Anyone who expected the latest Jon Jones fiasco to be a death knell for the UFC’s partnership with USADA is going to be disappointed.
UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky revealed Thursday during an appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience that the UFC has re-upped its agreement with USADA for a new deal in 2019 that will see the promotion significantly increase its testing output by a margin of “30 to 40 percent.”
Novitzky dropped the news during a two-hour discussion about Jones’ latest run-in with USADA — a run-in which led the promotion to uproot UFC 232 to California less than a week before the event was set to take place in Nevada. Novitzky cited Jones’ case as one of the chief factors as to why the UFC opted for an even more exhaustive drug-testing program with USADA in 2019.
“The reality, and [USADA representatives] just told me this, is Jon was one of the most, if not the most tested athlete over these last six months when you look at total amount of tests on his samples,” Novitzky told Rogan. “One thing that obviously protected him here was that volume of testing, and so USADA came to us and said, ‘Hey, we think that you probably should up the amount of tests that you’re doing.’ So we just renewed a contract with USADA and we’re increasing our testing numbers by 30 to 40 percent.
“The first three years of the program, we were under contract for approximately 2,700 tests, and starting this next year, we’re going to up that to around 4,300 or 4,400 tests. So I think it’s going to be more of a burden. There’s going to be USADA showing up on more doorsteps early in the morning for more of our athletes, but I think this is a perfect example that the increased volume of testing actually can be a protectant to the athlete, especially when you’re talking these low level picogram quantities and contaminated cases, and things like that.”
Jones, 31, was unable to get licensed in the state of Nevada for UFC 232 without first going before the Nevada Athletic Commission for a hearing after testing positive for trace amounts of a longterm metabolite of oral turinabol in three drug screenings conducted by USADA over the last five months. Jones tested positive for eight picograms of the metabolite in an Aug. 29 test, 19 picograms in a Sept. 18 test, and in the range of 60 to 80 picograms in a Dec. 9 test. Five additional drug tests came back clean over that same span.
USADA determined that Jones’ test results were simply “residual” effects from a Sept. 2017 test Jones failed for the same substance — effects which supplied no performance-enhancing benefits — and cleared Jones to compete on Dec. 29 at UFC 232 against Alexander Gustafsson for the vacant UFC light heavyweight title.
And for Novitzky, that determination for a case involving such trace amounts is a sign of progress for a drug-testing community whose science may have evolved to a dangerous degree.
“If I would’ve talked to you 15, 16, 17 years ago when I got my start in the anti-doping world, I would’ve told you definitively that testing is way behind what’s being used out there,” Novitzky said. “They were able to test to multiple nanograms limits, that’s as far down as they could go. Now we can go down to single-digit picogram. There’s another professional sports league out there that recently had a one picogram M3 metabolite case. I mean, do the math coming down from four or five nanograms, which used to be the lower limit, now to one picogram — 10,000 or 20,000 times [smaller].
“I am almost under the theory that the pendulum has swung maybe a little bit too far in the other direction, and that certainly is part of my job to the UFC. Look, I want to catch every intentional cheater that’s out there. I want to make sure we have a rock-solid program, use all the latest and greatest techniques to do it, but I also want to keep an eye on it to make sure it’s administrated fairly. And when you’re getting down to detection of one single-digit picogram, I have a concern that what kind of level of sensitivity are we talking about?
“Are we going to talk about environmental contamination, where you walk through a room and somebody has just opened a container of something and there’s minuscule powders in the air? There are documented cases that some of the regularly prescribed prescription drugs, specifically diuretics, are getting in water supplies in some areas. You get a lot of old people on them who flush their old pills down the toilet. There’s documented cases of it getting into the water supply and being detectable at that picogram level, so you’ve gotta be really, really careful about that, and I think this case exemplifies that USADA and really the World Anti-Doping Agency world and community are aware of that. With greater sensitivity and testing, in my opinion, makes greater responsibility to be objective and look fairly at what really we’re doing here when we’re detecting in that small amount.
“What’s happening is an arms race in these laboratories,” Novitzky added. “They’re saying, well, two (nanograms) is the minimum standard, but I can get down further. And these are private entities that are looking for customers, so to be able to reach out and say, ‘Well, even though WADA tells us two (nanograms) is as low as we need to go, we can go down to one picogram.’ I think, in a sense, maybe you need to slow the reigns on that a little bit — that we’re getting too far and too sensitive of a level of detection when it comes to implementing a fair program, because you can’t determine where one picogram came from. You could be breathing in contaminated air, drinking contaminated water. It’s real dangerous when you get down that low.”
Jones is expected to appear before a Nevada Athletic Commission hearing in January to discuss his adverse test results. He is free to fight at UFC 232 in the interim.
And with the UFC readying to ramp up its drug-testing partnership with USADA even further in 2019, Novitzky is on the hunt for ways to ensure that situations like Jones’ are treated differently by the organization moving forward.
“Interestingly enough, the World Anti-Doping Agency or WADA, their next code revision is 2021, and so they regularly put out, ‘Hey, what are the issues going forward that we want to address?’ And one of the major issues is potentially establishing thresholds for these low-level substances that keep appearing — THC being one of them, Ostarine being one of them,” Novitzky said. “And so the idea that WADA is looking at and has a working group of worldwide experts [researching] is, hey, if something gets reported back at under 50 picograms, all the evidence is showing more likely than not this is from a very low-level contaminant issue. We’ve never seen an issue of a micro-dosing or an intentional use that’s reached that level. Why are the labs even reporting at quantities lower than 50 picograms or 100 picograms?
“I think very soon they’re going to come out with a recommendation. We are going to adopt that before 2021. Once that working group — and we’re in communication with them — comes up with those recommendations, you’ll see them implemented first in the UFC program. Again, I’ve also said, fairness and due process in a program is just as important as the strength and comprehensiveness of that program. You might lose faith [from] your athletes. You could have the strongest, loophole-free program in the world, but if you start implementing things unfairly, you’ll lose faith just as much as if you had a bunch of loopholes in the program. It’s got to be fair.”