Opinion: U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Up-Hill Climb

By David Bixenspan Dec 15, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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We thought we had reached our breaking point with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency with their handling of Lyoto Machida’s case and subsequent lack of transparency with the media. We were wrong.

On Tuesday evening, Invicta Fighting Championships strawweight Champion Angela Hill revealed in an emotional Twitter video that her scheduled Ultimate Fighting Championship return had been delayed. She had stepped in to replace Maryna Moroz against surging contender Jessica Andrade at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, but the fight well through when USADA told her that she would need to undergo a mandatory four months of enhanced testing before returning. The four month rule was stated to be in place for a very specific reason: So fighters don’t “retire” to take banned performance enhancing drugs with the idea that they will return while maintaining some of the gains they achieved while out of the testing pool.

That doesn’t apply to Hill. Yes, she’s a former UFC fighter who’s returning, but she didn’t retire or even go on any kind of self-imposed sabbatical. She was cut after losing two fights in a row, albeit to the highly ranked Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas. Sure, for her growth as a fighter, getting fired was probably the best thing that could happen to her, as Invicta had a less steep curve from unranked fighters to the top 15, but that doesn’t really matter. Hill was cut. She didn’t ask for her release. She didn’t retire. She didn’t even go into the black hole that contains seemingly missing UFC roster fighters like Tina Lahdemaki (now Tina Hanninen) and Buddy Roberts, who never retired but have been gone for almost two and a half years and four years, four months, respectively. She was cut!

Technically speaking, the rule, as worded, does apply to any fighter who “gives notice of retirement to UFC, or has otherwise ceased to have a contractual relationship with UFC.” Where it gets tricky is that, infamously, “UFC may grant an exemption to the four-month written notice rule in exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would be manifestly unfair to” the fighter. Hill’s case, where the fighter was actually booked in a bout by the UFC, only to lose the booking due to the rule, sure feels like one where the exemption would “be manifestly unfair” to the fighter. Even more so since, as written, it’s the UFC (distinguished as a separate entity from USADA) that determines whether or not the fighter will get an exemption. So if the UFC wanted to book Hill, why didn’t the promotion grant an exemption?

My call to USADA’s media relations hotline went unreturned when I attempted to figure out what actually happened. What exactly is the reason to hold former/returning UFC fighters to a higher standard of doping control than those who have never competed inside the Octagon before? It’s not exactly a secret that some regional fighters have seen huge physical changes after signing with the UFC recently, and Emil Weber Meek went public with his intent to delay his debut so he could be sure he was in compliance. They’re a lot more likely to be cycling off of things when the UFC signs them. Maybe you can stretch to argue that a cut fighter has more incentive to use banned performance enhancers and go on a run, but Hill has done nothing other than go on a run.

The only other fighter so far to leave the testing pool and return is Ben Saunders, who is currently undergoing his own four month waiting period. While there are similarities, given close scrutiny, his case is easily distinguished from Hill. Saunders lost the last fight of his contract, chose not to negotiate for a new deal while contemplating retirement, and re-signed after taking a regional fight where he submitted Jacob Volkmann in seconds. Unlike Hill, Saunders had agency in his departure and went on a hiatus where the future of his career was very much a question mark. It fits with the spirit of a rule.

Of course, there’s also Brock Lesnar. In a vacuum, the decision made with regards to the pro wrestling star made perfect sense. He had “ceased to have a contractual relationship with UFC” when he retired in 2011 and got his release to work for WWE a short time later, but he was never in the testing pool in the first place. That started in July of 2015. He was granted an exemption from the four months of testing, but lots of MMA fans ostensibly heard the news by playing a game of telephone and heard it as Lesnar being exempt from all testing. Obviously, that’s not true, because he subsequently failed two USADA tests, but that also complicated the emotions around the situation.

Having said all of that, which would be “more manifestly unfair” between Hill and Lesnar not getting exemptions?

One is a multimillionaire (who never really spends any of his money, but that’s a separate conversation) who, while not fighting, was working for company that did PED testing...under a contract that exempted him from drug testing. He was still under that contract for his one-off return to the UFC, which came from his boss granting permission for him to fight as late as he possibly could. There’s no reason to rush his fight booking other than that the UFC needs a box office hook for the next pay-per-view, and he’ll be fine without the money.

The other is a working-class fighter who moved across the country to improve her training, only to be cut from the UFC after losing two fights that, honestly, she should not have been offered in the first place. After improving herself and going on a run in a UFC-affiliated promotion, the UFC needs a replacement fighter and she gets the call, agreeing to a high profile bout with the contender most deserving of a title shot in their division right now. After the fight has already been agreed to, with the obvious implication being that she been exempted, it turned out that she hadn’t been. Now re-signed to the UFC and re-entering the testing pool, it’s not like she can be loaned out to the UFC-affiliated promotion she is champion of. She’s stuck for four months unable to take a fight booking and make money in her chosen profession.

No, the answer is not Brock Lesnar.

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