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LAS VEGAS – The UFC put a highly recognizable and well-respected face on its anti-doping efforts Monday when it named Jeff Novitzky as its vice president of athlete health and performance. It is a significant move that lends credence to management's effort to stem the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs among its athletes.
The BALCO case, which Novitzky's investigation broke open, showed that superstar athletes as wide-ranging as all-time home run king Barry Bonds and Olympic medalist Marion Jones were improving their performance by using illegal drugs.
Novitzky will be charged with putting together the drug-testing protocol the UFC announced at a Las Vegas news conference in February, not long after it was rocked by a series of high-profile positive tests.
Lawrence Epstein, the UFC's chief operating officer, insisted that Novitzky's hire was not simply as an anti-drug czar. But fighters who use steroids have every reason to be wary of his hire.
It's not going to be impossible to cheat with Novitzky on the job, though it will be considerably more difficult and the penalties will be much more stringent.
Novitzky, who is currently a special investigator for the United States Food and Drug Administration, also played a key role in the case against Lance Armstrong. Though it was ultimately Travis Tygart and the United States Anti-Doping Agency who proved that Armstrong's Tour de France titles were fraudulent because of his doping after the government declined to prosecute, Novitzky doggedly pursued doping evidence against Armstrong.
"We had to hire someone with great credibility to run this program for us," Epstein said. "This is not something that can be done on a part-time basis. It's a full-time job and we wanted to hire someone who has credibility in the space and someone who has seen and had experience with athletes and others who had violated the law and made mistakes when it came to performance-enhancing drugs."
Novitzky has that, based on his history. Epstein said that in addition to implementing and running the UFC's drug-test program, Novitzky will work with fighters regarding the accidental injury insurance the UFC provides, training and nutrition.
Epstein said the UFC sees all the roles as inter-connected.
"We're asking Jeff to be a lot more than our drug-testing guy," Epstein said. "We're asking him ultimately to head up what we're calling our athlete health and performance division. We want to make sure we create a level playing field, and the elimination of performance-enhancing drugs is a very important part, but it's just one part."
Have no doubt, though, that Novitzky's success or failure in his job will come down to how well he does in eliminating performance-enhancing drugs from the sport.
One of its notable star, Georges St-Pierre, took a sabbatical and has said he won't return until he's convinced the sport is clean.
Many of the UFC's biggest names have failed drug tests, some multiple times. Anderson Silva, widely considered the greatest fighter in the sport's history, failed two tests, one prior to his bout against Nick Diaz at UFC 182 and one afterward.
Stephan Bonnar twice tested positive for steroids, including once in a fight against Silva, and was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame after the second positive test.
That was a clear sign that PED usage wasn't that important to management. But after a rash of tests late last year and early this year, the UFC finally announced it would implement a serious testing protocol.
Victor Conte, who developed the designed steroids that became known as "the cream and the clear" during the BALCO scandal, has been an outspoken critic of the UFC's actions in the anti-doping arena.
He had a measured response to the news of Novitzky's hire.
"It's my opinion that Jeff Novitzky became frustrated with the government when they failed to bring charges against Lance Armstrong," said Conte, who served four months in prison as result of the BALCO case. "In short, I'm simply amazed that the UFC has hired Novitzky to run their anti-doping program. I believe that the UFC is infested with PEDs. We'll have to wait to find out more details regarding the UFC's new anti-doping program, but Novitzky definitely brings a wealth of experience to his new job.
"I predict that there will be lots of positive drug tests and that it will be painful for the UFC before they finally get this epidemic use of drugs in the sport under control."
Armstrong passed several hundred drug tests during his peak, when he won seven consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999 through 2005. He routinely pointed to the absence of so much as a single positive test as definitive evidence that he was not using performance-enhancing drugs.
But a small cadre of investigators didn't believe him and kept pushing, until the United States Anti-Doping Agency finally proved what many had suspected for years: Armstrong had repeatedly lied, and his Tour de France wins were fraudulent. They had been aided by illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Novitzky was one of those who vigorously pursued the case against Armstrong despite the fact Armstrong kept passing tests. Only the government's decision not to file criminal charges against Armstrong ended Novitzky's investigation.
Given the testing program the UFC announced in February and Monday's hiring of Novitzky, management's vocal support of enhanced penalties for positive tests as is laid out in the World Anti-Doping Agency code, it's clear that Lorenzo Fertitta, Dana White and the gang are no longer going to look the other way.
And that's as it should be.
Epstein said the UFC hasn't decided which agency it would work with to implement its testing plan, which will begin in force in July. That will be up to Novitzky.
Whichever way he goes, Novitzky's mere presence is going to be a tangible sign of the company's newly found commitment to anti-doping.
Nothing could be more significant for the long-term health of the sport than that.