Junior dos Santos went through a lot over the past year.
The former UFC heavyweight champion had just lost to Stipe Miocic in his attempt to reclaim the belt in May 2017, then decided to waste no time with a quick turnaround bout against rising heavyweight Francis Ngannou in September. However, less than a month after the matchup was officially announced, “Cigano” found himself pulled from the scheduled UFC 215 bout after testing positive for a diuretic in a random USADA drug test.
It took months for dos Santos to successfully prove that he was a victim of a tainted supplement, and now he’s finally cleared to compete again. Scheduled to headline UFC Boise on July 14 against promotional newcomer and former WSOF heavyweight champion Blagoy Ivanov, dos Santos spoke with MMA Fighting about his USADA case, his time away from the sport, his plans for the future, and more.
Check the interview below.
You have a fight coming up, but not too long ago your life was a mess because of your battle with USADA to prove your innocence. What was the feeling of relief like when the verdict came down and you were finally free to do what you love most?
It was just like you said, a relief — because I thought it would be faster. I have my conscience clear and have always played by the rules, and I’m proud to say that I was champion of the world without getting near of any of that kind of stuff. I’m proud of that. It was a bit frustrating for me because, in my mind … we’re subject to making mistakes, like in this case with a tainted supplement, but in my mind, USADA would be a better prepared institution capable of understanding a situation like this.
In my mind, they would quickly see that I had no fault and would clear me to fight again pretty quickly, especially because of how much of the diuretic they found, not even a performance-enhancing drug, and it being hydrochlorothiazide, a cheap and inefficient diuretic. If I wanted to hide something, I would have taken something way worse.
Because of that, I thought they would clear me pretty quickly, but it took a long time and really got me worried. I went through a situation that I never imagined in my head I would have to go through. It was a bad, sad feeling, and extremely unfair. Rules are for everyone. If they found something in me, it should obviously be investigated, but considering what was found inside of me, I thought it would be way faster. I was sidelined for nine months and that hurt me a lot, because my fight was in May 2017, so it has been more than a year since my last fight.
Did you feel, at any point, that you wouldn’t be able to prove your innocence since it was out of your hands?
I’m a very positive guy. I always consider the possibilities in a positive light, so I did expect to prove my innocence, but I was afraid. I was afraid that somehow we wouldn’t get to the real result. I don’t know what’s USADA’s thought process and how they judge a situation like this, especially because it was not that hard to be solved considering the amount and the substance they found in me. But it wasn’t.
I spent nine months out and it was horrible. The problem is that you’re found guilty before anything else. You’re found guilty until proven innocent. That only happens with USADA. The law says you’re innocent until proven guilty [laughs]. It’s a pretty bad situation and I don’t wish anyone to go through it, especially those who have done nothing. It affected me a lot, but I consider myself a strong person, both mentally and physically. I’m happy that it’s in the past and, God willing, won’t happen again.
I have a fight now, and every time [USADA] comes, I try to show them everything I’m taking. I show everything, because I’m kind of afraid. I don’t know. It happened once when I did nothing. God forbid it happens again, so I get scared. That bothers me a lot.
Do you think your image will be tarnished by some people even though you have proven your innocence?
Some people have told me that no matter what, if I’m guilty or innocent, I’ve failed a drug test and that will remain on my record. In a way you’re right, but honestly … I won’t say it doesn’t bother me. It was absurd and should never had happened, but I try to look at the bright side and focus on what’s positive and make it work in a way that feels better for me. I’m going there now to compete again, God willing I will win again, and move on with my career and show that I’m a real fighter built through hard work, dedication, and faith. There were no shortcuts here. I’ve always faced all the challenges the way I naturally am.
Have you changed anything after everything happened to avoid unpleasant surprises, like stopping using supplements? What have you changed in your life since then?
I actually tried to stop using supplements, but it’s absurd. It’s impossible. We need this. If you say an athlete doesn’t need supplementation, that he can get everything through food, you’re wrong. I don’t know about other sports, but our sport is extremely hard, it’s extremely tough. You can’t train twice a day, tough training sessions that are devastating for your body. … Especially for a guy like me, a heavyweight, because it takes longer for your body to recover. It takes longer for your body to absorb all the [punishment]. It’s not simple. You can’t just not use supplements.
I don’t use the ones I used before, those brands, but USADA has a list of supplements they recommend. But they only recommend — if you fail a test, it’s your fault. But I have good doctors, Dr. Maria Amelia and Dr. Marcelo Guedes, and they help me everything I need to make sure everything is right. I’ve been doing everything I can, as always, but, like USADA says, it’s not guaranteed.
Josh Barnett went through a situation similar to yours and was able to prove his innocence, but asked for his UFC release because he didn’t trust USADA. Did you consider that possibility as well?
I never thought that, no. I think there’s room for improvement with USADA. No one understands anti-doping better than them, so they should improve [their policies] and not take the athlete out of a fight. Fighters don’t have a match every week, like in soccer, for example. We don’t. We won’t fight for another three or four months. I think that USADA should try to prove someone’s guilt before pulling him out of a fight. If you’re caught with steroids or whatever, that’s your problem. If it’s clearly not cross contamination or something like that, if you’re caught with a huge amount of steroids in your body, OK, take him out of the fight because it’s kind of clear that he has a degree of fault. Now, if somehow it looks like contamination, they shouldn’t remove you from a fight. They should let you fight and investigate. If a fighter is proven guilty, give him a worse penalty, a fine, revert the result in case of a win.
I can’t say I don’t get nervous every time USADA comes to my house, because what happened to me is something I never thought would, so this has to evolve, the way USADA judges cases. But I also think it’s necessary to have them around in the sport, because we need to know who’s a champion for real. What’s the point of having a bunch of guys fighting with a bunch of crap in their bodies and with performances that are unreal? I think it’s necessary to have a doping control, but USADA could improve its system.
Being sidelined for a long time is obviously bad, but do you think it was at least good for you health-wise, since you were coming off a knockout loss to Stipe Miocic and had already booked your next fight against another heavy-hitter like Francis Ngannou?
Quite the opposite. I agreed to that Ngannou fight the same night I lost to Miocic. The opportunity came and I said I’d do it. That’s the way I deal with things. I suffered a loss that I can’t accept. That loss to me was more of a — Miocic obviously had his merits, but it was a punch that connected well. I paid the price for a punch that connected well. I was walking backwards, but if you pay attention, I was the one landing the more significant strikes. He was feeling the leg kicks. Everybody knows Miocic’s history, that he gets tired by the third round. But he went forward, threw some good shots and connected. Good for him. If he doesn’t connect like that and the fight goes longer, it’s almost guaranteed that it would go my way like the first one. But good for him. He’s a great fighter, a great athlete, a great champion, who connected the strike and won.
But my way of erasing anything negative is moving forward and working hard to make sure my next fight is positive. That’s really important for me, that’s what I’m doing now. I feel that I have everything it takes to become champion again, and I will become champion. I have to make things work in a good way for me.
You agreed to this UFC Boise fight as soon as you were cleared by USADA. What do you like the most about this matchup against Ivanov?
After they found the substance in my system and took me out of the Ngannou fight, I kept training, because I thought they would realize that was not the case and would clear me to fight. I kept training and getting ready. Of course, then I started to feel bad as time went by, but the support of people and my family, having my son with me, was crucial. The moment USADA cleared me, I called (my manager) Ana (Guedes), who helps me with the UFC, and said: ‘Get something for us.’ They offered me Ivanov at UFC Chile, because they had lost the main event, and I accepted it.
That was 18 days before the event, but I still accepted it because I was training, but for some reason it fell through and they rescheduled it for July 14.
The opponent doesn’t matter, I just want to be back. If you keep waiting for a specific opponent today — guys are choosing fights, and that is kind of stupid. ‘I don’t want to fight this guy or that guy.’ It’s crazy. You have to move on with your career and show you’re capable of doing what you say you can, and this is what I’m doing. Ivanov was a champion in another organization and is coming to the UFC. They asked me to do this fight, so this is the fight I’m taking. He’s my goal now, the obstacle in my way.
And how will you take him out on July 14?
With my hunger, dedication, and a good strategy, of course [laughs].