Iain Kidd breaks down exactly what suspension length Jon Jones is facing and how likely each potential punishment actually is.
There has been a lot of confusion around Jon Jones’ most recent positive test for Turinabol, with various outlets selectively reporting comments from the UFC’s Jeff Novitzky, to the extent that the man himself had to issue a correction.
USADA’s process for determining suspension length can seem opaque and mysterious. A fighter tests positive, nothing is heard for months, and then a short statement is released disclosing the suspension length. The suspensions themselves carry varying lengths which can seem random, with different fighters receiving different suspensions for using the same substance.
Part of the problem is that outsiders have very limited access to info about test failures; results aren’t released, USADA very rarely gives detailed reasoning on their decision making process, and evidence of potentially mitigating factors is usually kept private.
Another issue is that the rules and guidelines themselves can seem byzantine and confusing, with suspension lengths depending on several different clauses of the UFC’s Anti-Doping Policy (ADP), and those clauses sometimes even referencing other clauses.
Jon Jones’ situation seems especially complex, since it is potentially his second violation of the UFC’s ADP, which brings even more factors into the equation. In this piece, I’m going to highlight the actual relevant factors in determining his suspension length and make predictions on the suspension Jones is facing based on the information we have available.
Here are the potential outcomes from Jon Jones’ positive drug test.
No suspension due to no fault
This would happen only if the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found Jones had no fault or negligence for his positive test under section 10.4 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy (ADP). Practically speaking, that means he would have to show his positive test was caused by contaminated food or water. This happened with Li Jingliang, Augusto Montano and Ning Guangyou, all of whom tested positive for asthma medication clenbuterol.
Clenbuterol residue has been found in cattle products from Mexico and China. In theory, USADA can still sanction an athlete for this under the principle of strict liability, but in practice, a positive test caused by contaminated food or water won’t be treated the same way as a tainted supplement; the former would be much less likely to result in a suspension.
Unfortunately for Jones, there is no convincing evidence of Turinabol contaminants making their way into the food or water supply and there’s no precedent of WADA or USADA accepting an argument of contaminated food or water causing a positive test for Turinabol.
Two other UFC athletes have received a finding of no fault; Daniel Omielanczuk and Islam Makhachev, both of whom tested positive for meldonium. They were given a finding of no fault due to WADA’s incompetence in declaring meldonium a banned substance before performing excretion studies to understand how long it would be detectable for. That meant the tests couldn’t determine whether athletes had ingested meldonium before or after it was banned at the end of 2015.
USADA found both Makhachev and Omielanczuk were not at fault for their failed tests as the evidence supported their assertion that they had stopped taking it before it was banned.
In the case of Turinabol, it has been banned from day one, as it is undoubtedly an anabolic agent. Even though it is not specifically listed on the WADA prohibited list, its chemical structure and mechanism of action mean it has always been banned.
In my opinion, the chance of no suspension due to no fault is less than 1%.
6-month suspension due to reduced fault
Theoretically, USADA could also give no suspension in the case of a tainted supplement under section 10.5.1.2 of the ADP, but thus far, even when an athlete is able to demonstrate a tainted supplement is the issue, USADA has still given suspensions of six months, as seen with Yoel Romero’s suspension and Tim Means’ suspension.
This is in part because USADA believes that taking any supplementation is the athlete willingly taking a risk, stating, “The only way to have zero risk is to use zero supplements. If you choose to use dietary supplements, then you assume all the risks inherent to the supplement industry.“
That means even if Jones does show a supplement tainted with Turinabol caused his positive test, can show he performed reasonable due diligence before taking it and had no good reason to believe it could contain a prohibited substance, he would almost certainly still face a suspension.
Even if USADA choose to give Jones just a reprimand for his Turinabol test, he will still receive a minimum of six months suspension. This is because the anti-doping policy has particular rules around second offenses. Specifically, section 10.7.1 states that the punishment for a second violation of the policy must be the greater of:
(a) six months;
(b) one-half of the period of Ineligibility imposed for the first Anti-Doping Policy Violation without taking into account any reduction under Article 10.6; or
(c) twice the period of Ineligibility otherwise applicable to the second Anti-Doping Policy Violation treated as if it were a first violation, without taking into account any reduction under Article 10.6.
Article 10.6 is related to athletes who turn informant, which for now we will assume doesn’t apply to Jones. What this clause means is even if Jones’ punishment for this violation was a warning under section 10.5.1.2 of the policy, he would still be given a 6-month suspension under sections 10.7.1 (a) or (b).
To escape with just a reprimand this time around, Jones would have to have an airtight story showing he went above and beyond in checking his supplements were clean.USADA has never given a reprimand for a tainted supplement to a UFC athlete and it’s unlikely that Jones, given his prior history of recklessness, will be the first.
In my opinion, the chance of a 6-month suspension due to reduced fault is less than 10%.
8-month to 1-year suspension due to reduced fault
A somewhat more likely suspension length—if Jones can show a contaminated substance—is one year. If USADA were to decide he was at a small amount of fault for his failed test, similar to Yoel Romero and Tim Means, he would receive a one year suspension.
Why one year and not six months? That’s because for a second violation, section 10.7.1 comes into play. Under Clause C of this section, Jones’ suspension would be double what he would receive if this were his first violation. So, if Jones is treated the same way as Means and Romero, he would receive a 1-year suspension.
Another UFC athlete has received a lesser punishment for a tainted supplement: Justin Ledet’s suspension was reduced from two years down to four months, as he was able to demonstrate he researched his supplement before taking it, listed it on his doping control form, and immediately provided an open container of the supplement on request. Further testing of unopened batches proved the supplement was tainted with an unlisted substance that caused his failed test.
This 4-month suspension is likely the best case scenario for an athlete who fails a test due to a tainted supplement. In Jones’ case, this being his second violation, that would be doubled to eight months.
In my opinion, the chance of a 1-year suspension due to reduced fault is around 35%.
Between a 1- and 3-year suspension due to reduced fault
If Jones can show his positive test was caused by a tainted supplement and can show he took at least some reasonable steps to ensure it didn’t contain a contaminated supplement, he would likely be suspended for somewhere between one and three years.
Turinabol carries a suspension of two years if it is an athlete’s first failure and they are found fully at fault. If USADA was to find Jones only partially at fault—giving him a discount of 25-75% on his suspension—he would get an overall suspension of one to three years, since his suspension would be doubled under section 10.7.1 of the policy.
To be found partially at fault like this, Jones would likely have to demonstrate he took some, but not all, reasonable steps to ensure the supplement was legal, or that he took every step but failed to disclose that he was taking the supplement on his doping control form.
Consider a situation where Jones can show that he checked his supplement wasn’t on USADA’s 411 list of high-risk supplements and checked the ingredients on ufc.globaldro.com, but got the supplements from a risky source such as a friend or a store which openly sold prohibited substances. In this case, Jones would likely receive a small discount on his suspension.
There’s also a possible situation where Jones buys a supplement from a reputable source, checks the 411 list, checks the ingredients on globaldro, and retains a few pills from each batch of each supplement he takes, but fails to disclose the supplement on his doping control form at the time he gave his sample. In this instance, Jones would likely receive a small reduction in fault, which would again result in a suspension somewhere between one and three years.
In my opinion, the chance of suspension of between one and three years due to reduced fault is around 35%.
4-year suspension with no discount
The maximum sentence Jones is facing is four years. This is because Turinabol carries a 2-year sentence, which would be doubled, as it is his second policy violation. To receive this punishment, USADA would have to grant him no reduction due to reduced fault. It should be noted that Jones received no reduction in his first suspension, receiving the full year the substance he tested positive for carried.
This would equal the longest suspension in the history of the UFC/USADA program, a record currently held by Ricardo Abreau, who failed a USADA administered test for anabolic steroids while serving another suspension for anabolic steroids.
There are some odd facts about Jones’ failure that suggest he may not have taken turinabol deliberately. He tested negative for the substance on two occasions around a month before his fight. He then tested positive on fight night.
Jones would have known turinabol is detectable for longer than one month; his manager, Malki Kawa, also represents Frank Mir, who received a two year suspension due to long-lasting turinabol metabolites showing up in his samples last year. It would be incredibly foolish for Jones to intentionally take turinabol weeks before a fight, since he would have known it would be detected.
Of course, Jones has made a habit of making poor decisions over the past few years, so nothing can be ruled out. Even so, between the odd timeline and his representation by renowned sports lawyer Howard Jacobs, it seems unlikely that Jones’ team won’t be able to come up with some sort of reasonable argument for at least a slight reduction in fault.
In my opinion, the chance of a suspension of four years is around 20%.
Any other suspension length due to becoming an informant for USADA
Section 10.6.1.1 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy provides for special discounts for fighters who turn informant on other athletes. If the information results in USADA being able to take action against another athlete, that could reduce Jones’ suspension.It should be noted that, to my knowledge, no UFC athlete has taken advantage of this clause to reduce their suspension. None of the published sanctions seem to have unexplained discrepancies in the suspension length that could be explained by this clause.
It’s likely that plenty of UFC athletes are well aware of other fighters using performance enhancing drugs, but any athlete who became an informant would likely find themselves persona non grata in many gyms, and would run the risk of any untoward behaviour of their own being exposed as well. It’s possible Jones takes this route if he’s facing a potentially career-ending four-year suspension, but statistically speaking, it’s an incredibly unlikely outcome.
In my opinion, the chance of a reduced suspension due to becoming an informant is around 1%.
Whatever punishment Jones eventually faces, questions will likely remain around exactly why he received the punishment he did. Unless he chooses to go to arbitration again, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a detailed explanation about how any decision was reached. That’s one of the things USADA could be doing better; transparency around results increases trust in the system, and that trust, especially from athletes, is a vital part of anti-doping efforts.