For more than two years now, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has become a major part of the conversation surrounding the UFC.
Some of the biggest stars in MMA history, like Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Brock Lesnar, have failed USADA drug tests since the UFC’s anti-doping policy began in July 2015.
Along the way, there have been many criticisms and questions about the policy, its provisions and USADA itself, some as general as if the relationship is even good for the UFC’s business and the athletes.
In a recent, wide-ranging interview with MMA Fighting, USADA CEO Travis Tygart addressed some of those issues, the state of the UFC program, the whereabouts system, the six-month rule, potential violation announcements, Brock Lesnar and much more.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Marc Raimondi: The first thing I want to ask you about is kind of a general question. It is about two-plus years since the UFC anti-doping policy has been in effect. How do you feel about the state of the policy, where it is now? Do you feel good about where it’s at and do you foresee any changes and alterations coming any time in the near future?
Travis Tygart: We’re obviously honored that the athletes and the UFC would have us administering the program. I think you can’t lose sight of, I think, a courageous decision by the UFC to externalize entirely the material elements of the program. It’s not unlike the courageous decision that the United States Olympic Committee made back in 2000. So, we’re honored to be a part of that. And listen, I think we focused on education when we first took over the program back in July of 2015. We had to get the rules up, we had to focus on education.
What we didn’t want to happen was have athletes who weren’t aware of the risk on supplements, who saw the old process for TRT (testosterone replacement therapy), for example — that was no process — would be an excuse for using testosterone if they hadn’t go through the therapeutic use exemption. We really started with education to provide a base level of information. Some UFC athletes competed for their countries, particularly the U.S., on the Olympic side. So they were familiar with the program.
That job, I think, we found that needed the languages. We needed to get it global, make it easily accessible at different levels of education we were dealing with it. I think overall we were satisfied with the UFC’s willingness to help, with Jeff Novitzky there as their face of it, getting out live in front of athletes. I think a combination of that really started the program off on the right footing.
I think now 2-1/2 years into it seeing its full effect, we’re hearing from that athletes that it’s making a big difference. I saw a story this morning out of [Georges St-Pierre] saying what a great program it was and it led to him coming back in large part. And we hear that routinely from athletes. But we’re not satisfied until every athlete has an opportunity to compete and win clean. And so you never in this business, if you’re doing your job for clean athletes, you’re never at a point where you say, ‘Alright, we can be satisfied and continue to do what we’re doing.’ We want to always get better. So day in and day out, we have a saying around our office: We want to break the status quo. Make it better for clean athletes. That’s what we’re pushing to do daily, for this program and for our other programs.
MR: Can you foresee any changes, any tweaks that you want to make?
TT: We rolled out some new rules, some slight modifications to those rules, dealing with the realities of the competition and how competitions come together, when athletes are added or get hurt and we have to be replaced. I think we settled at a really good spot. I think they’re more strict, if you want to call it that, than the Olympics, then the WADA Code. Dealing with athletes who come to compete maybe in the last minute, because of injury or whatever may be. I think that settled into place and there were some tweaks to that side of it.
I don’t want any athlete to feel like they can dope and get away with it. And I want every athlete to believe that they can win competing clean. So whatever we need to do, whether it’s education, whether it’s one-on-one conversation — we’re here for clean athletes. If you’re a clean athlete, we are teammates in this. There’s things like more supplement education, better supplement education, better options. Those are things we continuously … I was at the FDA earlier this week and I’m pushing them to better control the SARMS (selective androgen receptor modules). Ostarine is one of those. We’re meeting at high levels of the FDA, with the industry that’s not the rogue industry that produces this stuff, to say this stuff is coming up. Athletes think it’s OK, because they can go to the store and not show an ID and buy it relatively cheap. We need better controls from a regulator standpoint.
Those are the kind of things every day that we’re asking ourselves. How can we give confidence to clean athletes that they are our teammates, that we’re there for them, that they should trust us and the system to fight for their rights to compete clean, while ensuring they aren’t making negligent or inadvertent mistakes, given the way the policies have to be drafted to do hopefully what we don’t have to do, because nobody is cheating. But if someone is intentionally cheating, they have to be prevented from fighting and they have to receive a consequence, because that furthers the deterrent mechanism of the program and sends a message to other athletes that, ‘Hey, you don’t want to take this risk, because it’s not worth it.’
MR: What has the UFC’s feedback been over the last couple years and recently? To an outsider, you see that there are UFC stars failing drug tests, missing a year or more. You see fights getting pulled at the last minute or after the fight is already scheduled. Some people feel like this has actually been bad for the UFC. What has their feedback been and why do you think this is not a bad thing for their business?
TT: I think they’ve been, from the past ownership who originally brought us in and put the program in place, to current ownership and the leadership at the board level and also Dana and Lawrence and Jeff and others there, they said, ‘We want the best program in professional sport.’ This is fighting. I think Dana at our initial press conference said something to the affect of, ‘This isn’t hitting home runs. It’s bad enough doping in that environment. In our environment, it’s people in the Octagon trying to defeat the other person physically.’ And so, they appreciate that nature and that we provide credibility, safety, allow fans — whether they’re bettors or not — to have confidence that fair results are gonna result. That’s good, I think, and it’s the same in our Olympic program and other programs — it’s good for the value of business, it’s good for the brand.
MR: Do you feel like the program is working the way it’s supposed to work? Again, an outsider or a fan will see, ‘Well this fighter tested positive for a drug that came from a tainted supplement, this fighter tested positive for something that wasn’t a steroid or wasn’t a PED or it was something like DHEA.’ These are not what people think of when they think of doping and steroids and PEDs. There’s been some negative press around that. How do you feel about that? Do you think everything is working the way it’s supposed to work?
TT: What might be considered not doping here, like DHEA for instance, is a controlled substance in other parts of the world, not here in the U.S. My first question is, have they been provided the education? Our team has made sure that our warnings on supplements, our resources available to check, to see high-risk supplements, that all the athletes have that opportunity and are on notice that just because you might think it’s a supplement and you can buy it over the counter without a prescription doesn’t mean that it’s safe, for one.
There is a legitimate health and safety issue with parts of the dietary supplement market. Put anti-doping and positive tests aside for a second; part of any good program is going to give athletes that education, and we try to steer them — we can’t make that decision for them, but try to steer them into making good and healthy decisions.
They take [supplements] because someone told them they’re OK and you won’t test positive and they’ll help your performance. Nobody likes those kinds of cases. But make no mistake, athletes who are taking big risks in what they take, in some of the cases — and this is not every athlete — they know that they’re taking a risk and they wouldn’t be knowingly taking that risk unless they felt like they were getting something out of that they couldn’t otherwise get in food. That in and of itself raises a lot of questions, because most of the science out there is if you eat a healthy diet, that you can get — even as an elite-level athlete that travels — you can get what you need from a nutrition standpoint through food first, not necessarily have to go the supplement route.
The rules are the rules. We’ve worried about fairness and justice under the rules for clean athletes and not what the perception is necessarily outside of the athletes that we serve.
MR: One of the most unique thing about the UFC policy and their business model is incoming athletes, short-notice fights — that type of thing. Who is in the testing pool, who is not. What have been the challenges of putting a policy together that allows for short-notice fights, injury replacements, the whole entering-the-pool situation. The UFC has quite a bit of leeway as far as exemptions and that kind of thing. How is that different from the Olympic program and others?
TT: I know there’s been some situations that have brought it to people’s attentions, but I think it is stricter than the Olympic program. In the Olympics, you can show up and race in a race where the anti-doping rules cover. Once you get to, you’re identified and ranked as a more elite person, you’ll then get added to the pool. But there’s no waiting period between when you’re added and when you can compete, unless you competed at an elite level, were in the testing pool and then you retired. So if you come out of retirement, you have to wait for six months. That rule is the UFC rule.
In the UFC, if you’ve ever been in the testing pool and you retire on your own — so you initiate it as an athlete, it’s your decision — then you have to wait six months to come back in. And the reason that’s there is what used to happen before we took over in the Olympic movement, a tester would show up an athlete’s house who was under the jurisdiction who was still eligible to compete, maybe wasn’t as active. And they were out there doping. A tester would show up to test them and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’m retired.’ And then the next day they’d unretire. It’s just this game they would play to hide themselves and dope while they were sort of in retirement and they immediately come out of retirement.
The bottom line is I think [the UFC] struck an extremely fair balance between ensuring as best they can that no one hasn’t been educated or had an opportunity to apply for a TUE doesn’t fight without being in the pool for that month period of time. There are some limited exceptions to that, that are spelled out in the rules.
What we’ve learned is if you’re balancing the privilege or the right of an athlete to compete, you don’t want to the anti-doping policy to unfairly prevent them from being allowed to compete. And you don’t just assume that they’re dirty, but you create some policies that adequately balance their right to compete versus ensuring that they’re not trying to game the system.
MR: One of the things that has been talked about and criticized a bit — and I think this is more of a UFC choice than a USADA choice — is the announcing of potential anti-doping policy violations, naming the name, before the results management and adjudication process is over. Why is that in place? I know it’s different in the Olympic program. Why is that way for the UFC?
TT: We had a good discussion about this with the UFC when it first came into effect and we’ve obviously continued to talk about it. In our Olympic world, unless the athlete or their entourage or their representative talk about a case that isn’t resolved yet, it’s not in the public. What we’ve found is, particularly those athletes on the Olympic teams on higher competing athletes that are better known by the athletic community, they go ahead and get it out there. Practically, the rule has almost been assumed by the exception to it and that’s on the athlete’s side getting it out there.
But that’s the rule that we firmly support and would love to have in all of our programs, because we’re gonna defer to the athlete in that process as much as we possibly can. Where it gets really challenging in MMA and boxing is the commissions. The commissions, they will announce it. We didn’t want to be in a position where we weren’t immediately providing to UFC and then to the commissions in the event that someone is licensed to fight. We didn’t want to have two different processes. This is the policy, we’re gonna notify the UFC, they have the right to put it out and athletes are on notice about that.
We’ll continue to evaluate it. I want to continue to stress in every one of those circumstances and I think most recently with the [Jon] Jones situation, you saw us being very clear that this is just — at the time — an ‘A’ positive. You shouldn’t jump to conclusions. I know the difficulty in that situation, but again it was a balance between seeing how our Olympic program operated and knowing we have commissions here around the world and we need to do what’s right given this climate.
The other thing, I believe as well, if you think from a practical business standpoint, it’s really not fair for pay-per-views to be sold if there’s a pending case and people are buying it just for that particular fight. I think the first Jon Jones case, he was pulled from the fight the day we got the positive. Can you imagine if a week’s worth of pay-per-views were being sold at a time when us and the UFC knew of a pending case? That’s a problem and I think it’s not fair to the sports fans, who may still purchase it, but if the person comes off the card that’s not a fair thing to do to sports fans, either.
MR: Is there a better way to do whereabouts and sample collection? I’ve spoken to a lot of fighters and the feedback I get is some of them feel like the whereabouts — punching into an app where they’re going to be the next three months — can be cumbersome at times. More complaints I get about the 6 a.m. sample collection. They have kids, they’re not training until later on that day, they don’t want to get up at 6 a.m. Is there a better way to do this than the way it’s currently being implemented?
TT: I wish there was. I hate the fact that we have to do that. We’ve pushed innovation, new technology, other ideas to try to avoid that, because it is a hassle. I was in the pool. It’s inconvenient, arguably intrusive. The key point — and I would hope the athletes you’re talking to would agree with this; I’ve certainly heard it from many of them in our Olympic and UFC program — it’s a lot less intrusive and inconvenient filling out a form to let people know where you are for testing than it is to spend months training and then go get beat by someone that cheats you. That’s a lot more inconvenient and a lot less far.
I think you have to keep it in that perspective, because that’s what the program is designed to do, is to prevent an injustice when the competition happens. We’re looking at new collection devices. There’s been athletes who have said, ‘Hey, can you do an optional GPS program?’ We’re with them. We want to figure out and we have been. But right now, it just has to be done. There’s no other way to have an effective program, particularly when they’re out of competition so much of the time, that can provide a level and safe playing field.
MR: The GPS, the phone-tracking application, I saw that was in survey that UFC fighters got. Some fighters were very nervous about that. They don’t want USADA to know where they are at all times.
TT: Let me be crystal clear. We would not do that. I think survey results off the top of my head were a pretty overwhelming percentage were open to that. We did ask in the survey, just to get a feel for the temperature, where they were coming from. It was 83 percent that were open to it, that’s my best recollection. It ain’t gonna be required, let me be really clear. It would be an optional deal, if people were comfortable with it and it made sense.
We had 100 percent compliance last quarter on whereabouts. That is 530 athletes around the world in how many different languages. That is incredible. So that tells you the buy in and efforts of the athletes, their agents, their coaches, their managers, as well as our staff and the UFC staff.
What that translates to is when we go out first attempt to test, our testing rate is like 90 percent no notice. That is incredible. That’s the critical link in an effective, out-of-competition testing program. So if that number, our successful test is less than that 90 percent, which is driven by the whereabouts, that just undermines the level of the testing that much more.
MR: A couple more quick things before I let you go. Recently, Cris Cyborg was tweeting about USADA. I believe one of the things she said was USADA was picking on her because they tested her so much over the lat month or two. Is USADA picking on Cris Cyborg?
TT: No, no. Absolutely not, that’s crazy. We have a planned test distribution for those that we know that are fighting, as well as the others who aren’t necessarily licensed to fight at a particular event and when we implement that program.
MR: Is there anything to read into fighters who get tested more than others? I think Tecia Torres is or was the most tested fighter and she’s not a high-profile main event fighter or title holder. Is there any rhyme or reason why some people get tested more than others?
TT: They call it under the world standard “intelligence testing.” And there’s factors and I’m not making any reference to any particular fighter. It’s things like coming off an injury, coming out of retirement, fighting a lot, traveling to remote areas. Those are the factors — and again I’m not making any comment with respect to any specific fighter because that would arguably compromise the testing program — but those factors and there’s an international standard that WADA has put out. That’s what we look to in determining, OK, how many tests do we have given our resources, who should those tests be allocated toward, and then how many tests should those tests be allocated toward those particular fighters? And then we exercise that.
MR: Is there anything you can say about the status of the Jon Jones case? Do you know when his arbitration is going to be? Anything you can tell us?
TT: Obviously, it’s out there publicly that there is a case in process that we’ve confirmed. But we firmly believe in not trying cases in the press and having due process afforded before any judgments are made. And look, an athlete is innocent until proven otherwise and I think he’s absolutely entitled to that and deserves that.
MR: It’s been more than a year now, but the Brock Lesnar situation with the UFC exempting him from four months of testing has been one of the hot-button topics of the UFC’s policy and USADA. Are there any regrets about how some of that played out? Do you feel like USADA or the UFC made any missteps in dealing with that? It led to some bad PR at the very least and it also led to a lawsuit by Mark Hunt.
TT: I don’t ever want a situation where an athlete has a positive test that gets reported after the event or one that’s collected the night after and gets reported. Nobody is in favor of that. Unfortunately, that’s a necessary part sometimes if athletes are going to make the decision to cheat, because any good year-round testing program is going to test them after the event as well as in the days leading up to the event.
Sometimes if they cheat, it’s inevitable. I don’t like the fact that they cheated. I don’t like any more that they were able to fight and it gets reported after. But sometimes we have to just appreciate a year-round program, that’s gonna happen.
We don’t want that, we don’t like that. That doesn’t instill confidence in them in the system. We want to avoid that every time, if we possibly can. But not at the expense of not testing. And that’s the balance. The only option to avoid that if someone is gonna make the decision to cheat is to just have a two-week, three-week window of no testing, and that is just not going to happen. That’s not an effective program. Someone can go and cheat and we would never know about it.
MR: Do you feel like that situation breached the trust in USADA that the athletes have and the fans have? Because again, a lot of people see this on the surface — they see the exemption, they see he’s not doing the four months of testing, then they see he’s allowed to fight and a week later he comes back as positive. The test was taken about eight or 10 days before the fight. There’s that suspicion. Did you feel that breached the trust of the program?
TT: I’m sure. Of course. If someone tests positive after the fight or in the days before the fight, but the fight still happens and they win, and someone loses and they shouldn’t have won, none of us like that. I’ll tell you. It’s infuriating to us. That’s not our fault. We’re running the program as we should be. That’s the person who cheated’s fault. Of course we don’t like that and of course it erodes the confidence in clean sport and in clean athletes.
That’s not the program’s fault, but I understand, especially when we’re not able to articulate the reasons of the policy all the time or people don’t want to look for reasons, they just want to blame someone.
MR: Has there been a concerted effort to expedite tests more, especially when it’s a fighter who has a fight coming up in the near future?
TT: It’s a year-round program, but of course we want to have and we check whether we have results back for anyone that we’ve tested that is going into a fight that we’re aware of. So that process is in place. We want to avoid it and we want to do whatever we can do to avoid it. The only thing I think we can do more is just not test. And we can’t do that, because that would create a free-for-all during that three-week window.
It’s not a pregnancy test. It’s not, you have a dipstick and get an immediate result. I wish it was. We’re pushing the science. We have a partnership. We get $3 million a year to science development and research with other partners. I would love for it to be that, but it is more complex, particularly when you’re dealing with things that are natural to the body, like human growth hormone, insulin growth factor, EPO, testosterone — those are difficult to investigate and analyze.
What would be even worse is to artificially rush a test and mistake is made and you falsely accuse somebody. That ain’t gonna happen in our world.