Things went from bad to worse for Grant Dawson in late 2017.
Just as he was about to realize his dream as a UFC fighter, the featherweight prospect learned he failed a USADA drug test for the metabolite of a banned steroid. Dawson was provisionally suspended, pending the USADA investigation.
Three days later, he was cut by the UFC before ever competing for the promotion and prior to even getting the chance to state his case. Dawson says he still has no idea how the long-term M3 metabolite of oral Turinabol (4-chloro-18-nor-17β-hydroxymethyl,17α-methyl-5α-androst-13-en-3α-ol (M3)) (or DHCMT) ended up in his system.
While free and clear to pursue fights with other organizations, Dawson chose not to. Instead, he stuck with his USADA case in an effort to clear his name for almost the duration of 2018. Dawson was not under contract with the UFC and there was no guarantee he’d be brought back. But he knew the only way there would even be a chance was if USADA absolved him of an anti-doping policy violation.
“The dream has always been fight for the UFC,” Dawson told MMA Fighting. “I don’t want to be second best and I think that the best competition is in the UFC. Say what you will about them and say what you will about certain fighters outside the UFC. But if you want to say you are the best fighter in the world, I think you have to fight for the UFC and beat everybody in it.”
Dawson, 25, will get that chance — finally — beginning Saturday night against Julian Erosa at UFC Wichita. It took more than a year, a series of starts and stops and an unusual, potentially career-long connection with Jon Jones. But Dawson will make his UFC debut.
This was never a certainty. And Dawson knows it. He was facing a two-year USADA suspension that he might not have even been able to serve since the UFC released him, taking him out of the USADA drug-testing pool. If a suspended fighter is not in the pool, the suspension is frozen with no time ticking off of it. So, in some ways, Dawson was staring at what amounted to a ban from fighting in the UFC. USADA has been the UFC’s anti-doping partner since 2015.
Still, Dawson believed he didn’t do anything wrong, so he continued tackling the doping case. He had all his supplements tested, though they weren’t many. He was pulling protein powders off his shelf that he maybe used once just to see if that spurred the positive test. Nothing came back with a hit.
Dawson went to arbitration with USADA on Nov. 3, 2018, almost exactly one year after he was initially flagged for a potential anti-doping policy violation. This was right around the time USADA started noticing some anomalies with the M3 long-term metabolite. Trace amounts of the M3 were popping up in the drug tests of several other fighters, including Jones, who was suspended 15 months for testing positive for that metabolite in July 2017.
An arbitration decision never came for Dawson. Instead, USADA reversed course. Because of what the agency was learning about the M3 metabolite and the lack of clarity about how long it can stay in a person’s system, USADA no longer believed it could meet its burden of proof in Dawson’s case.
USADA scientists believe that Jones still has the same M3 metabolite in his system going back to the initial positive test in July 2017. It shows up in some drug tests in trace amounts and not in others, a phenomenon that has been called “pulsing.” USADA was seeing something similar with another UFC fighter, Muslim Salikhov, and the same M3 metabolite.
The only peer-reviewed science on the excretion of the M3 long-term metabolite of oral Turinabol, done by Russian scientists Timothy Sobolevsky and Grigory Rodchenkov in 2011, states that the metabolite can only be detected for 40 to 50 days after ingestion. Dr. Daniel Eichner, the lab director of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-accredited Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) in Salt Lake City, testified in Jones’ hearing in front of the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) in January that scientists now know that study to be untrue.
USADA came to the conclusion with Dawson — and then with Salikhov — that if the agency cannot determine when the fighter ingested the banned substance it could have been prior to their entry into the UFC and the USADA program. Therefore, USADA said it cannot sanction either one of them.
“USADA resolved the case based on the likelihood that the ingestion of the DHCMT occurred prior him entering the UFC Anti-Doping Program,” USADA spokesperson Adam Woullard told MMA Fighting in a statement. “Dawson’s case is a great reminder that it can take time to make sure each case is thoroughly investigated and we are consistent in gathering the relevant facts to determine the most appropriate outcome for each individual athlete.”
Jones’ case is a bit different, because he was suspended for the M3 metabolite in 2017 and served a 15-month suspension. That metabolite is still present in some of Jones’ drug tests, appearing most recently on Feb. 23. But Jones, the UFC light heavyweight champion, has been cleared by USADA and the athletic commissions in Nevada and California, because scientists testified there was no evidence of re-administration and very little chance of Jones gaining any performance-enhancing benefits from the trace amount — down to the picogram level — of the metabolite. There has never been a parent compound nor a short- or medium-term metabolite of oral Turinabol found in Jones’ system — only the long-term metabolite.
Dawson says he did not follow Jones’ case. All that he really knows is that he went through something similar. But he views other cases as “separate” from his. Dawson did say that having himself and Jones in the same boat makes USADA “more credible.”
“Me personally, I think USADA is fair and I think USADA treats everybody the same,” Dawson said. “I might be wrong. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. Jon Jones got off, who is one of the highest paid athletes in the UFC. And a nobody like me got off. So, for me, another thing about it, too, is they’re still figuring it out. It’s OK for USADA to not have all the answers right away. It’s OK to make mistakes and learn the science behind things. They’re not gonna have all the answers the moment this deal was made. There’s gonna be hiccups along the way. And I lost 14 months of my career because of a hiccup, but that’s life. Things aren’t gonna go your way sometimes.”
USADA was able to resolve Jones’ case relatively quickly. He was cleared in December 2018 to fight at UFC 232 after the M3 metabolite began “pulsing” in his system in August 2018. Dawson had to wait longer and he believes he understands the reason why: there wasn’t as much urgency in his situation.
“Do I want me to get cleared faster? Absolutely,” Dawson said. “But I also understand Jon Jones has put his time in, he’s made the company millions of dollars. I understand how he takes priority. And I get it. That’s OK, because in 15 years when I’m making the company millions of dollars and some nobody who hasn’t even had a fight yet is getting the longer end of the deal, I get it. I know the business and I get it.”
There were still some hurdles for Dawson to get over even after he was cleared. The Nebraska native had his case resolved on Dec. 11, 2018. But he was still not under UFC contract. UFC vice president of health and performance Jeff Novitzky had been following the case and when USADA wiped away Dawson’s potential violation, Novitzky said he petitioned the matchmaking team to re-sign the fighter. It was the right thing to do, Novitzky said.
Novitzky, who has more than a decade of experience in anti-doping as a former federal agent, said he’s just as proud of the UFC’s anti-doping program’s fairness as he is just as he is “catching cheaters.”
“I expected our program to be groundbreaking and leading in many areas,” Novitzky said. “Certainly I’ve said from the get go, one of those areas is how fair our program is administered and due process rights for the athletes.”
Dawson was re-signed in January and entered back into the USADA drug-testing pool on Jan. 5, per Novitzky. He has been drug tested twice since then. The first result came back clean of all prohibited substances, including the M3 metabolite. The second one is still pending and Novitzky said he hopes it comes back before fight night.
(Update: Novitzky told MMA Fighting on Friday evening that Dawson’s most recent drug test came back completely negative.)
Dawson didn’t have to spend any period of time back in the drug-testing pool before fighting, per policy, because he did not voluntarily leave it; he was cut. Novitzky said if Dawson’s first drug-test result back in the pool came back for the M3 metabolite, it’s likely USADA would have requested further investigation before Dawson competed.
Kansas Athletic Commission (KAC) boxing commissioner Adam Roorbach said he inquired with USADA about the drug-testing results for Dawson and Ben Rothwell, who is coming off a two-year USADA suspension and will also fight on the UFC Wichita card.
“USADA has shared with the commission that both fighters were tested in February,” Roorbach said in a statement. “After sharing the results with us, we are clearing both fighters for competition on Saturday.”
Dawson, who trains under UFC fighter James Krause at Glory MMA & Fitness in Missouri, said it was difficult at times keeping his head straight in his year away, not knowing if he’d ever get another shot with the UFC.
“It’s hard, but one thing that my coaches and my family around me kept saying is, ‘You can’t control things that you can’t control,’” Dawson said. “So, try not to stress about it, control what you can control. You can control what you eat, you can control how you train. The things that you can control, control. The things you can’t control are gonna happen no matter what, so why stress about them? It’s easier said than done — it’s always easier said than done. But after 14 months, you kind of get used to it.”
Dawson is thankful to the UFC for giving him another chance. But this is an opportunity he said he already earned. Now, after a tumultuous year-plus and a change in how USADA is dealing with certain doping issues, he’s finally getting to make right on it.
“For sure, I’m grateful, but I think it was due anyway,” Dawson said. “I got cut, there was no due process and now they’re doing the right thing and giving me another chance. And we’re gonna make the most of it.”