UFC 232 Highlights Major Problems With USADA
by Candice Hall
Jeff Novitzky, UFC Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance, sat cross-armed and anxious next to UFC President Dana White in front of a studio image of Las Vegas. His eyes were fixated on the camera with focus. His discomfort was palpable as he shifted his jaw and swallowed while the reporter asked Dana White a question.
The pair were talking to ESPN to explain the UFC’s decision to move the December 28th event UFC 232 from Nevada to California less than a month before the event. Jon Jones, the headliner of the event, had tested positive for the metabolites of the steroid Turinabol in urine samples given over the past four months.
Nevada State Athletic Commission regulations required Jones to have hearing as part of an investigation. However, the move across state lines allowed the fighter to be granted a license and bypass any investigation before the new state commission became aware of the tests.
“He did not test positive,” Dana White asserted when asked by ESPN to explain the move. White then pointed at Novitzky to elucidate further.
Jeff Novitzky’s purpose at the media round became clear. A former federal investigator famous for taking down Lance Armstrong, Novitzky was there to lend credibility to the UFC’s damage control efforts for the Jon Jones situation.
“This is a residual effect from the July 2017 positive test,” Novitzky explained. “He tested for this long-term metabolite in picogram [a trillionth of a gram] quantities.”
Novitzky nodded his head aggressively as he spoke and he gesticulated breaking a grain of salt on the table to visualize the small amount of residual drugs, as if he were trying to convince himself as well as the media of Jon Jones’ innocence.
Novitzky’s explanation for a drug lasting in the body for 17 months without another ingestion made little sense, while White sought to redefine a positive drug test.
It wouldn’t be the first time Novitzky looked uncomfortable explaining UFC’s anti-doping policies and it wouldn’t the last.
The Background of USADA and Jeff Novitzky
By 2014, the UFC’s credibility was under assault. Early in the year, 31% of their fighters subjected to newer, aggressive drug testing methods came back positive.
Drug testing at this time was handled by the individual athletic commissions. In an effort to gain control and save face with the public, the UFC contracted with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), a non-governmental organization well-known for managing drug testing for the US Olympics.
In 2015, the UFC became the first sports promotion to create its own anti-doping policy and employ an independent drug testing organization to both handle the year-round testing process and arbitrate punishment for violations.
Jeff Novitzky was already a big name in the drug testing world at this point. In 2002, as a federal investigator for the FDA, he raided a laboratory which was supplying performance enhancing drugs to athletes such as Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. In 2010, working alongside USADA, he was the face of an investigation that disgraced Lance Armstrong.
Novitzky moved from the public to private sector when he was hired by the UFC. His new position—VP of Athlete Health and Performance—was invented to serve as an intermediary between the UFC and USADA.
His primary responsibility was defined as an educator of anti-doping for the fighters. He would also be called on for extensive media obligations for drug-related UFC scandals.
The jump for Novitzky came with hesitation. He told USA Today that he was afraid the UFC wanted to take “advantage of my credibility in the anti-doping world.”
A $500,000 a year salary and ability to contribute to a comprehensive plan titled UFC Anti-Doping Policy seemed to have allayed his fears. With the signature on a contract, Novitzky went from working as a special agent for the government to working for the world’s premiere MMA organization.
“I know Jeff is a good guy. I’ve worked with him for years,” prominent anti-doping scientist Don Catlin told USA Today. “I’m worried about USADA. They’ve had a lot of bad affairs lately and making up the rules as they go. That’s not a good idea.”
USADAs Inconsistencies in Combat Sports
The UFC hired USADA the same year that USADA’s operations came under fire for their transparency failures in boxing.
In 2015, when Floyd Mayweather was caught using a prohibited intravenous saline drip in his home the evening before his fight with Manny Pacqiao, USADA failed at informing the athletic commission. Instead they quietly granted a therapeutic exemption that Mayweather had never applied for until after the fight.
Three years earlier, when boxer Erik Morales tested positive twice, USADA had also chosen not to notify the state athletic commission. Operating in the dark, they continued to take additional, unexplained tests. While they eventually revealed the two positive results to state officials in a phone call—Golden Boy Promotion already knew—they stated that the full results would not be revealed until after the fight.
Morales, against all reason, was allowed to compete. Weeks after Morales won by KO, USADA stated their investigation was complete and sanctioned him for two years.
The pattern of secrecy, hiding behind contractual leniency, and favoring the promotion over the commission continued into USADA’s dealings in MMA.
Novitzky Becomes Jon Jones’ Biggest Defender
Novitzky’s nervous media tour continued on the “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast where he muddled irrelevant research papers and the Jon Jones testing timeline USADA had only recently given to him.
When Novitzky noticed in late November results for Jones from months ago were still pending, he was simply told by USADA, “We’re working on something.”
USADA was sitting on seven test results. Unbeknownst to Novitzky, Jones has tested negative once, tested positive twice back in August and September, and then negative again four more times before December. Like the Morales boxing case, USADA made a conscious decision to not inform the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC).
In the meantime, UFC 232: Jon Jones vs Alexander Gustafsson was announced by the UFC in October. The fight was scheduled for the end of the year and now fell under the jurisdiction of NSAC.
It was two months later on December 6th that USADA finally revealed in letters to the UFC and NSAC that there were abnormal test results. It was even later on December 20th that NSAC was informed of an additional eighth and final positive result—only eight days before the fight.
Novitzky’s discomfort became obvious in his role as USADA’s ill-informed mouth piece. As he droned on like a student who crammed last minute for an exam about research that had no relevance to the actual test results, he ignored the major hole in his story. The major question: Why would USADA need months to investigate before the final positive drug test?
A “pulsing” theory Novitzky parroted about metabolites hiding in fat cells was the one fundamental explanation for Jones’ innocence. But not only was it scientifically unproven, it would have no reason to be proposed before the final test showed the metabolite levels going up again.
Instead of offering an explanation to USADA’s secret investigation, Novitzky offered a deflection: He claimed that USADA had no obligation to tell NSAC at all.
“Out of an abundance of caution USADA did notify Nevada of this issue,” Novitzky said at a later media scrum.
While a cited scientist said metabolites lasting this long “is not uncommon,” he had no data concerning the drug Turinabol. With only one separate study on a non-related PED as evidence, Novitzky relied on poorly constructed conjecture disguised as a resolution.
Novitzky’s nickname “The Golden Snitch” hasn’t been accurate in years. He’s no longer a paragon of credibility and anti-corruption. Novitzky is now seen by some as a desperate equivocator for USADA, an organization abusing the freedoms given to it under the anti-doping policy which he himself wrote.
The athletic commission serves as the sport’s last line of defense against corruption. As long as USADA takes money from the UFC and is allowed to withhold full drug test summaries from the commissions, its integrity will be in doubt.