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UFC’s Jeff Novitzky says USADA ‘still checking into’ T.J. Dillashaw’s drug-test sample history

Tj Dillashaw post fight
T.J. Dillashaw
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

T.J. Dillashaw might not be out of the woods yet.

Following Dillashaw’s two positive drug tests for the prohibited substance recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO), USADA is continuing its investigation into the now former UFC bantamweight champion, according to UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky.

Dillashaw was suspended two years for the UFC anti-doping policy violation, it was announced earlier this week. And any more findings of EPO in past drug-test samples could increase the length of that ban, Novitzky said.

Dillashaw, 33, tested positive for EPO in relation to his Jan. 19 fight against Henry Cejudo at UFC Brooklyn. USADA went back and tested Dillashaw’s Dec. 28 sample for EPO and that too returned positive.

According to Novitzky, USADA has already looked at all of the samples collected from Dillashaw in relation to his fights since the agency took over the UFC’s drug-testing program in 2015. Dillashaw fought six times under the program prior to the Cejudo bout. All of those samples provided were tested for EPO at the time and came back clean, Novitzky said USADA told him.

However, USADA is still probing for more old Dillashaw samples to test, Novitzky said. While USADA might not have any more on hand, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) laboratories the samples were sent to might.

“They’re still checking into it,” Novitzky said of USADA. “They’re looking to see whether or not they or in some cases WADA laboratories have the ability to make the decision to retain samples themselves. So in some cases, USADA will say, ‘Hey, these 10 samples you got today are UFC samples or our samples. Keep them for the next 10 years.’ In addition to that, the laboratory on their own can say, ‘You know what, we’re gonna keep these thousand samples just to do some studies on down the road.’

“Right now, they’re checking through those databases to see if anything were to remain. And I think if any were to remain and didn’t have the special analysis EPO done on them, they would do that here in the coming week.”

If USADA does find more old Dillashaw samples and any of them come back positive for EPO upon further analysis, Dillashaw could be hit with another UFC anti-doping policy violation and a potentially longer suspension, Novitzky said.

“Yes, that’s my understanding,” Novitzky said. “He wasn’t given a second violation for the December positive, because I think they looked at it all within one ongoing violation. It’s that close enough to that fight-night test. But certainly, any of those previous tests — and I don’t know that there is — but if there is something remaining that hadn’t had that analysis done on it and they did it and it came back positive, it would be another violation.”

USADA does not test every single sample for EPO, because EPO occurs naturally in the body and the testing is more complex and time-consuming than regular analysis, per USADA’s website. The agency will test for EPO, Novitzky said, when a red flag shows up in the biological passport USADA keeps on every UFC fighter.

Novitzky said he was not told by USADA why the agency decided to test Dillashaw’s UFC Brooklyn in-competition sample for EPO. But it can be deduced that a red flag showed up somewhere in Dillashaw’s test history. Novitzky said that USADA has told him that “every test is strategically done.”

“My understanding is there’s algorithms they have that will spit out someone who is showing some red flags that may not be to the level of, ‘Hey, this is a positive test,’ but wait a second, we saw an uptick in red blood cells or the urine profile is a bit different than last time,” Novitzky said. “Those are likely athletes that are gonna get special analysis done.”

USADA said via a statement from spokesperson Adam Woullard that the agency’s probing of Dillashaw is no different than usual protocol for any failed drug test.

“As a part of our investigation for all positives, we review an athlete’s prior test history,” Woullard said. “When it’s potentially relevant, we may request special analysis for those samples. Here, following our review, we conducted further analysis on his sample collected on December 28, 2018 and it also revealed the presence of EPO.”

EPO is a uniquely difficult drug to detect. Novitzky said as of four to five years ago when he encountered it as a federal agent investigating cyclists, when micro-dosed it can clear the system within six to eight hours. Novitzky said EPO increases a person’s red blood cell count, which could increase endurance and improve recovery.

Dillashaw essentially admitted the intentional use of EPO, apologizing in a video message Friday on Instagram. He called it a “mistake” and a “bad decision.”

Novitzky said he hopes that Dillashaw’s situation will act as a deterrent for others in the UFC’s USADA program.

“Personally, complete mixed bag of emotions,” Novitzky said. “I like T.J., good person. But doing something like this is really bad and concerns me in this sport. So, definitely a mixed bag of emotions. I tell people all the time, when these things come down the pipe, I never get happy over them. There’s a part of me that says, ‘God, what did I not relay to this guy or girl that they were gonna get caught in this program if they did this?’ Like I failed them by not being enough of a deterrent almost, I feel like sometimes.”

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