out for your complete picture of health and safety of all areas.’ I think it helps build trust and I think, in my opinion, trust is the most important thing with my position. If the fighters don’t trust me as kind of the face of this anti-doping program, then it’s not gonna be successful. You need to have that trust and openness and the ability for them to ask you questions, to make suggestions about how things can get better and more fairer, and I’ve seen that happen definitely over the second year, is that trust has been developed.

MR: I didn’t know you were working on brain health. I know that the UFC has donated millions to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic. Is there anything else that you guys are doing in that area?

JN: Yes, I have a role in that. In Sacramento, most recently, our event there in December, I worked with the state athletic commission there and [CSAC executive officer] Andy Foster on the neuro-cognitive testing, which Nevada has adopted as well. So we’re soon to see all fighters who fight in Nevada have to go through that testing. I’ve been interacting with a company that has that test and reaching out to other state commissions and encouraging them to get the testing and encouraging them to do what California and Nevada are doing now.

MR: All of the things that you’re working on — anti-doping, weight management, brain health. This is still a very new sport. When you compare it to other major sports, which you know every well, this is still in its infant stages. Is MMA in a constant evolution, do you think?

JN: It definitely is. I’m most encouraged by the leadership of this company and their acknowledgement that they want to get ahead of the curve on these issues versus 30, 40 years down the line, having ignored issues and being behind the curve. The sport has grown super fast and because of those reasons, the leadership here [is] projecting what these issues are and dealing with them up front versus further on down the line.

MR: Speaking of changes, last year you guys instituted the early weigh-ins starting in June. And that was a really significant change, because the sport across the board did weigh-ins at a certain time for the last 20 years or so, really from the very start. You guys kind of committed to it for every event and others have followed the UFC. What have you learned from the early weigh-in? Has it been a success? What has been your assessment of it?

JN: The feedback is universally positive from the athlete. To me, there’s so many benefits from it. You have the back side where you have more time to insure proper hydration and nutrition stores built up before the event. I think maybe as important is the time that the fighters are on weight is lessened. When you had it later in the afternoon, a lot of these fighters get anxious, they get on weight earlier in the morning and the whole day, you’re depleting, limiting food intake, limiting liquid intake. Now you’re seeing that over a much shorter period of time. So that’s positive.

The one perception of a negative, which I don’t think is, is the amount of fighters we’ve seen missing weight since we instituted it. My view on that is, well that sucks for the fighter who missed. It’s a positive, because it’s identifying to those fighters that they’re a) doing it wrong and waiting until the last minute or b) maybe fighting at too low of a weight class. Because there’s less of a window on weigh-in day to lose weight. Most fighters are still sleeping — maybe not the best sleep — but they’re sleeping overnight. So you’re talking a three- or four-hour window in the morning to get to that weight and frankly if you can’t get to a weight in three or four hours in the morning, you’re probably not at the right weight class or you probably came in too heavy and weren’t disciplined when you weren’t fighting or in your training camp.

While short term there are some pains there, I think in the long term it’s positive, because it’s further identification, further education for these athletes about, ‘Hey, here’s why you need to have this weight cut be gradual and moderate and not severe.’

MR: How are you guys attacking that? Because, like you said, it could be a good thing in identifying and educating those fighters, but at the same time it’s bad press. Fans really dislike when fighters miss weight. Even though missing weight does not mean there’s a weight-cutting problem — there’s already a weight-cutting problem — how do you guys attack fixing that? Because you don’t want fighters getting fined, you don’t want fights dropping out, of course.

JN: It’s really on the education front and that’s why we’re so excited about in a couple months the Performance Institute opening up, because it’s gonna have a nutrition element. It’s gonna have a lead nutritionist and a junior nutritionist and, I mean, that’s gonna be a game-changer in my opinion, that every athlete would have the ability to get, to the meal, for their training camp and offseason planned out of everything they’re gonna eat. I think things like that and just awareness to the problem. Yeah, it is a negative short term, but the more people talk about it, the more media talk about it, the more fighters pay attention to it, that there is an issue. And any time people are talking about it and thinking about it, that’s a positive — the realization that this is a topic about their health, both short and long term health and safety. And if they’re not achieving their contracted weight, they need to change things.

MR: Another odd side effect of early weigh-ins is that fighters are missing weight and some of them are missing by a lot. Some are missing by five pounds or more. Is there anything you’ve seen in the data that has shown why that is happening?

JN: Absolutely. What you’re seeing there is more attention being paid by the UFC to those fighters and in most of those situations it is me, the medical team or a doctor aware the fighter has come into fight week heavier and have a very close eye on that fighter. So we are often in rooms the morning of, we’ll see a fighter that maybe gets into a struggling area and then call it off right there. Say, ‘You’re not cutting any more, go downstairs and weigh in. Basically we’ve seen enough, we feel like you’re getting into an area that wouldn't be safe for you.’ So we’re stopping that.

MR: Do you learn that from the weight guidelines? Because now you guys check to see how much they weigh coming into fight week.

JN: That 8 percent is huge, and those that come in heavy for the week, we’ve instructed the people on the ground to keep a closer eye on those people. It’s definitely more awareness on our behalf as well.

MR: In doing those checks and compiling that kind of data during fight week, is there anything you’ve learned? Because this is stuff that never gets studied. There aren’t many studies out there about weight-cutting in fighters.

JN: What we’ve learned is the things that we’ve put in place. It wasn’t for the purpose of weight management, but the IV ban and then the education and the guidelines have had a positive effect. We’ve seen the numbers of weight loss in that last week drop and we continue to see it dropping in a positive direction. What we’re working on now is, is it enough? Are we stopping here? I don’t think so. I think we always need to keep evaluating and figuring out what else we need to do and we will do that. What it’s showing us that it’s going in a positive direction.

MR: That’s actually what I wanted to ask you. What is the next step? There are still a lot of fighters cutting too much weight. I think everyone can agree with that. It seems to be steeped in the culture of the sport. What is the evolution? What is the next thing?

JN: I don’t know what it is. I can tell you things that are talked about constantly and on the table is more of a financial disincentive, so maybe more of a financial penalty for missing weight. There’s also some talk on the table about scientific measurements, body-composition analysis to determine, ‘Hey, what is a healthy minimum weight for a fighter?’ There’s concerns on that end in that, can that be manipulated by a fighter? That’s definitely my communication with fighters and camps. If you have a period in time when a fighter is not fighting, you’re gonna get a measurement from them, how would you prevent the athlete from cutting weight or manipulating their body composition for that measurement so that they can get down further? So there’s a lot of variables in there. We’re definitely talking with medical experts and science experts to determine if there is something out there.

My preference would be what we’re doing now, a measured approach and education heavy. Again, we’re constantly evaluating that. If that’s not enough, then we’ll ramp that up and we’ll go to something more extreme.

MR: Especially when it comes to performance, there are tangible examples now of fighters moving up in weight and having more success than they’ve had previously in their careers, like a Jorge Masvidal or a Donald Cerrone. Is that part of the process, too? Because what I’ve heard from many fighters and regulators is that health is not as much of a concern to fighters as the actual performance in the fight.

JN: You know, these guys and girls are some of the toughest individuals on the planet. They think they’re bulletproof and sometimes talking about short- and long-term health side effects goes in one ear and out the other. But almost across the board, 100 percent, if you start talking about effects on performance, they listen. And that’s been very positive in a couple areas. First, starting with the IV ban. At first, there was a lot of concern. ‘I’ve always rehydrated that way.’ All the experts we went to said, ‘Well, given it is more difficult to orally rehydrate, being that you have that time, 24 to 30 hours, if your weight cut is not too severe, you can do that and the studies have shown your performance, your endurance has a positive from going that route.’ I saw that early on, the feedback I was getting from the fighters who have IV’d were like, ‘Holy smokes, you were right. It was more difficult, but I felt so much better the next day.’

MR: That kind of goes hand in hand with the performance center, right? There will be a weight-management element to that. There will be some education and things like that.

JN: I think that’s part of the idea, is new fighters as part of their on-boarding process will talk to sports scientists and nutritionists — let’s figure out, ‘What is an optimal weight class for you to be at? What should you be walking around at if you’re gonna be fighting at that weight class?’ That’s gonna be a big element of the Performance Institute.

MR: I just wanted to go back to weight management for a second. There has been talk in regulatory circles about the addition of more weight classes. Now, I know that is not something the UFC is necessarily in favor of and hasn’t been in the past. But is that something that could be brought up or brought back to the table? If we’re talking about fighting at a more natural weight, some fighters just don’t fit into all of those current weight classes naturally.

JN: There’s talk about it. I think you’ve seen on the women’s side some experimentation with 125 and 145. I don’t think anything is off the table, but we need to be able to support it with fighters. Those types of things don’t happen overnight. I think with the data collection we’re doing now, the education, kind of seeing how that plays out. A moderate approach is the right first step, but potentially down the line it takes more than that and potentially there would be more classes.

MR: Outside of weight management, what else will be involved with the Performance Institute and what should people know about it?

JN: I think the big one is training with measurable statistics for these fighters. Right now, a lot of MMA training is by feel. I think what this is gonna bring is science and technology into the fold. Where it’s more than feel. They can see real results in terms of positioning and punching power, kicking power and how to improve that. I think the technology aspect of the sport, the hope is it will increase exponentially. They will learn things at the center and dispense them at gyms across the world. Not just in UFC, but in all of MMA.

I think also training smarter and injury prevention. Injury rehabilitation. We talked earlier about this sport still being in its infancy and I definitely think smart training and rehabilitation are in its infancy. I think it’s going to improve tremendously with the Performance Institute in the first year or two.

MR: This is all kind of an investment in the future of the sport, is it not?

JN: This is obviously not a cheap project, but I think what it’s gonna do in the long run is gonna have returns tenfold.

MR: Anti-doping, that’s kind of your wheelhouse. That’s the background you come from. We’re not quite two years into your tenure and the anti-doping policy with USADA. Is it where you want it to be? As far as the state of the anti-doping policy and the program, is it where you want to be? Are there improvements needed?

JN: First off, I’m really pleased with what we’ve done here in the last year and half in the program. It’s difficult to measure success with a program. How do you prove a negative that no one is using anything performance-enhancing? The way I do that is I go to events and I’m usually there the entire week and I rely on those short, five-to-10-minute conversations in the lobby, in the elevator, fighters and camps approaching me, and try to get feedback there. The feedback that I’ve gotten is that it’s having a huge impact and difference, in a positive manner in the sport. It’s been positive.

Now, this program is unique in a couple ways. Number one, it’s by far — and I don’t say this as opinion, it’s fact — the most comprehensive in pro sports. There’s no other program that compares to it. Number two, it’s a very, very unique sport, the business model here where you have independent-contractor athletes fighting three or four times a year is really unique to any sport. So when you combine those things, despite our month and a half, two months of trying to put this program together and trying to think of every potential scenario, it’s to be fully expected that as the program is ongoing there would be fine-tuning and tweaks to that. We’ve actually just done that.

Almost all of [the changes] are athlete-driven changes. You need to have a balance between comprehensiveness, strength of the program and fairness to the athlete. Now we can say, ‘Hey, you need to let USADA know where you are 24 hours a day, we’re gonna test you three or four times a week.’ That would be the strongest, most comprehensive program. Is it fair to the athlete? No. So there’s a balance of that. So we’ve identified that we thought could make the program even better, some instances that will make it more fair to the athlete.

MR: On the anti-doping policy, the goal is obviously to deter and catch those who are cheating. Do you feel that has been successful? There have been some cases where there has been dissatisfaction and questioning if USADA is really catching the people who intend to cheat. There have been people popping for tainted supplements or diuretics. There has also been criticism about things like sanction length, like why did Lyoto Machida get an 18-month suspension when someone else got another sanction?

JN: The beauty and arguably the number one pillar of strength of this program is that it’s not the UFC implementing it, adjudicating it — it’s USADA, who has more experience in anti-doping than any entity in the world. Every single case that I’ve seen here, they’re looking at each individual case on its own merits and deciding what the punishments might be based on the facts of that case. Really — you’re right — every case we’ve seen come down the pipe has had differences in it, some subtle, some major. But looking at all the decisions that USADA has made, I know every single one of them was reasoned and fair. So I fully expect that to happen.

You get both sides of the argument here. You get fighters that say they took a contaminated supplement or unknowingly did something. The argument there is that there should be leniency here. I get just as much feedback on the other end, from other fighters saying, ‘Hey, that’s bullshit. How do I know the fighter isn’t just using this as an excuse and didn’t identify there was a contaminated supplement and said, I’m gonna use this drug, and then blame it on the supplement?’ So there’s both sides of that argument.

Again, seeing the adjudication process play itself out, USADA has been 100 percent fair and reasonable in every single decision I’ve seen come down the pipe.

MR: It is more independent than other professional sports, but the UFC still does pay USADA to run its anti-doping program. So there is some of a conflict there, is there not?

JN: That’s unavoidable, but USADA has to adhere to WADA guidelines and WADA protocol. So despite the fact that we’re paying them, we could never call them up and say, ‘Hey, can you do it this way? Can you deviate from what you’re supposed to be doing?’ They are basically audited by an authority above them to make sure they’re following these rules and adhering to the international standards.

So yeah, it’s unavoidable that we’re paying them, but in terms of them doing us favors in return or manipulating from the policy or from the WADA guidelines, that doesn’t happen. It can’t happen.

MR: Some of the things I’ve seen from fighters is that USADA is showing up at 6 a.m., waking them up for their tests. It messes up the fighters’ schedules. Following fighters into the bathroom. There have been a handful of times where I’ve heard of some displeasure among fighters. Is that something that you guys might want to address?

JN: I’ll address it by saying it is a burden. And the public and fans should realize and appreciate what these athletes have to go through to get into the Octagon. Not only is this sport just incredibly complex and comprehensive, what they have to do on the anti-doping side is — no doubt about it — it’s a burden. Keeping track and reporting to USADA where they’re at every day, being woken up at five, six in the morning, being followed into the bathroom, I don’t argue that that is not a burden.

However, I think they deserve even more credit as the unique athletes that they are to be under this program. It’s a pain in the ass to be woken up in the morning. There can be some chirping about that happening. But I think long term, I think everybody realizes that it’s a burden that’s worth it, because it’s making the sport safer, it’s making the sport mainstream and that’s going to be better for everyone in the end.

MR: There was an article on recently. They spoke to someone from the NFL Players Association and that person said the NFL players would never agree to that kind of burden, as you put it, on them. Is that something that can be loosened up a little bit as it goes on?

JN: No. These things are in place for a reason. USADA is the most experienced anti-doping entity in the world. The 5 a.m., 6 a.m. wakeup calls, the observation of the sample provision are done for a reason and done based on experience from what they’ve seen and how athletes have manipulated anti-doping programs in the past. Everything is there for a reason. It’s not done just for the hell of it. It’s done for a reason.

What I said in that article is it doesn’t matter how strong an anti-doping program is, if you have small loopholes in that program, the smallest of loopholes could mean the failure of the program. It has to be lock solid tight from top to bottom and if you said, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna get there as early in the morning, we’re gonna let these fighters sleep in a little more,’ I’ve seen in my past that some of these drugs have clearance times in a matter of hours. An athlete can manipulate that if they know there’s a certain time of the day that a tester will be coming. If the tester didn't closely observe the athletes in the bathroom as they provide that sample, there have been many instances in anti-doping where athletes have substituted clean urine for their urine.

So it is an inconvenience, it is a burden, but it’s necessary, I think. Our athletes should be given a hell of a lot of credit for putting up with these inconveniences and burdens, because it makes them even more of a special athlete, in my opinion.

MR: In the time the program has been rolling, have there been any surprises or anything that has popped up that you didn’t expect? And coming into the UFC, coming into MMA, you weren’t completely familiar with it. Was there a reputation that maybe the sport had? I know other people in that field who have said this is a sport that was just rife with doping before recently.

JN: I’ve had in my experience in working investigations in this case, I’ve seen doping pervasive in any sport you can think of. Everything. Sports that you’d have no idea. Coming here, I wasn’t naive to think that it wasn't here. But again, the difference between this sport and others is the importance of it. This isn’t hitting balls over fences or riding bikes up mountains. This is a whole other level of importance, so I knew that coming in.

In terms of surprises, in the two years that I’ve been here — and it wasn’t a pleasant surprise — but the whole Jon Jones UFC 200 [incident]. I got that call Wednesday night [before UFC 200] and I tell you, that was the lowest of the low that I’ve been here, because the massiveness of the event, three days before this happening. When these come down the pipe, I look internally and feel like, What could I have done different to ensure this didn’t happen? I didn’t get that message out and that education out enough for this person. So I was bummed. The effects that it had on UFC employees, the amount of work that went into that fight, the work that had to be done to change that in the last two or three days. Arguably the landmark event in UFC history. I was just completely bummed.

Starting really the next day and through that weekend, the amount of fighters and camps that came up to me saying, ‘Hey man, this is real, keep your head up, we all see now those arguments of favoritism or conflicts of interest between the UFC and USADA, put that to rest. This is about as real as it gets.’ I was really uplifted over those next few days from the feedback I got from other athletes and camps. That was really a surprise to me.

MR: Right after that, the whole Lesnar situation happened. Now, Mark Hunt is suing the UFC. Are there are any regrets about that situation? I know there is probably stuff you guys wish you did differently. But looking back at it, are there regrets?

JN: That’s obviously a subject of litigation right now, so I don’t want to get too much into that. But I will say this: If you look at the facts about Lesnar and people paid a lot of attention to this exception that he got. He was tested several times and came back negative before that positive test. So it would not have mattered even if he had been in the program six weeks, four months, a year. The prohibited substance entered his system while he was part of the program, not before he got into that.

That being said, I think that perception is just important as reality in a program. So when people perceive that, ‘Oh, he wasn’t being tested’ when that isn’t the case in reality, I think that’s just as important. Some of the tweaks that we’ve made to the policy, I think address that a little bit.

MR: There are still people who ask me and speculate, ‘Was the UFC in on that? Did they know he was taking something? The results must have come back before UFC 200?’ Does that bother you, that those things are still out there?

JN: Bother me, no. I think there’s just a burden on us to do things that educate that that was not the case and over time I think they’ll realize that’s not the case. That was to be expected, again, because this program is so unique and so comprehensive that we expected bumps and bruises as we call them, little things that come up over time and we’ll deal with them as they do.