UFC 232 is now available on Amazon Prime.
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"Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done." - R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy ( 1 KB 256,  All ER Rep 233)
Jon Jones. Tested positive. For steroids. Again.
This time, it’s a week out from his third “comeback” in as many years, where he’ll rematch Alexander Gustafsson, the Swedish striker who took Jones to the brink in his record-breaking sixth defense of his 205-pound title back in September 2013. But it isn’t a violation of the United States Anti-Doping Agency Policy -- as Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, and Jeff Novitsky, the company’s Vice President of Health and Performance were at pains to assert to the assembled media on Sunday -- and the event is still going ahead this weekend, a few picograms of turinabol metabolites be damned.
There is one small change of course -- being that the circus tent is moving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. NSAC were too busy over the holidays to review the fine print, and figured CSAC were better placed to give the whole "atypical drug test of a two-time offender" affair the rubber stamp. California has after all been waist-high in what I’ll diplomatically call “paperwork” stemming from Jones’ last trip down to the Golden State in July of last year. There, at UFC 214 in Anaheim, “Bones” recaptured his light heavyweight title by knocking out Daniel Cormier, only to have the championship promptly re-possessed after he first tested positive for turinabol, a small dose of which has apparently been “pulsing” around his veins for the past 18 months.
What about the other 24 fighters on the UFC 232 card you ask? They’re also being relocated 300 miles southwest to Inglewood. Because nothing makes a weight cut exciting quite like packing ones’ bags for an impromptu charter flight, to a jurisdiction with a famously high income tax. And the fans and media that booked plane tickets, hotel rooms and interviews in Vegas? They’re just collateral damage -- all in the name of “fairness” to Jones and Gustafsson.
That’s the word that stuck out in this whole dog and pony show -- “fair.” It’s a term that’s seldom used to describe the machinations of combat sports promoters, and that White is invoking it to explicate the company’s conduct this week is the most risible thing I’ve heard since Floyd Mayweather, Jr. called out Khabib Nurmagomedov for a boxing match.
Fairness. Being the justification for the UFC’s partnership with USADA to from the beginning -- with random, year-round drug testing being imposed unilaterally on its fighters as a precondition to their continued spot on a newly-levelled playing field. Back in the heady days of 2015, in the wake of Anderson Silva’s first PED-related suspension and an expose by Deadspin on Vitor Belfort’s sketchy pre-fight drug test at UFC 151, protecting the integrity of the UFC brand seemed to necessitate such a drastic and costly move, and boy if we weren’t happy to come along for the ride.
But somewhere along the road, the UFC got tired of high-jumping the bar it had set for itself, and this weekend they put another nail in the coffin carrying USADA and the promotion’s reputation vis-a-vis its commitment to a clean sport.
Sure, it couldn’t have been happy about suspending former title challenger Chad Mendes or one-time 205-pound titleholder Lyoto Machida, who were among a relatively long list of athletes who popped up on USADA’s radar in years past. But it was willing to wear those hits to its bottom-line in pursuit of the bigger picture. Then, in the build-up to the promotion’s sale in July 2016, the company started cutting corners, and what we’re left with is a trail of inconsistencies leading all the way to next Saturday.
First, former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar received a dubious exemption from the standard four-month testing period USADA normally subjects returning UFC fighters to, allowing him to compete at UFC 200 where he promptly tested positive for clomiphene and its metabolite, 4-hydroxyclomiphene and copped a 12-month suspension. Then it bent over backwards to avoid throwing the book at Jones for his UFC 214 test failure, eventually reducing his sentence from four years to 18 months for “substantially assisting” the agency in relation to other investigations -- assistance he claims he never provided.*
Now, it’s adamant that the turinabol in Jones’ most recent test isn’t due to a re-ingestion -- reproducing exactly the same kind of defence it appeared to reject when former UFC heavyweight Frank Mir was suspended for testing positive for a similar dosage of the same substance in April 2016.
It’s possible that the science has changed in the two and a half years since Mir was put in USADA’s cross hairs, just as it’s possible that Jones’ is simultaneously the most talented and unfortunate fighter in the history of organized combat. But the UFC and USADA have done nothing to address these inconsistencies, or dispel the notion that it implements one set of rules for the majority of fighters and another for its “needle-movers.”
In the context of a broader disregard for its own rules, manifest in the UFC’s decision to award multiple title shots in 2018 to fighters who failed to make weight in their last bout, the promotion will head into 2019 running dangerously low on credibility -- an inauspicious start to its ESPN broadcasting deal that is already awash with controversy. These issues are in desperate need of clarification, and one questions what point there is in maintaining a PED-policy that most fans, fighters and media have ceased trusting in.
I wish I could end this article by doing something more meaningful than questioning the tenability of the UFC/USADA relationship, but at this point I have little else to offer.
After all, what else is there to say?
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.
* Jones' suspension was reduced a further three months by an independent arbitrator.
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