• UFC Breaks Partnership with The United States Anti-Doping Agency

    Published Wednesday 25 October 2023 11:44am

    9 min read

    For the last eight years USADA have been responsible for anti-doping within the UFC. They have now broken their partnership with a replacement planned.

By WherestheMatch Team

Anti-doping has been a long-debated subject within the world of MMA, and in no place more so than the globally-renowned UFC. Dana White’s organisation has a somewhat spotty record when it comes to drug usage with several fighters over the last decade being granted permission to fight in the octagon even when it was public knowledge that they were enjoying something a little more nutritional than protein shakes on the side. Since 2018, USADA (The United States Anti-Doping Agency) have been in charge of drug testing UFC athletes with an estimated 27,000 tests having been carried out by the organisation across their 8-year partnership. While calling their relationship a happy one would be somewhat misinterpreting USADA’s long line of dissatisfied press releases, it certainly seemed like their uneasy partnership would carry on going forward; well, until everything started going downhill when Conor McGregor entered the picture.

The McGregor Effect

Having been out of action since a leg break in July 2021, fans were naturally excited when news spread that Conor McGregor would be taking on a mentorship role on the UFC’s ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ TV show opposite fellow lightweight Michael Chandler. As is tradition in TUF, the coaches themselves were set to fight in the last episode. Unfortunately, as was apparent to everyone that watched the show, McGregor seemed completely uninterested in his own fight, as well as those of his team members. Aware of the talk around his return, USADA asked that McGregor follow their standard procedure and enter the testing pool six months before fighting. He missed the opportunity to do so and it became quite clear early into the TV show that there would in fact be no fight against Chandler.

Fast forward roughly six months and McGregor is sitting on Twitter enjoying the UFC headliner cards. You can tell because he’s systematically calling out whichever fighter catches his eye – even those out of his weight division. While seeing Conor McGregor share the octagon with Alex Volkanovski would certainly be an incredible spectacle, it would likely take Volk no great length of time to completely dismantle the Irishman. However, fans are loving the idea of more high-profile fights and Dana has dollar signs in his eyes – McGregor sells fights, and the UFC has always been about the money.

Escalating Conflicts

When asked about the McGregor situation in July 2023, Dana White was quick to suggest that he would fight again before the end of the year. With less that five months until 2024 at the time he made his statement and no indication from either side that McGregor was actually in the testing pool, the natural assumption from MMA fans across the globe was that the UFC had struck some kind of deal with USADA to grant exception for the six-month rule – something that they are entitled to do under “exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would be manifestly unfair to an Athlete”. While this rule seems like a reasonable one, it is a bit of a stretch to consider McGregor dragging his feet ‘exceptional circumstances’. USADA clarified that they did not consider Conor exempt from the 6-month rule and that he would need to be tested for the full period before making his return to the octagon.

The conflict between the organisations further escalated when – in an interview with TSN – Dana White declared "Who cares what USADA says?" before USADA themselves fired back with “Fighters' long-term health and safety -- in addition to a fair and level playing field -- are more important to USADA than short-term profits at the expense of clean athletes.”. Naturally, USADA were well aware of the damage that a likely drugged-up Conor McGregor could do to their reputation if he did somehow make it onto a main card and were quick to shut down the notion that he would be able to fight anytime soon, even if their announcement did somewhat discredit Dana and poke accusations of fighter mismanagement at the UFC. The USADA statement clearly rubbed the UFC executives up the wrong way and what followed was a series of press interviews in which the UFC Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell and UFC Executive Jeff Novitzky spoke of defamation against their organisation and clarified that they had at no point demanded exception for Conor McGregor.

No Contract Renewal

With the scathing comments made around the UFC’s treatment of fighters combined with the belief that USADA were using McGregor’s notoriety as a media vehicle to market themselves, it seems that the partnership was destined to crash and burn. On October 9th UFC informed USADA that they would not be renewing their contract regardless of the positive meetings that took place earlier in the year. This news came only a day after USADA announced that McGregor had officially re-entered their testing pool. The current contract runs until the end of 2023 with the two organisations set to go their separate way at the start of the new year.

What’s Next for UFC Anti-Doping?

A sports organisation as large as the UFC can’t function without an industry-leading anti-doping program and an agreement with Drug Free Sport International has already been made. The DFSI are an organisation already providing drug testing services to FIFA, the MLB, NFL, and NBA with their joint UFC program set to make major changes to the way in which athletes are tested. We’re going to see more blood testing as well as the introduction of oral fluid testing, blood spot testing, and isotope ratio mass spectrometry. Presumably, all of this with the intention of getting athletes tested quicker and more comprehensively to reduce the duration that they need to stay within the testing pool before being able to compete. Former FBI agent George Piro has also been hired as the independent administrator for the anti-doping operation.

Are USADA’s Processes Fair for Fighters?

It’s difficult to say whether or not USADA is being fair to fighters. Firstly, it’s vital that MMA anti-doping is enforced as strongly, if not more so than other sports on account of its somewhat dirty reputation. Most would agree that the partnership with USADA greatly helped the UFC cleanse it’s roster imposing tighter sanctions on drug usage and punishing those that were found to be using. However, it’s important to note that UFC fighters are classified as independent contractors rather than employees; what this means is that they earn money when they fight rather than on a monthly/annual basis like a regular job. In instances where a fighter receives an injury, and is forced to go on medication and undertake a period of extended leave for recovery they may need to leave the testing pool which could leave them without a source of income for upwards of six months.

As an addition to their 6-month rule, USADA also had permission from the UFC to carry out random spot checks of their fighters. Brazilian middleweight Paulo Costa had a couple of interesting things to say shortly after the split was announced declaring that USADA agents would frequently wake him in the middle of the night to carry out tests or that they would hassle him during training camps interrupting gym sessions. Costa probably didn’t help himself by teasing his ‘secret juice’ on social media or having already been picked up twice by USADA for using IV infusions; regardless, directly interfering with a fighter’s training camp is a step too far seeing as even minor disturbances can have a major impact on fight night performances.

USADA’s methods may have been somewhat extreme, but the challenges posed by anti-doping within MMA have somewhat forced them into these measures. The UFC themselves should have been better at protecting their fighters and enforcing testing processes that didn’t directly interfere with the day-to-day lives of their fighters. We’re interested to see what the future holds for UFC anti-doping and whether the new regulations will be a step in the right direction.