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UFC’s Muslim Salikhov cleared by USADA in doping case similar to one involving Jon Jones

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC fighter Muslim Salikhov has been cleared by USADA in a doping case very similar to the one Jon Jones is currently going through.

Salikhov will receive no sanction from USADA, the UFC’s anti-doping partner, despite multiple drug-test results coming back positive for the long-term metabolite of the banned steroid oral Turinabol, UFC executive Jeff Novitzky told MMA Fighting. Salikhov is eligible to compete again in the UFC immediately, Novitzky said.

Salikhov, 34, first tested positive for 4-chloro-18-nor-17β-hydroxymethyl,17α-methyl-5α-androst-13-en-3α-ol (M3) (or DHMCT) stemming from an out-of-competition sample collected June 7, 2018. Salikhov, a Russia native, was provisionally suspended by USADA and the UFC when the result came back, pending the investigation and adjudication process.

Since then, Salikhov has been tested six times. Two of those have came back with trace amounts of the long-term M3 metabolite of DHCMT in his system, while four have returned negative. All of the adverse findings have come back under 10 picograms per milliliter. And no parent compound, short- and medium-term metabolites have been found.

With what USADA knows now about how long the M3 metabolite might “pulse” in an athlete’s system from cases involving Jones and others, the agency has made the decision to not suspend Salikhov. USADA cannot determine when Salikhov ingested oral Turinabol or if it happened even up to a year before he was signed to the UFC and entered the USADA drug-testing program, Novitzky said. It is believed that Salikhov has no performance-enhancing benefits from the very small amount of the metabolite left over.

“USADA determined based on looking at all those data points, based on learning about this M3 metabolite probably within the last year, they’re unable to meet the burden of showing that however that got in his system — and I don’t think there’s any question that at some point it got in his system — but they’re unable to show that whenever it got in his system was during USADA jurisdiction,” said Novitzky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance.

Here is a look at Salikhov’s USADA drug-testing history:

  • Nov. 7, 2017: Negative
  • March 12, 2018: Negative
  • April 14, 2018: Negative
  • June 7, 2018: M3 (8 pg/mL)
  • July 18, 2018: Negative
  • Oct. 16, 2018 M3 (8 pg/mL)
  • Dec. 8, 2018: Negative
  • Dec. 8, 2018: Negative
  • Dec. 8, 2018: M3 (4 pg/mL)
  • Feb. 7, 2018: Negative

The last seven drug-test samples were analyzed at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-accredited Laboratoire Suisse d’Analyse du Dopage (LSAD) in Lausanne, Switzerland. The first three were analyzed at the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) in Salt Lake City, also a WADA-accredited lab.

Jones and UFC fighter Grant Dawson, who was also cleared by USADA, have gone through a similar experience. Jones has been the most high-profile case regarding the M3 metabolite in sports.

The M3 long-term metabolite of DHCMT was first found in Jones’ system in July 2017. He was suspended by USADA after arbitration for 15 months. In multiple subsequent test results beginning in August 2018, Jones continued to have the metabolite in his system. Scientists determined that it was the same metabolite he tested positive for a year earlier, still in his system. He was cleared by USADA, despite the “pulsing” of the metabolite in some tests, to fight at UFC 232 and again this past weekend at UFC 235.

Scientists testified that there was no evidence that Jones re-administered oral Turinabol due to the lack of the parent compound or shorter-term metabolites found in his system. They also testified that Jones would more than likely not have any performance-enhancing benefits.

Jones came back positive for the M3 long-term metabolite in multiple results leading up to UFC 235 while being tested at least once a week. Novitzky believes that further backs up the scientists, because no parent compounds or shorter-term metabolites have been found. With how frequently he’s being tested, if Jones were an active doper there wouldn’t just be a long-term metabolite found in those tests.

While Jones was suspended initially, Salikhov will not be, because Novitzky said USADA simply cannot meet the burden of proof with regards to when he ingested oral Turinabol. In addition to Jones, Salikhov and Dawson, there is at least one other UFC fighter going through a similar case with USADA involving the M3 metabolite, Novitzky said.

“That just shows you how weird, how unique this M3 metabolite is,” Novitzky said.

This is a new phenomenon, because the sensitivity of drug analysis has increased exponentially over the last few years, down to the picogram level. The only peer-reviewed science on the M3 metabolite, a study done by Russian scientists Timothy Sobolevsky and Grigory Rodchenkov, says that the M3 metabolite is only detectable for 40 to 50 days. Dr. Daniel Eichner, the lab director of SMRTL, testified at Jones’ Nevada commission licensing hearing that scientists now know that study is wrong.

Jones was granted licenses to fight by athletic commissions in Nevada and California. The one in Nevada was a conditional, one-fight license and Jones will need to continue to underdog comprehensive, frequent testing for the duration of this year.

Novitzky said that WADA has put together a working group, comprised of lab directors from WADA-accredited labs worldwide, on this very topic of the M3 metabolite. The lab directors are comparing data in an effort to see what knowledge can be gleaned on the M3 and how it can be applied.

Had Salikhov tested positive for the M3 metabolite of DHCMT in, say, 2015, the first year USADA was contracted by the UFC, he would have likely been suspended two years.

“That’s a big concern that I have now, that the level of sensitivity is becoming so great,” Novitzky said. “I want to make sure that the science isn’t getting ahead of itself, because that’s a nightmare in my world for somebody to be sanctioned when it comes out later, ‘Oh, we really didn’t understand the science yet.’ So, that’s certainly part of my job to be eyes and ears for the athlete and make sure this program is being administered fairly. And that’s certainly why we’ve having discussions with USADA now with certain thresholds.”

Despite the WADA working group being in place, Novitzky said the UFC and USADA might act sooner than WADA does on these issues.

“We’ve been fairly patient on this,” Novitzky said. “Our patience is running a little thin and I think maybe USADA’s is as well. WADA can tend to be a little bit slow to react. This is a case where the careers and reputations of our fighters are on the line. And so, we’re not gonna be waiting much longer for that workin group to come up with something. If they don’t, we have to look at all possibilities, including figuring out a solution outside of the WADA world.”

Novitzky added that he is glad that the UFC no longer announces potential anti-doping violations, waiting until the completion of the investigation and adjudication processes before making anything public about specific fighters and their cases. That change came last summer. Salikhov’s positive test was announced in July 2018, before the policy changed.

“In the three, four years the program has been up and running, the sensitivity levels have increased I don’t know how many fold in that period of time and so now we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody — including the world experts — are sure when, how things enter the system and the level of sensitivity they can tested to,” Novitzky said. “Absolutely that was a wrong decision to announce [potential violations] when we were contacted by USADA and that lies on me. I think I was the main one to argue for it and I take full responsibility for that.”

Salikhov (14-2) debuted in the UFC in 2017 and holds a 1-1 record in the promotion. A former Wushu Sanda world champion, Salikhov defeated Ricky Rainey by second-round knockout at UFC on FOX 29 in April 2018 in his last fight. In his UFC debut, Salikhov lost to Alex Garcia by second-round submission in November 2017.

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