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When the Ultimate Fighting Championship and United States Anti-Doping Agency began their partnership in July 2015, the deal was largely lauded by the mixed martial arts community. A highly respected independent agency was finally in charge of ensuring athletes fighting in the world’s premier MMA promotion were free of performance-enhancing drugs, and those that were found to be in violation would be swiftly punished. Clean competition would be the order of the day, and fair play would be the result. Fast forward two years after the drug testing protocols were put in place and the response is far different from the universal praise and optimism that originally greeted the arrangement.
Just a few days ago, former middleweight champion and consensus G.O.A.T. candidate Anderson Silva was flagged for a potential USADA violation that effectively made him ineligible to main event against Kelvin Gastelum at UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai, China. This cancellation is unfortunately not an isolated incident. Since its introduction to the roster, USADA has suspended 36 fighters, according to the listing on its website. This does not include potential violations, like the latest alleged infractions from Silva and Jon Jones. Many of those suspensions have also been linked to scrapped matchups and last-minute fight card changes. Ironically, the original Silva-Gastelum booking was shelved when Gastelum tested positive for marijuana weeks ahead of UFC 212. Most notably, the highly anticipated rematch between Jones and Daniel Cormier, booked as the historic UFC 200 headliner, was dropped mere days before the event.
Because it has commitments with so many outlets, the UFC schedule rages on. Is this focus on PEDs what the sport needs now? The inclusion of USADA and its strict testing protocols have put the promotion in an interesting Catch 22 situation. While the company can and should be praised as the most heavily tested sporting organization in existence, one has to wonder whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze. Are the bragging rights of being the most outwardly anti-drug sports league in the world -- this is simply not heralded enough in the mainstream media -- worth the damage that is being done to the product?
The UFC is faced with a few options to handle this dilemma. The first option is to simply ride out the storm, let USADA do its job and hope to weed out the usage of performance-enhancing drugs in the promotion. From a basic public relations standpoint, this would be the best idea. The UFC would still hold its crown as a trendsetter in clean competition. While that may not mean much to the sport’s hardcore devotees, it is a significant piece for the UFC. While TV deals are being negotiated, the NFL suffers the backlash of allegedly covering up studies on CTE and the NCAA continues its cycle of payola and student-athlete eligibility, some form of legitimacy on such a hot-button topic can go a long way for increasing the paydays and visibility of MMA. However, this involves enduring the sometimes comical routine of fight cards being altered and the loss of notable competitors at a time when the UFC is in almost desperate need of stars and big moments.
A second option would be to terminate the USADA deal. Instantly, star power and marquee matchups would be less likely to fall out. The potential unintended consequences -- some injury withdrawals and weight class changes, for example -- of USADA’s presence might also be alleviated. The UFC would likely be able to return to some of the better parts of its so-called Golden Age. The downside to this would be the very public and transparent nature of the termination. It would essentially be an open call to fighters to experiment with every banned substance possible, with the predictable testing of the state athletic commissions serving as the only roadblock. In the case of events in which the UFC is its own regulator, an obvious conflict of interest would arise. In the past, the company had quite the conundrum in the aftermath of UFC Fight Night 33, as Antonio Silva accused a UFC doctor of botching his approved testosterone-replacement therapy treatment. The infamous late career run of Vitor Belfort, including the alleged secret test failure ahead of UFC 152, also comes to mind. On top of that, the UFC has shown itself to be inept at handling some of the finer scientific points of the testing protocols on its own, as was the case with the Cung Le debacle at UFC Fight Night 48. While we could possibly see that hypothetical Jones-Brock Lesnar superfight, the UFC would open itself up to new levels of criticism and scrutiny by terminating its current USADA deal.
A third option would be to either opt not to renew the deal upon its expiration or renew it under less restrictive terms. This could keep the appearances of a harsh anti-PED culture, while trying to preserve the fight cards and keep the consequences to a minimum. Of course, this would also cause problems for the UFC in the public relations department. Needless to say, it would not be the same as ending the arrangement abruptly, but it would result in an understandable amount of backlash. Perhaps citing another reason for not renewing the deal -- financial limitations after employee cutbacks and a $4.2 billion loan, for example -- would at least present a surface-level defense.
Right now, the UFC is facing an uphill battle either way: Be the shining example of forward thinking and fair play but deal with lost revenue from cancelled fights and missing stars, or return to a culture of looking the other way and passing the buck to athletic commissions in an attempt to cash out now. While it’s tempting to hit the reset button and hope to see a more reliable fight schedule and consistent star presence, the bell can’t be un-rung. USADA has exposed an ugly side to MMA that everyone ignored for a long time. Going backwards would be opening the door for criticism to which the sport may not be willing or able to answer successfully. The drug testing for which USADA is responsible is definitely not perfect, but it’s a necessary evil if clean and legitimate competition is a top priority. These are nothing more than growing pains.