Agent of MMA: An interview with Jeff Novitzky

*** This feature originally appeared in the Holiday 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***

On February 3rd 2015, the Ultimate Fighting Championship had a problem. Three days after UFC 183, it was hit with the news that both main-event fighters, Anderson Silva and Nick Diaz, had failed drug tests.

It had to act. Fast. Two weeks later, the UFC announced a major new testing policy. Then CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said it had to address the issue “for the good of the sport”. It may have seemed like a knee-jerk reaction, but this had been in the planning stages for a while. The Silva-Diaz case simply caused it to be fast-tracked.

This was a serious commitment. But it was backed up two months later when one of the top names in anti-doping enforcement was hired to be the new vice president of athlete health and performance.

Jeff Novitzky’s passion, aggression and perseverance in his mission to clean up sports led The New York Times to consider him as the Eliot Ness of the steroids age. Like the leader of the Prohibition era’s enforcement agents dubbed ‘The Untouchables’, he has been described as a “tenacious and methodical” investigator, whose work has always held up in court.

Novitzky arrived with a fearsome reputation for nailing cheats, having exposed elite athletes and their coaches for their illegal practices. As a special agent for American’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), his work led to former sprinter Marion Jones being convicted and stripped of five Olympic medals after she admitted her use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Then, as an agent for the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he was instrumental in investigations into professional cycling’s doping culture, which led to the revelation that Lance Armstrong had cheated during each of his seven Tour de France victories.

But now he has a new assignment – to lead the best and most comprehensive anti-doping programme in world sports. And he has the support of the United States Anti-Doping Administration (USADA) to help him.

When Fighters Only meets Novitzky, he doesn’t seem to have the air of a man that was described as driving a “bulldozer” through the world of cycling – as described by former professional racer, Tyler Hamilton.

This is not the intense individual in a sharp suit, pressed with military precision that you might picture if you imagine a special agent from the movies or an HBO drama. Dressed in a Reebok T-shirt, he welcomes FO into the room and explains why he took on this new and monumental challenge, despite just being a couple of years away from an early retirement.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to basically create what they wanted: the best anti-doping programme in pro sports from a blank slate,” he says. “And also the importance level when it comes to doping in MMA. It’s important in all sports, but this is more than setting records on mountains or on tracks or in swimming pools. This is two human beings involved in a combat sport and the danger level of someone being artificially enhanced in this sport is more than any other.”

His first aim was to tighten the testing and close some of the loopholes that had allowed fighters to cheat the system in the past. The implementation of year-round testing means they now don’t have the same window to try and ‘cycle’ on and off PEDs.

“The possibility of being tested was around the fight,” Novitzky says. “It’s not very difficult to use drugs out of completion to get off for a certain period of time and compete clean with nothing in your system, but you could still retain the benefits from having used weeks or months ago.”

USADA has partners around the world, meaning its agents are able to travel to and test an athlete within a day of getting an order to do so. Athletes are required to keep a mobile app updated so they know their whereabouts. It’s flexible so that fighters can change their plans at short notice, but they still have to be accessible 365 days a year.

This may make the operation seem draconian, but it’s an essential element to ensure that everyone is treated the same. That was proved when even the main event of UFC 200 collapsed due to Jon Jones’ positive test in July.

“This is real and it doesn’t matter if you’re the number one or two fighter on the roster or number 500 – you’re going to be treated the same,” adds Novitzky. “When that potential positive test comes down – even if it’s the main event on UFC 200, three days before – it doesn’t matter. Everybody’s going to be treated equally. Definitely, in those conversations I’ve had with athletes after the Jon Jones incident, I got a lot of feedback from them. ‘You said this programme was evenly administered and we really get that it is now.’”

High-profile cases are not what the UFC wanted, but it certainly helped to get its message across. Cheat, and you will be caught – particularly now that about 600 tests are conducted per quarter and anyone can be required to submit a sample at any time.

Trust is a key part of PED use, according to Novitzky. First, He identifies the lack of it as a reason why athletes have used them and reveals that – after talking with fighters – he believes they didn’t do so to gain an advantage over their opponents. It was to make sure they weren’t left at a disadvantage that would leave them face-down on the canvas.

“I saw it was almost a survival instinct for some athletes – in that this wasn’t a pitcher facing a batter or trying to break a record from 10 years ago. This was going into an Octagon where if you felt your opponent was on something, almost out of survival instinct – in talking with athletes too – they felt almost forced to choose that route.

“They didn’t trust opponents weren’t using, they didn’t trust teammates weren’t using and certainly in many cases didn’t trust their sport’s governing body’s or organisation’s care – or lack thereof. When you have those factors in play, it’s understandable why an athlete would choose to do that. Your survival could be at stake if your opponent is being enhanced.

“All of those things were in the background when we put this programme together. We needed to put something together that our athletes did trust so when they got in that Octagon they could trust that their opponent was operating on a clean, level playing field – just like they were – so they didn’t have the excuse to say, ‘I didn’t have any other choice but to use.’”

Novitzky reveals he has spoken to UFC fighters who admitted they had cycled and used PEDs before because they felt they had to. But now, a little more than a year into his new programme of enforcement, its strength means they don’t feel they need to any more. Or maybe that they wouldn’t be able to get away with it – and neither would their opponents.

He explains: “The majority of my role now is interacting with our athletes… I’ve gotten some very honest, frank discussions with them and some of those include why they chose to use in the past. The cool thing is a lot of the discussions are, ‘I don’t feel the pressure or the need to do it any more.’

“Not to say that doping is completely eradicated, but anybody that is choosing to make that choice – the longer they’re in that programme, they’re going to get caught based on the strength and comprehension of this programme.”

The goal isn’t to collect a series of ‘busts’ from a series of big-name fighters. In an ideal world, there would be no fighters using banned substances at all and no one will have to be suspended. But Novitzky says it’s an inevitable part of his team’s efforts that some fighters will continue to flaunt the rules.

“There was definitely a mindset of this is likely to be the course and is going to happen. Both Dana (White) and Lorenzo said early on when they announced this that there was going to be bumps and bruises early on, and I think that was in anticipation of some of these happening. There’s always going to be that temptation of using these drugs because they work so well. They make great athletes, who are already great, even greater,” he admits.

But once the consequences for breaking the rules have been made abundantly clear, the expectation is that far fewer men and women of MMA will even consider stepping over the line.

There is a balancing act. As we’ve seen in the cases of Yoel Romero, Jon Jones and Tim Means – among others – a positive test doesn’t necessarily mean an automatic black mark on an athlete’s record and immediate consignment to the MMA wasteland.

Novitzky is keen to point out that under the UFC and USADA scheme, fighters have every opportunity to explain themselves. If they have been found to have illicit substances in their systems for reasons beyond their control, their suspensions have been reduced or foregone altogether.

He returns to the topic of trust. “The trust factor has as much to do with how strong the programme is with how fair the programme is as well… If there are mitigating factors that favour an athlete like contaminated supplements – which investigation has shown an athlete definitely took, didn’t know about, did some care on the front end to try and avoid that happening – USADA will lessen the sanction.

“In addition to our programme being strong, there’s a ton of fairness and due process built into that, which the athletes can trust and get a fair look at the facts involving a potential positive. That to me is just as important as how strong the programme is.”

But he is absolutely committed to making a cleaner sport. If a competitor is found to be in the wrong, the sanctions can be severe. The system is set up so fighters will think twice about trying to cheat. If they’re caught, the consequences could be catastrophic for their careers.

“You need a risk factor that outweighs that reward and I think you have that now. A first-time offence has the potential – if it has aggravating circumstances – for a four-year suspension. Very few athletes in the UFC, if any, can survive four years on the beach.

“It’s harsh, but that’s done for a reason, so that when we get out and educate and we put that in an athlete’s mind he’s always going to have that temptation to use these drugs because they work. ‘Is it really worth giving up my career for getting caught the first time?’ Most of them think that it’s not and don’t go down that route.”

The prospect of a livelihood-threatening ban isn’t the only tool that can be used to dissuade would-be cheaters. Novitzky can also draw on more than a decade’s worth of cases to illustrate the snowballing consequences of being exposed.

“There are a tonne of stories out there that I call collateral damage. You always see the suspensions from sports and there’s always the financial implications of not being able to compete, but man, the amount of times I saw things happen in the other areas of an athlete’s life because they weren’t allowed to compete. They had financial consequences, issues with family, with friends, many athletes getting into criminal activity.

“I like to give a lot of those stories to athletes. ‘Do you realise if you go down that route, other athletes that have come before you and gone down that route – their lives have been destroyed and ruined.’ I think those are powerful.”

Novitzky is sincere, straightforward, firm and fair. This is a man who is committed to eradicating unfair practice from mixed martial arts, and the punishments his programme is prepared to hand out reflect that.

If the UFC’s ultimate aim is to clean up the sport once and for all, it appears it is now pursuing the best possible course of action, and it has the right man at the helm to make it work.