Iain Kidd investigates just how much power the UFC has when it comes to exempting its fighters from doping tests.
A few recent situations have raised questions about the UFC anti-doping policy as it relates to fighters having to undergo a period of testing before competing in the promotion. I spoke to various sources at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to better understand how the anti-doping policy works in practice and find out who actually makes the decisions around exempting certain athletes from the pool.
While USADA and the UFC publicly state that USADA has sole authority over anti-doping matters, in reality section 5.7 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy (ADP) gives the UFC final say on very specific things, such as whether or not new or returning athletes can skip the testing pool.
The exception to this is where athletes have a previous anti-doping violation or admit to previous use of certain substances. In that instance, USADA alone makes the decision and athletes can only get an exemption if they qualified for a TUE at the time, or USADA rules that they qualify for one for that substance now.
We saw two new UFC athletes compete against each other at UFC 216, even though they hadn’t undergone the 1 month pre-fight testing usually required of new fighters under section 5.7.1 of the UFC anti-doping policy (ADP). They were granted an exemption under section 5.7.6 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy. You can read all of section 5.7 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy at the bottom of this post.
The WADA code technically has no provision in place requiring new athletes to undergo a period of testing before competing. As a result, this specific section of the UFC’s anti-doping policy is actually slightly stricter than the WADA code. In part for this reason, the UFC has rather wide latitude in allowing new athletes without any history of doping to skip the testing. While exemptions under 5.7.6 are discussed with USADA, the decision is very much up to the UFC.
When it comes to athletes who previously retired or left the pool of their own volition, WADA does have a clause governing this. Even so, under the UFC anti-doping policy clause 5.7.3, it’s the UFC that decides on these exemptions. Brock Lesnar was infamously granted an exemption under the precursor to this clause in the UFC’s previous anti-doping policy, which caused controversy when he subsequently failed a drug test that only returned results after his bout with Mark Hunt at UFC 200 had already taken place.
It was put to me that even though the policy does give the UFC the right to make the decision to exempt returning athletes, USADA would take a much more active role in vetting and discussing exemptions under this particular clause.
The language in the terms supports the suggestion that the situations are treated rather differently. Section 5.7.6 states that, “The one-month notice period requirement for an Athlete subject to Articles 5.7.1 and 5.7.2 shall be waived automatically where…”
While in section 5.7.3 the language reads, “UFC may grant an exemption to the six-month written notice rule in exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would be manifestly unfair to an Athlete.”
The difference between the requirement being waived automatically and an exemption being granted, seems to include the amount of input USADA will have on the process. In terms of a final say, the language of the contract actually gives that to the UFC, but it’s highly unlikely they would seek to overrule USADA if USADA had objections.
There was another situation involving section 5.7 of the ADP recently when the UFC approached Andrea Lee to compete, and apparently had her sign a bout agreement, only for that bout to be cancelled due to section 5.7.4 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy.
That section of the policy essentially states that athletes who previously failed a test for, or admitted use of, a substance that is banned both in and out of competition, must be in the testing pool for 6 months unless USADA grant a TUE for that substance. Under this clause, the UFC has no ability to grant any exemptions. Lee had previously failed a test for a banned diuretic, which is prohibited both in and out of competition.
The situation looked messy from the outside. From the inside, everything proceeded according to plan and was handled correctly. USADA were notified of Lee’s signing, started the process of educating & vetting, discovered the previous use, investigated whether or not a TUE should be granted and then informed the UFC that the bout couldn’t go ahead.
Lee herself seemed a little upset and confused about how the situation played out and a source at USADA confirmed that the organization was planning to reach out to Lee to determine whether or not there was anything they could have done to make the process clearer throughout. Steven Marrocco at MMA Junkie has already published some thoughts from Lee on that front.
This was a situation where an athlete was under the impression she was about to fight, only to find out she was ineligible later. Anything the UFC and USADA can do to make it clear to athletes that they shouldn’t consider the bout on until they have completed all of their diligence would be an improvement, so it’s good that USADA are looking for ways to improve on that process from their end.
I put it to USADA that perhaps screening fighters before they sign bout agreements could help prevent any misunderstandings going forward, but the compressed timescales involved with short-notice replacements, combined with the practical and cost considerations involved in vetting fighters that might never actually sign a bout agreement, make that approach unlikely to be adopted.
Overall, section 5.7 grants the UFC very limited rights to waive fighters from usually required testing in very specific circumstances. Where a fighter has a history of PED use, the UFC has no ability to grant an exemption, but where a fighter is presumed clean, the UFC has quite a bit of freedom to exempt fighters as long as they say the fighter was signed on short notice.
There is an argument to be made that perhaps, in the specific case of “retired” fighters returning to the UFC, those exemptions should only be given directly by USADA under the same terms as exist in the corresponding WADA code policy. It’s worth mentioning that several other parts of the UFC’s anti-doping policy are also less strict than the WADA code; suspension lengths are approximately half of what the code calls for and the eligibility requirements around retroactive TUEs are also relaxed, for instance.
It should be noted that the UFC’s anti-doping program deal with USADA was an optional expense for the company, and by all accounts, is one which costs the UFC several million dollars per year, not including the significant extra costs incurred when a high profile fighter is pulled from a bout due to a violation of the anti-doping policy. In that context, the limited differences between the UFC ADP and the WADA code that help protect the UFC’s business model could well be seen as reasonable.
Section 5.7 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy
5.7.1 An Athlete who has not previously competed in UFC, may not compete in UFC Bouts until he/she has executed a Promotional Agreement with UFC and made him/herself available for Testing for a minimum period of one month before his/her first UFC Bout. Where the conditions set forth in Article 5.7.6 below are satisfied, the foregoing rule shall not prevent a new UFC Athlete from participating in a Bout less than one month after entering into a Promotional Agreement with UFC.
5.7.2 An Athlete who ceases to have a contractual relationship with UFC due to UFC-Initiated Inactivity, may not resume competing in UFC Bouts until he/she has entered into a new Promotional Agreement with UFC and has made him/herself available for Testing for a period of one month before returning to competition. Where the conditions set forth in Article 5.7.6 below are satisfied, the foregoing rule shall not prevent a returning UFC Athlete from participating in a Bout less than one month after entering into a new Promotional Agreement with UFC.
5.7.3 An Athlete who gives notice of retirement to UFC, or has otherwise ceased to have a contractual relationship with UFC due to Athlete-Initiated Inactivity, may not resume competing in UFC Bouts until he/she has given UFC written notice of his/her intent to resume competing and has made him/herself available for Testing for a period of six months before returning to competition. UFC may grant an exemption to the six-month written notice rule in exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would be manifestly unfair to an Athlete.
5.7.4 A new or returning Athlete who admits or has an established and verifiable history of the Use, Attempted Use or Possession of a substance or method that is classified as prohibited at all times on the Prohibited List shall not be permitted to compete in UFC Bouts until he/she has made him/herself available for Testing for a minimum period of six months before competing. At USADA’s discretion, such Athletes may also be required to provide a minimum of two negative Samples during the minimum six-month notice period before being cleared for competition. This provision shall not apply in situations in which (i) the Athlete’s Use of the Prohibited Substance or Method was pursuant to a valid TUE or (ii) USADA subsequently grants the Athlete a TUE for the substance or method in question.
5.7.5 If an Athlete retires from UFC competition while subject to a period of Ineligibility, the Athlete shall not resume competing in UFC Bouts or competitions approved or sanctioned by an Athletic Commission until the Athlete has given six months prior written notice (or notice equivalent to the period of Ineligibility remaining as of the date the Athlete retired, if that period was longer than six months) to UFC of his/her intent to resume competing and has made him/herself available for Testing throughout the notice period. Similarly, if an Athlete is retired at the time a period of Ineligibility is imposed, then the Athlete’s sanction shall be tolled until such time he/she provides written notice of his/her return from retirement and makes him/herself available for Testing.
5.7.6 The one-month notice period requirement for an Athlete subject to Articles 5.7.1 and 5.7.2 shall be waived automatically where he/she is named to a Fight Card as a replacement for an Athlete who was withdrawn from the Fight Card due to loss of eligibility, injury or other event not reasonably foreseeable to UFC.