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Fightweets: Has USADA ruined its credibility with the UFC roster?

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Jon Jones
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Sooo ... Jon Jones is back, with his potential four-year suspension reduced to 15 months. Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov had a pretty intense time at a somewhat weird press conference. Bellator’s debut on DAZN has already passed by the time you’re reading this and the UFC is back in Brazil on Saturday night.

This week just kind of felt like the week where MMA became MMA again, didn’t it? Without further ado, then, let’s get right into another edition of Fightweets.

USADA’s credibility with UFC fighters and fight fans

@teeptothejunk: Why are y’all talking about #USADA beyond it being a PR front? They aren’t a commission and the UFC hires them. I guess shilling for the UFC is fine but why call yourselves journalists? You’re not speaking truth to power you’re making excuses for it

You know, 99.9 percent of the time, I ignore people who come at me with the “You’re all a bunch of shills because you’re not parroting my preferred narrative!” approach (likewise for its’ inbred cousin, the “How come you’re not dropping the dozen different things you’re juggling to focus exclusively on the one issue I care about right now?” tweeter).

But in this case, I’m going to respond because I can understand where people’s frustration is coming from when it comes to the case of Jones’ suspension.

It was hard not to see Jones get handed a 15-month USADA suspension through an arbitrator instead of the maximum 48 months, when he’s a multiple-time offender, not to mention his boatload of legal trouble which is not directly pertinent to the case but helps paint a bigger picture, and wonder what in the hell is going on with USADA, whether it’s worth the bother for the UFC to continue doing business with the anti-doping agency, and whether the testing program has any credibility left with the public and the roster of fighters who are being tested on a regular basis.

On the surface, you could see why some at UFC HQ might be coming to view the relationship with USADA as more trouble than it’s worth. The testing program has wreaked havoc on some of the company’s biggest events -- UFC 200 being the biggest and most memorable example -- and robbed it of too many name fighters at too many inconvenient times.

“So what?” you ask? “Isn’t that the price to pay for a cleaner sport and a level playing field?” Well, sure, but for this all to work, the agency overseeing things needs to give the appearance of impartiality and of fairness and consistency in its punishments. Lyoto Machida, one of the sport’s true gentlemen, who has never otherwise had a whiff of scandal in his life, got the book thrown at him for unknowingly taking a banned substance. Jones, a multi-time offender with tons of baggage, gets his potential maximum penalty dramatically reduced. Josh Barnett gets exonerated in his case, but not before he lost over a year of his career as he approached age 40, sitting in limbo awaiting adjudication.

So you can understand why Daniel Cormier, a clean-cut Olympian who has been tested more frequently than a former prisoner out on probation after a drug conviction, responded on television by telling USADA to leave him the hell alone at 6 a.m. It’s a righteous reaction that every fighter who goes about his or her business correct can understand.

And yet, there’s a deeper level as to why you shouldn’t expect the UFC to drop USADA anytime soon. They’ve boxed themselves into a rhetorical corner by aligning themselves with the strictest third-party testing program in sports. What message gets sent if you drop them now?

We’ve been fortunate not to have anything catastrophic happen during a UFC fight over the course of 25 years. That doesn’t change the fact it could still happen some day. It might not be a topic we care to openly discuss, but the UFC is certainly prepared for it. If that day ever arrives, and the UFC is still under USADA, then the UFC has the ability to say, hey, we did everything we could possibly do to prevent this.

As long as the UFC has that sort of cover -- and, despite the obvious sarcasm of the person who sent the question, guess what, there are a whole lot of people in the UFC who sincerely believe in USADA as more than just a PR push and want to do right by the fighters -- then this is the system we’re going to live with. And with this latest high-profile example that there are different rules for different fighters, USADA is coming dangerously close to losing their credibility.

How does Jones do it?

@Theheierpower: How does Jon Jones keep getting a slap on the wrist when other fighters face far more serious consequences?

Jones has the financial means to acquire the finest representation in his legal and regulatory matters. Good on him for being able to do so. And I can’t blame him for using the whistleblower path to a reduced suspension if that was the only way of getting back into the cage any time soon (though good luck to Jones on finding people who will trust him to work together in the future).

But the situation also points to one of the worst inequities in the USADA system: How many fighters have popped over the past few years who might have also had a valid rebuttal, but had to accept the capricious whims of The Great and Powerful Wizard of USADA simply because they lack the financial wherewithal to put up a real fight?

This points to yet another reason why the fighters need a union: USADA was imposed unilaterally on the roster, on independent contractors, no less, and there’s no voice in the room for that guy or gal who may have unknowingly taken a tainted supplement but still has to work a day job to make ends meet, much less has access to lawyers the caliber of Jones’ team. If there’s ever been a reason for fighters to organize, it’s this.

DC and Jones

@MisterJ831: If @dc_mma doesn’t take a stand on this clown, who will? Not @usantidoping or @UFC or any commission. I would love to see him beat Jon, but I don’t want to see him rewarded with the chance to beat DC.

Well, there are a couple ways to look at this one. I can’t blame Cormier for big-timing Jones. Cormier has fought for a long time to get to the position he’s in now as a double champion. Cormier made his plans clear long before we had any idea whether Jones would be cleared to fight any time soon.

DC wants to cash in with a couple of big paychecks, then call it a career. He’s earned that right. That he can stiff-arm Jones, who at this point needs Cormier way more than Cormier needs him, is just the cherry on top of the sundae.

And yet ... I don’t know about you, but I still want to see DC fight Jones at heavyweight as badly as I want to see any fight in the sport (And that’s yet another layer of the Jones/USADA saga: The sport is unquestionably more exciting with Jones competing than when he isn’t). We just watched Cormier crush Stipe Miocic. How would Cormier fare with that type of punching power against Jones without having to drain himself with light heavyweight cuts that have gotten worse and worse with age?

So let Cormier enjoy keeping Jones thirsty for now. Let Jones fight someone else in his first fight back (coughcough Alexander Gustafsson coughcough). Let Cormier steamroll Brock Lesnar in the easiest paycheck of his life and make bank, and let the two meet sometime next year at heavyweight in DC’s farewell fight. That’s as close to a win-win as I can see coming out of this scenario.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor
Thursday’s UFC 229 press conference at Radio City Music Hall was something else.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 229 press conference

@shamas2049: That presser felt like watching The Big Bang Theory sans laugh track

That works, although I was thinking more along the lines of, it was like watching a band do a full stage rehearsal of their concert in an empty arena before the tour starts.

One thing’s for sure: As soon as McGregor and Nurmagomedov started going back and forth on Thursday at the UFC 229 press conference at Radio City Music Hall, it became clear why the former UFC lightweight and featherweight champion had pressed so strongly on social media to open the event to the public, instead of making it a media-only show.

McGregor feeds off crowd participation at press conferences. If McGregor had a crowd filled filled with his boisterous Irish countrymen and expatriates in Manhattan, Nurmagomedov’s trademark stoicism would have played poorly to the casuals who may have tuned in for the event. Instead, many of McGregor’s barbs did indeed come across like someone forgot to turn on the laugh track, which made Khabib’s trademark unflappability seem like, well, Khabib’s trademark unflappability.

Which could be why McGregor chose to cut deeper once things really got rolling. It’s plain you can say whatever you want about Nurmagomedov and it will simply bounce off. Attack Khabib’s father, attack his ties to questionable characters back home in Russia, go after manager Ali Abdelaziz, a man who will be the first to tell you he wears his emotions on his sleeves? Well, that might get Nurmagomedov to crack. Or it could put McGregor on the wrong end of the worst beating he’s ever gotten in his career. All in all, if the next two weeks are anything like Thursday, then maybe Dana White’s claim that the UFC 229 PPV is tracking toward 2.5 million buys will end up closer to the truth than anyone believes.

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk

@Aimhigher420: Kinda of asking for speculation but will Joanna’s decision to go up to 125 for vacant flyweight title against Valentina be wise for her career and legacy IF she loses?

Well, here’s the thing with that: You don’t get to Joanna’s level of success in this sport by thinking along those lines. Did you hear Jedrzejczyk after her second loss to Rose Namajunas? Just about everyone agreed Rose clearly won the fight, but the former strawweight champion went out at the post-fight presser and claimed she won, and deserved a third fight against an opponent to whom she had just lost two in a row.

The idea that defeat is a real possibility never even crosses Joanna’s mind. Her options here are to stick around 115 forever and wait for an opportunity to maybe get a title shot again somewhere way down the road, or to take this flyweight championship opportunity at UFC 231 against a rival going back to her kickboxing days in Shevchenko. Not only is worrying about what happens if she loses not a thought, the decision to take the fight is an absolute no-brainer.