LAS VEGAS — The immediate futures of some of the UFC’s biggest names — and best fighters — were decided Tuesday at the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) meeting here inside the Grant Sawyer State Office Building.
Jon Jones, Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov all got resolutions to their respective cases before the commissioners.
McGregor was suspended six months and fined $25,000 for his role in the UFC 229 post-fight brawl. Nurmagomedov was suspended nine months and fined $500,000 for helping ignite said brawl. The nine months could be reduced to six if Nurmagomedov films an NAC-approved anti-bullying public-service announcement.
And then there was Jones, who received a conditional, one-fight license to defend his UFC light heavyweight title against Anthony Smith at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. Jones will be drug tested by the NAC at least twice monthly leading up to that fight, in addition to being tested by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA). The Nevada commission also wants Jones to continue rigorous drug testing throughout 2019 or he will not be licensed again.
Jones was suspended 15 months in his USADA case after testing positive for a metabolite of the steroid oral Turinabol (Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone) in July 2017. That same long-term M3 metabolite of DHCMT popped up again in multiple tests between Aug.-Dec. 2018, causing the Nevada commission to decline licensing Jones for UFC 232, pending a hearing. The California commission did allow Jones to compete, citing scientists and expert statements that the metabolites found were the same ones from July 2017 and Jones had not taken anything new. As a result, the UFC moved UFC 232 on short notice from Las Vegas to Inglewood, Calif.
After Tuesday’s three-hour hearing, the Nevada commission came mostly to that same conclusion. Below are the main takeaways from the meeting.
The story of Jones and the M3 metabolite seems far from over. In addition to twice-monthly drug tests administered by the Nevada commission leading up to UFC 235 (at cost to Jones), the NAC expects Jones to continue with rigorous testing for the rest of this year and maybe beyond. Jones is already currently being tested by USADA, the UFC’s anti-doping partner, and VADA, the results of which are being reported to the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC).
The idea behind even more testing is to close the window of the possibility that Jones is actively using a prohibited substance. If just the long-term M3 metabolite (and no parent compounds or shorter term metabolites) is found in all of his tests the rest of this year — while samples are being collected on nearly a weekly basis — that would be one way to definitively say Jones is not actively doping.
Keep in mind, Jones is only licensed for one fight in Nevada. NAC chairman Anthony Marnell III mentioned the possibility that Jones might have to come before the commission for another hearing at some point later if he wants to fight in the state again after UFC 235. For now, Jones will be allowed to compete in the UFC, but how many picograms per milliliter of the M3 metabolite he has in his system will continue to be a topic of conversation for the foreseeable future.
Policing trash talk?
The Nevada commission took no action against McGregor for some of the more controversial things he said in the lead up to UFC 229 on Tuesday. But Marnell and executive director Bob Bennett made it seem like that could change in the future. During the hearing, Marnell said in the future, the NAC could sanction athletes for things they say, whereas traditionally it has only suspended or fined fighters for physical incidents.
McGregor might have crossed the line with Nurmagomedov before UFC 229. He’s not the only combat sports athlete who has done so. Boxers Floyd Mayweather Jr., Adrien Broner and others have said some pretty heinous things over the years. Where is the line? Policing pre-fight trash talk seems like a precarious position for the commission, though it has wide levity under the “unsportsmanlike conduct” portion of its regulations. There is a definite gray area, though. How do you determine what crosses the line and doesn’t? The NAC as a governmental agency could open itself to attorneys filing with a court on First Amendment grounds if it attempts to sanction someone for saying something scandalous.
The 10-month gap
Nevada commissioner Dr. Robert McBeath continued harping Tuesday on the substantial gap in USADA’s drug testing of Jones — and rightfully so. Jones was not tested while he was on provisional suspension from Oct. 2017-Aug. 2018 — a span of about 10 months. Both USADA results management lead Jeff Cook and SMRTL lab director Dr. Daniel Eichner agreed that it would have been beneficial to all parties involved to have more drug-testing data on Jones during that span.
It would have been good for Jones, too. The one thing scientists are able to say with some measure of certainty in this case is that he likely did not re-administer oral Turinabol from August 2018 to now. But before that, during that 10-month testing period? It’s impossible to know. Cook said, in hindsight with what USADA knows now about the long-term M3 metabolite, things might have been done differently.
But independent of that, why wouldn’t USADA drug test someone who has failed two drug tests under the UFC anti-doping program in two years for that long? UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky explained before UFC 232 that testing suspended fighters, who won’t be fighting for a period of time, is not high on the USADA priority list. Perhaps that should change in some cases.
One of the most concerning parts of the Jones story is how late — sometimes too late — that the pertinent athletic commissions were given information about his recent drug-test history by USADA. Most significantly, USADA did not inform CSAC about the abnormal findings from Aug.-Sept. 2018 ahead of Jones’ licensing hearing in front of the commission Dec. 11. So when the California commissioners voted to grant Jones a license on that date in Sacramento, they had no knowledge of the M3 metabolite “pulsing” in Jones’ system.
Had CSAC known, things would have gone down differently and it’s entirely possible Jones would not have been licensed at that time. He was, though, and then able to fight at UFC 232. With the knowledge of those abnormal results and without information from scientists, CSAC executive officer Andy Foster told NAC executive director Bob Bennett that Jones would not have gotten a license.
Now, ultimately Foster did approve of Jones fighting at UFC 232 in late December after getting information from scientists like Dr. Daniel Eichner, the lab director at the WADA-accredited SMRTL in Salt Lake City. But it’s impossible to know what would have happened at the CSAC hearing Dec. 11 if Foster and the commissioners knew about the steroid metabolite being found in Jones back in August and September. NAC chairman Anthony Marnell said Tuesday he would be “irate” if he were Foster.
Meanwhile, CSAC was heavily criticized for allowing Jones to fight last month and is now somewhat vindicated with NAC coming essentially to the same conclusion based on expert testimony.
“I am happy for Mr. Jones and the sport of mixed martial arts,” Foster told MMA Fighting in a statement. “Just as we did in California, the Nevada commission relied on the opinions and expertise of world renowned anti-doping scientists to make an informed and thoughtful decision. Justice through science prevailed, and that’s a win for all stakeholders.”
Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told ESPN on Tuesday that he is “done” with fighting in Las Vegas and will be targeting a return to the UFC in November at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Nurmagomedov, Abdelaziz said, is furious that the Nevada commission suspended his teammates Zubaira Tukhugov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov one year apiece for their roles in the UFC 229 post-fight melee.
Nurmagomedov was also fined a whopping $500,000 for jumping out of the Octagon on Oct. 6 and helping ignite that brawl. Marnell speculated that it might be the biggest fine handed down by the Nevada commission since Mike Tyson was fined $3 million for biting Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997.
Nurmagomedov, if he completes a NAC-approved anti-bullying public-service announcement, would be eligible to fight again in early April. That’s seven months before Nurmagomedov’s November target date. With Nurmagomedov holding the UFC lightweight title, it could force the promotion into some hard decisions, perhaps instituting yet another interim belt. Who would fight for that? And would Nurmagomedov, who has expressed interest in fighting Floyd Mayweather and Georges St-Pierre, even be interested in the winner?
What a fascinating sport MMA is, where the decisions made in a Las Vegas boardroom in January can directly affect the UFC’s entire 2019 calendar.