A little over nine years after the UFC announced the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) would oversee efforts to eradicate the use of performance-enhancing drugs, the promotion has decided to end the partnership effective at the turn of the new year.
So why would the world leader in mixed martial arts turn their back on a program intended to ensure fair competition?
While this may not seem like good news from a superficial glance at the headline or from a PR standpoint, the truth is that the UFC is finally pulling the plug on a poorly executed farce that has not benefited the company nor the sport of MMA as a whole in any measurable fashion. In fact, it can be argued that the existence of USADA was harmful to the UFC, its fighters, and even fans.
A big part of answering that question can be answered by looking at just how the news broke. This wasn’t something that Dana White spoke about in a customary post-fight press conference. It wasn’t disclosed via the special announcement social media videos that solidified an anticipated match or short notice bout order switcheroo. It wasn’t even leaked to a preferred media member. The news came from a curiously worded USADA press release.
The Conor McGregor Effect
Not only did it confirm that Conor McGregor finally reentered the testing pool but it barely paused for air before linking the long hold out of the promotion’s biggest cash cow and the “untenable” relationship between the UFC and the independent bureau.
Of course, that bold email that White later described as a “dirty scumbag move” is not without its faults but the fact that McGregor was the apparent catalyst for the House of Cards to fall shows one of the biggest flaws with the system: like almost any other drug testing program expected to keep competition fair, the enforcement of the rules shows a clear bias.
If the superstar whose presence is akin to a money printer wants to skirt the rules, then so be it. Brock Lesnar’s here to boost that blockbuster UFC 200 card? Well then, let’s waive that six-month window of clean test that other returning fighters are subjected to and just throw him in there. McGregor needs to rehab from a devastating leg injury. How about withdrawing from the testing pool and only reenter when it’s time to return?
Without getting into whether combat athletes or athletes of any kind, should be allowed to use otherwise banned substances for recovery purposes, the issuance of exemptions or ability to dance around the rules is directly proportional to financial power. If you can afford to stay on the sidelines as the clock ticks or you are that big of a box office success to warrant the UFC interfering, then in White’s words “Who cares what USADA says?”
This doesn’t even take into account the fact that the science in drug testing is always behind the science in drug taking. While some with comparatively unlimited resources can gain access to designer PEDs that go undetected by current methods, others are getting busted for tainted whey protein powder.
What Do the Fighters Say?
Perhaps the worst part about the USADA program is the restrictions placed upon the athletes. In a conversation with MMA Fighting, USADA CEO Travis Tygart said that the majority of the fighters “overwhelmingly support the program” and look at it as a “glimmer of hope.” Unfortunately, without collective bargaining, we’ll never know whether or not that statement is true.
It’s highly unlikely a fighter’s association would sign off on a whereabouts program that invades privacy to the degree that USADA has been able to over the years. Several fighters have spoken about being woken up by knocks on the door at the crack of dawn from strangers demanding urine samples. Urijah Faber had to leave the bedside of his wife while she was in labor giving birth to their first child to submit to testing.
White did reveal that an independent company would replace USADA, however this was another decision made in a boardroom without proper representation from athletes that could address the issues with its predecessor. From the standpoint of the athletes, it’s very likely to be the same book with a new cover.
With either a new third party who can read the writing on the wall or an in-house system reminiscent of One Championship’s competition committee, the true intent of testing is likely to morph further away from keeping a clean sport and closer to whatever is best for business. Where an Anderson Silva here and a Jon Jones there could get yanked out off a bout sheet previously, don’t expect flagged tests to interrupt the steady stream of events or strip belts too often.
This is not intended to paint USADA as a benevolent but at times heavy-handed protector of the sport. While it may have battled privately to make sure McGregor abided by proper protocols and halted its fair share of high-profile fights, it also grossly mishandled situations that have done irreparable harm to careers (i.e. Tom Lawlor and even Jones’ infamous picogram fiasco.) Tygart’s aggressive press release could’ve been motivated by the loss of the reported $7 million the UFC gave USADA annually instead of its mission to “uphold the rights and voices of clean athletes.”
Yes, the UFC canceled the deal under dubious circumstances and may replace it with something similar. They may even exert the same ambiguous look at how the sausage is made that they have over other aspects of operations. But let’s not pretend that the USADA program