After damaging Junior dos Santos' reputation, UFC makes major change to its anti-doping program

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Junior dos Santos was eventually vindicated from a failed drug test, but the damage was already done. (Getty Images)
Junior dos Santos was eventually vindicated from a failed drug test, but the damage was already done. (Getty Images)

As Junior dos Santos slept, he was making news around the world. His attorney, Ana Claudia Guedes, was on vacation when she received a series of messages from the UFC, informing her that the former heavyweight champion had failed a drug test.

Guedes was incredulous, because dos Santos had always been so vehemently against performance-enhancing drug usage and supportive of the UFC’s anti-doping testing program administered by USADA.

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“I came in from whatever I was doing on vacation and I had several missed phone calls and messages from the Las Vegas area code,” Guedes told Yahoo Sports. “Two of them were from Donna Marcolini [a UFC vice president]. “I listened to the voicemail she left and I had this feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me. She said, very plainly, ‘I need to speak to you as soon as possible because Junior has been flagged by USADA.’ I took a quick look at the internet and, my God, it was everywhere.”

The UFC, as had been its policy since it began the anti-doping program in 2015, issued a news release announcing dos Santos’ positive test and that he’d been pulled from an upcoming fight against Francis Ngannou.

When she finally reached dos Santos, he at first thought she was joking. When she convinced him that she was serious, he was devastated.

Dos Santos was eventually vindicated, as it was determined that a supplement he’d gotten from a Brazilian compounding pharmacy had been tainted. But to dos Santos, the damage had been done. He’d been branded a cheater when the announcement was made, and though another announcement was made when he was vindicated, it didn’t carry the same impact.

He doesn’t feel he’s been made whole.

“I don’t think so because look at the toll it had,” Guedes said. “He lost at least one fight. That’s a half-million dollars in income. He has a cloud over him. An internet search today compared to an internet search a year ago, you’re not going to get the same results but you’ll still see headlines from all of those old articles. A lot of the websites were quick to publish when news came out that he tested positive, but they weren’t so quick to publish, or to publish at all, when the news that he was vindicated came out.”

Dos Santos’ case is largely the reason that the UFC has decided to no longer announce a fighter has tested positive until after the case has been adjudicated. No fighter will be allowed to compete with a failed test, but it will be up to the fighter to determine whether or not to say why he/she is not fighting.

Jeff Novitzky, the vice president for athlete health and performance for the UFC, and Hunter Campbell, its chief legal officer, discovered during research that a third of all anti-doping cases that were adjudicated in the three years were found to be non-intentional use.

There have been 62 cases in which there was a positive test and then a final determination made. Of those, 21 were found to have been non-intentional violations. They were either the result of ingesting a contaminated substance or food that was contaminated; or where the athlete was given a retroactive therapeutic-use exemption for medical reasons.

Novitzky said that fairness and due process is as important in the anti-doping program as its strength and comprehensiveness. When Jon Jones tested positive the day before UFC 214 for a metabolite of the anabolic steroid turninabol, it was a picogram, or one-trillionth of a gram. It’s an example of how sophisticated the tests have become.

Many in the public and media, as well as many of Jones’ fellow fighters, were outraged and felt he had gotten off easy after he was given a 15-month penalty and not the 48 months he was facing as a second-time offender.

But independent arbiters found that in each case, Jones did not intentionally use a performance-enhancing drug. In his first violation, when he was caught just prior to UFC 200, he admitted taking a pill he had been given that he thought was to enhance sexual performance.

The arbiter in that case found that Jones did not knowingly attempt to cheat, but gave him the maximum 12-month penalty because of negligence on his part in making certain what he took.

But he did take those steps prior to his second violation, and still tested positive. Arbiter Richard McLaren, who is one of the most highly respected individuals in the anti-doping field, ruled it was unintentional even though Jones couldn’t prove where it came from.

However, it was because the amount that was discovered was so minuscule and came on the day of the weigh-in that there was no logical way he could have been attempting to dope. He had passed two tests about three weeks earlier.

“The testing is so sophisticated now we can say that if you have something in your body, it’s going to be detected,” Campbell said. “That’s been proven in Jon’s case. That’s one trillionth of a gram and yet they still discovered it.

“So the thing we’re trying to do here is to be fair to these athletes. After going over all of our cases and we’re seeing we have about a third of them that are the result of unintentional usage, we had to say, ‘Maybe we need to reconsider making this public right away.’ We’re not here allowing anyone to compete if they’re caught with a banned substance, but we’re not going to make the release public until the case has been adjudicated so that someone isn’t labeled a cheater when it turns out later it was unintentional or unknowing use.”

Supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S., and while there are independent companies that can certify supplements, Campbell noted that no substance is safe, given the manufacturing process.

Sean O’Malley (L) announced via Instagram on Sunday that a failed drug test will keep him out of UFC 229. (Getty)
Sean O’Malley (L) announced via Instagram on Sunday that a failed drug test will keep him out of UFC 229. (Getty)

Sean O’Malley is an example of the new policy. He was scheduled to fight at UFC 229 on Saturday, but was pulled from the card and on Sept. 30, announced he had a failed drug test. He said he believes he took a contaminated caffeine pill and is having the ones he was using tested, as well as a sealed bottle.

Under the old policy, the UFC would have released it. In this case, O’Malley chose to, which is the athlete’s right, but the UFC won’t comment until it is adjudicated. And while there will be speculation whenever a fighter is pulled from a card without a reason, Campbell said no one should jump to conclusions.

“I deal with it all the time and I see fighters pull out of fights for an amazing number of reasons, very private reasons sometimes,” he said. “If the fighter chooses to release the test, that’s their choice, but we think the fair thing to do given the high-percentage of unintentional usage cases we’re seeing is to wait until it’s been adjudicated before announcing.”

Guedes said it’s the only fair thing to do.

“It’s inhumane to [announce the positive test publicly immediately]. You have to have proper notification and the athlete deserves time to digest what is happening to them and their ability to provide for themselves and their families.” Guedes said. “They should have the basic dignity of being the first to know what is happening in their lives and their careers and not to wake up and read it on an MMA blog somewhere.”

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