Thursday, December 7, 2023

UFC, USADA split: Explaining the ugly fallout from the end of their partnership and what the future holds

UFC and USADA going from partners to enemies likely wasn’t on your combat sports bingo card, but it’s quickly becoming one of the ugliest feuds this year. A simple inquiry about Conor McGregor quickly unraveled into a public split between the two organizations and threats of litigation.

USADA announced on Wednesday that its nine-year partnership with the UFC will conclude on Dec. 31, 2023. The revelation came with the confirmation that Conor McGregor had officially re-entered the anti-doping agency’s drug testing pool. UFC responded by organizing a press conference one day later, but not before UFC president Dana White retaliated against USADA on “The Pat McAfee Show.”

“It was a dirty move by them,” White said on Thursday. “There was no announcement yesterday. That was straight scumbag-ism what happened yesterday.”

Let’s take a look at the arguments presented by each side and what the future looks like for anti-doping procedures in the UFC.

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USADA’s initial statement

The trouble started when USADA confirmed that McGregor had re-entered the testing pool. It was the first truly promising sign of McGregor’s return to competition after breaking his tibia in a fight with Dustin Poirier at UFC 264 on July 10, 2021. USADA unexpectedly revealed the impending end of their working agreement with UFC. USADA implied that UFC’s desire to expedite McGregor’s return contributed to the split.

“We have been clear and firm with the UFC that there should be no exception given by the UFC for McGregor to fight until he has returned two negative tests and been in the pool for at least six months,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart wrote in the statement. “Unfortunately, we do not currently know whether the UFC will ultimately honor the six-month or longer requirement…”

McGregor announced his retirement and exited the testing pool after his career-altering injury in the third Poirier fight. The temporary nature of his retirement and apparent body transformation sparked unproven allegations that McGregor used USADA-banned substances to aid in his recovery and bulk up for a movie role. 

USADA claimed to have had productive conversations with UFC in October before the fight promotion did a 180. The anti-doping organization continued to suggest that testing McGregor caused a breakdown in communication.

“The relationship between USADA and UFC became untenable given the statements made by UFC leaders and others questioning USADA’s principled stance that McGregor not be allowed to fight without being in the testing pool for at least six months,” the statement read. “One UFC commentator echoed this, recently declaring that USADA should not oversee the UFC program since we held firm to the six-month rule involving McGregor, and since we do not allow fighters without an approved medical basis to use performance-enhancing drugs like experimental, unapproved peptides or testosterone for healing or injuries simply to get back in the Octagon.”

UFC’s response

UFC officials held a press conference on Thursday in response to USADA’s statement. The media availability was helmed by Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s chief business officer, and Jeff Novitzky, senior vice president of athlete health and performance. The two executives went scorched earth.

Campbell threatened legal action against USADA, demanding the organization issue a formal apology. Campbell accused Tygart of making “disturbing… material misrepresentations” about McGregor and the UFC.

“At no point in time did Jeff, myself, or any other UFC representative, Dana [White], not a single person ever went to USADA and told them anything other than Conor McGregor would re-enter the program when he was healthy, and in doing so, we would require him to be in the program for six months,” Campbell said. “There would be no exception to the rule.

“And what I said to Travis on multiple occasions, including the call on Monday, was there would never be a situation where Conor would fight until he had been in the program for six months, and my words were, ‘I don’t give a shit if he has 37 clean tests.'”

Campbell applauded McGregor for operating with integrity and shamed USADA for their poor treatment of the former two-division UFC champion.

“Conor is 100 percent in the pool,” Campbell said. “He made himself available in every way. I can tell you because I personally was a part of that with him. He’s conducted himself with integrity and honesty. He’s done everything right. And he’s, as you can imagine, very upset at the moment for the way that they’ve sort of used him. And they’ve never done that with any other athlete in history, and I think that’s a really important point.

“I’ll say it one last time, what they’ve done to him is disgusting. And for an entity that holds themselves out to have a level of honor and integrity, using him as a media vehicle to advance a fake narrative is disturbing, disgusting and I think they have some legitimate legal liability that they should be very concerned with.”

The UFC, an organization currently facing a class-action antitrust lawsuit, accused USADA of power tripping.

“They like being able to be the authority figure that tells you what’s what, and I think Conor has done a more vocal job than most athletes would of getting out there and telling his followers in his community and the people that follow our sport, what’s going on with him. And I think they hate that,” Campbell said. “I really do.

“They use him the way they have because he has allowed them to get a level of media attention that they can’t get on their own. USADA puts some shit out, no one cares. You connect Conor to it and all of a sudden it explodes, whether it triggers the algorithms or whatever. And truthfully, that’s why I’m most disappointed about the way that they’ve handled the last 48 hours. They used an athlete as a vehicle to advance a false narrative. I think it’s incredibly unethical.”

USADA stood by its CEO after the UFC press conference.

What’s next for UFC and anti-doping

UFC executives announced at Thursday’s press conference they will work with Drug Free Sport International as of Jan. 1, 2024.

“[DFSI] currently handle collection duties for the following professional sports leagues — they have 325 long-term tenured sports clients including the NFL, the NCAA, Major League Baseball, NBA, WNBA, NASCAR, horse racing integrity and welfare unit, PGA, LPGA, FIFA, Crossfit,” Novitzky said. “They actually help out with some drug testing with various National Anti-Doping Authorities throughout the world and various sports federations. They virtually collect samples for everybody.”

The promotion is also onboarding Dr. Dan Eichner from the Sports Medicine Testing and Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah. The organization is one of two U.S. anti-doping laboratories accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Eichner will be responsible for overseeing testing and results. Eichner has already made several recommendations, including a specific focus targeting erythropoietin (EPO), according to Novitzky.  

The program will be overseen by independent administrator George Piro, a retired FBI special agent who led the 2004 interrogation of Saddam Hussein after his capture by American forces in Iraq. Piro will be solely responsible for handling drug-related infractions and punishments.

“George will make every — and I stress every — final decision in the program,” Novitzky said. “That authority will be his and his alone.”

UFC fighters seeking arbitration will need to contact McLaren Global Sports Solutions.

“What you’re going to see is smarter, more efficient, greater use of technology and once again, more convenience to our athletes,” Novitzky said. “And that’s going to be right off the bat.”

UFC and USADA started working together in 2015. An excess of 27,000 tests were conducted on members of the UFC roster. USADA’s reputation was divisive in the combat sports world. Supporters championed USADA for cleaning up the sport and leveling the playing field. Detractors argued that USADA had a minimal impact on curbing substance use and ruined many careers, including Tom Lawlor and Josh Barnett’s, with its overreach and lack of self-accountability.

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