According to UFC anti-doping czar Jeff Novitzky, there was a lot going on behind the scenes at the time Nate Diaz was tapping out the statement that threatened to upend UFC 244’s headliner.
As the internet went crazy trying to decipher Diaz’s post, a plant-based vegan supplement was whirring in the machines at the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) lab in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Diaz offered the supplement after a drug test conducted Oct. 9 had on Oct. 17 come back positive “at a very low level” for the selective androgen receptor modulator (SARM) Ligandrol, otherwise known LGD-4033, Novitzky said. The positive arrived just two days after the UFC attended a stakeholder’s meeting to discuss anti-doping policy changes that might exonerate victims of supplement contamination.
USADA collectors flew out to Diaz and got another sample that same night, Novitzky said, to get more “data points” on the situation. The second sample came back with 50 picograms of the banned substance, or about half the 100 picograms per milliliter threshold set in August by USADA to discern innocent contamination with intentional cheating.
Another sample that was collected on Oct. 22 came back with a level of 49 picograms, Novitzky said. Because the levels weren’t increasing and the amount of Ligandrol was under the threshold, he believed Diaz’s positive was another case of a contaminated supplement.
The promotion had encountered a similar situation with UFC welterweight Neil Magny, who tested positive for trace elements of the banned SARM before being cleared by USADA.
“Talking to Nate, when he was taking that multi-vitamin, it matched perfectly,” Novitzky said. “And we waited, and we did this on purpose.”
By all outward appearances, the sequence of events appeared anything but planned. Diaz’s statement suggested that the UFC and its anti-doping partner USADA were attempting to cover up a positive drug test. At the very least, it raised serious questions about the program’s transparency.
The UFC and USADA moved this past year to keep anti-doping cases under wraps until their resolution, believing it more fair to the athlete to confirm a violation before announcing a potential one. Novitzky, for one, strenuously denies the promotion or USADA was doing anything underhanded. The UFC exec said he was the one who spoke to Diaz, and he said regulators were already informed what was going on, including the New York State Athletic Commission, which ultimately had jurisdiction over whether or not to license Diaz.
“I’ll tell you exactly what I said,” Novitzky told reporters during a media scrum after the official UFC 244 weigh-ins. “I said, ‘Look, we’ve changed our policy now, where we don’t publicly announce things, (and) we have this threshold for this substance. I think you’re going to fall under, so look, if you don’t want it out there, I wouldn’t tell anybody, or not talk about that.’
“Anyone who insinuates that that means we weren’t going to tell the commission, that is absolutely false. The minute that first positive test came in, I called (UFC executive) Hunter (Campbell), who I report to, (UFC President) Dana (White) was brought in, and we started talking about getting the commission as much data as possible. Let’s wait until we accumulate it all, and that’s what happened.
“Hunter said this, and (NYSAC Executive Director) Kim Sumbler has verified it, that he then reached out to her before Nate went public with this.”
It took a little over 24 hours from Diaz’s statement for the UFC and USADA to issue statements exonerating him from wrongdoing. The speed of the resolution created the immediate impression that Diaz had been given favorable treatment given his status as a pay-per-view headliner.
Novitzky, though, claims other fighters will benefit from the recent turn of events.
“If anyone’s criticizing us for all hands on deck, getting this done quick for a main event fight, OK, bring that on,” he said. “That’s just a reality. But every other fighter on the roster is going to get our help and our services just like we did with Nate in this case.”
Had the UFC and the USADA not been involved, Novitzky furthers, a positive test might have spelled the cancelation of UFC 244’s main event.
“This isn’t a knock on the commissions, but unless you do this full-time, and study these things like USADA, who runs our program, and we do, it’s difficult to get an understanding of it,” he said. “I would guess that if we didn’t have this program, you’d be seeing quite a few positive tests from the commission level at very low levels.”
SMRTL lab techs were on their last two tests for Ligandrol around Friday, Oct. 25 at 4 a.m. when the machine “lit up like a Christmas tree,” Novitzky said. And then another confirmatory test downgraded to a non-issue what appeared to be a serious controversy.
Even though Diaz’s words shined an intense and perhaps harsh spotlight on the UFC, the USADA and its drug testing program, Novitzky has nothing but respect for the fighter’s actions.
“If you’re really not doing something on purpose, and you’re told, ‘Look, this isn’t going to get out there unless you talk about it,’ and you talk about it anyway, you talk about proof in the pudding for what kind of guy he is,” he said.
As early as next week, UFC fighters will have as close as they can get to a roadmap for avoiding potential supplement contamination cases. Novitzky said the promotion intends to roll out a list of approved supplements—which number in the 1000s—from a quartet of companies that use third-party testing to certify their products free of banned substances.
Novitzky called the new program a “virtual get out of jail free card” with no penalties for any positive tests – save for potential bench time to make sure levels aren’t performance-enhancing.
As for the fighters who’ve complained of an uneven application of discipline and harsh penalties for alleged users, Novitzky points to a rule that allows them to benefit from rule changes retroactively.
Many of them, of course, have lost precious career time due to suspensions. It’s unclear how they get that back.