Despite fanfare, the UFC’s recent anti-doping policy changes may not really change much

The UFC and its anti-doping partner, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced a slew of changes on Monday to the pair’s drug testing policies in light of recent doping controversies and novel developments from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), on whom USADA has based their programs.

Logo's of the five supplement certification agencies.

The most popular anti-doping development of the week has been the change in approach by USADA and the UFC as far as recognizing some supplements as “Certified” and if an athlete tests positive as a result of a supplement that was certified by one of five major bodies, then it is no longer considered an anti-doping violation, effectively granting the athlete “immunity”.

The five testing agencies recognised by USADA are NSF Certified For Sport (North America) / Informed Choice (North America), Informed Sport (Worldwide), BSCG (North America), Kolner List (Europe), and Hasta (Australia and New Zealand).

If a situation arises where an athlete tests positive and is able to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the cause of the positive test was due to a supplement certified by one of the certifiers [sic] in the UFC rules, he or she will not be subject to an anti-doping policy violation under the rules and will be permitted to compete after follow-up testing and when there is no performance enhancing benefit in question. ~ USADA, November 25th 2019

Likely impact: Although this is being widely reported as being a game changer for the athletes, the potential impact has rather been over emphasised. In July 2018 UFC President of Health and Performance, Jeff Novitzky stated:

“In the 3+ year history of the UFC/USADA program, there has not been a single UFC athlete who’s positive test resulted from the use of a 3rd party tested and certified supplement”. ~ Jeff Novitzky, July 2018

So while granting immunity to any athlete who tests positive as a result of a third party certified supplement seems like a great thing, had it been policy for the 4 year duration of the anti doping program, it would have affected a grand total of zero athletes. It is much more a proverbial carrot being waved in front of the athletes to emphasise the importance of smart supplement choices.

The other concern will be where it leaves athletes who for whatever reason, be it sponsor obligations, or local availability, choose not to use certified supplements (it should be noted that the UFC have stated they will ship certified supplements, free of charge to any athlete following an interview with staff at the performance institute to establish their dietary requirements).

USADA guidelines for sanctioning pay a heavy emphasis on “degree of fault”. To what degree is the athlete responsible for their potential violation? Was the violation avoidable? Did they athlete do everything they could do to avoid a positive test?

Fault is any breach of duty or any lack of care appropriate to a particular situation. Factors to be taken into consideration in assessing an Athlete or other Person’s degree of Fault include, for example, the Athlete’s or other Person’s experience, whether the Athlete or other Person is a Minor, special considerations such as impairment, the degree of risk that should have been perceived by the Athlete and the level of care and investigation exercised by the Athlete in relation to what should have been the perceived level of risk. In assessing the Athlete’s or other Person’s degree of Fault, the circumstances considered must be specific and relevant to explain the Athlete’s or other Person’s departure from the expected standard of behavior”. ~ UFC Anti Doping Policy – August 2019 revision

In 2016 Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones was suspended for one year in relation to his positive test for clomiphine. The arbitration panel headed by Richard McClaren decided that his “degree of fault” was at the very top end of the scale. He had taken a product from a packet labelled “for research purposes only”, he had failed to research the ingredients, the company manufacturing the supplement, and for this the panel described his behaviour as “reckless”. His degree of fault meant that he received no reduction on his sanction.

In 2017 Lyman Good was suspended by USADA for 6 months after testing positive due to a contaminated supplement. Because of his diligence in checking the ingredients online, purchasing what he thought was a well known brand, from a reputable retailer, his “degree of fault” was determined by USADA to be on the lower end of the scale, and his penalty was reduced by 75%. He had employed several measures to reduce his level of risk, and saw his sanction reduced accordingly. One year later retired heavyweight Josh Barnett would receive nothing more than a public warning after arbitrators determined he had done everything reasonably possible to reduce his risk. His “degree of fault” warranted no more than a slap on the wrist.

Fast forward to 2020, and an athlete tests positive as a result of using a supplement that has not been certified by one of the recognised testing organisations. Considering the current emphasis placed by the UFC and USADA on the importance of third party tested and certified supplements, where will the athletes “degree of fault” lie? Did they do all they could do to avoid a positive test? Did they use third party certified supplements? Did the athlete deviate from the “expected standard of behavior”, did they demonstrate a “lack of care” by using non-certified supplements.

While the policy affords a valuable protection to athletes who use third party certified supplements, its potentially opens the door for tougher sanctions for those who choose to ignore the advice, for whatever reason.

Thresholds introduced for key substances

Another measure approved at the recent WADA anti-doping conference was the introduction, from 2021, of decision limits or thresholds, for certain substances most commonly associated with contamination. A measure that USADA have implemented in the UFC program with immediate effect (in fact, retroactively applied to August 2019).

A number of substances will now have thresholds placed on them, and any analytical results below those thresholds will now be reported by the laboratory as an atypical finding (ATF) rather than an adverse finding (AAF). This includes substances such as clomiphene (found in many slimming substances), hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic also found in many slimming pills), oral turinabol (DHCMT), and various SARMs such as ostarine which are frequently associated with contamination.

  • Clomiphene: 0.1 ng/mL1 (nanogram per millilitre)
  • Dehydrochloromethyltestosterone (DHCMT) long-term metabolite (M3): 0.1 ng/mL
  • Hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) and metabolites, Torsemide: 20 ng/mL (Out-of-Competition only)
  • Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs): 0.1 ng/mL2
  • GW-1516 (GW-501516) metabolites: 0.1 ng/mL
  • Epitrenbolone (Trenbolone metabolite): 0.2 ng/mL
  • Zeranol: 1 ng/mL
  • Zilpaterol: 1 ng/mL

What is important to recognise that presence of a prohibited substance below these thresholds is not a “passed test“, it is not automatically “no violation“. The issue of decision limits is widely misinterpreted as being that it is “You are Okay as long as you are below the threshold“.

On being informed by a laboratory of an atypical result, an investigation is opened. That investigation could mean further testing, it could involve testing other samples of the athlete held in storage. It could mean interviews with the athlete. At the end of any investigation the athlete may be cleared, equally, the athlete may be charged with a violation.

“If that review does not reveal an applicable TUE or a departure from the International Standard for Testing and Investigations or the International Standard for Laboratories that caused the Atypical Finding, USADA shall conduct the required investigation or cause it to be conducted. After the investigation is completed, if the Atypical Finding will be brought forward as an Adverse Analytical Finding, the Athlete shall be notified”. 7.2.4 UFC Anti doping policy

There are however some clear differences in how USADA deal with an atypical finding as opposed to an adverse finding:

  • With an adverse analytical finding, the UFC and the athlete are immediately informed. With an atypical finding USADA can conduct further investigation without informing either the athlete or the UFC.
  • Similarly, with an adverse finding, USADA will inform any relevant athletic commission. With an atypical finding, there is no obligation to inform the athletic commission.
  • With an adverse finding the athlete is provisionally suspended and prevented from competing. With an atypical finding the athlete is not suspended, and may be allowed to compete pending the result of the investigation.
  • On conclusion of an investigation into an adverse finding the decision and any sanctioning is publicly released by USADA. On the conclusion of an investigation into an atypical finding, if it is determined that no violation has been committed, then USADA are not required to make that decision public.

“USADA shall, except in the case of Atypical Findings, promptly and simultaneously give written notice to the Athlete and UFC, and may also give notice to an Athletic Commission, if applicable”. 7.1.3 UFC anti doping policy

Likely Impact: It has been widely reported that if you “test positive under the threshold it’s not a violation”, that isn’t entirely the case, it may still become a violation after investigation. But what is the case, importantly, is that if an athlete provides a sample that contains a prohibited substance under the newly established thresholds they will be afforded the presumption of innocence while any investigation is ongoing. They will not be provisionally suspended, they may not be removed from bouts, and the findings will not be made public.

Should the investigation determine there was no fault on the part of the athlete, then nothing will be made public at any point. Only if the investigation determines for instance, the analytical findings being as a result of a non-certified supplement, or further testing revealing evidence of prohibited substance use, will the atypical finding be increased to an adverse finding and a sanction handed down.

And finally

One final measure approved by WADA for the 2021 code was an emphasis on moving away from forfeited prize money and fines applied by anti doping agencies being used to offset anti doping costs.

In the original UFC anti doping policy provision was made for fines of up to half a million dollars in the case of anti doping violations.

In addition to the other Consequences described under this Article 10, UFC may impose a fine on an Athlete or other Person who commits an Anti-Doping Policy Violation up to the sum of $500,000 depending on the seriousness of the violation and the relative compensation of the Athlete or other Person. All money received by UFC on account of fines shall be applied in the same manner as provided in Article 10.9 ~ 10.10 UFC anti doping policy, 2017 revision

For 2020 that clause is…


UFC/USADA prohibited list

UFC anti doping policy (effective August 2019)

Summary of changes to the UFC Anti doping policy

WADA 2021 Anti Doping Code changes