The UFC’s anti-doping program will continue, but it will be run in partnership with a different organization, the UFC has confirmed.
At a press conference held in Las Vegas on Thursday night, the UFC’s executive vice president and chief business officer Hunter Campbell, and senior vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky, confirmed that the UFC would not be renewing its partnership with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and would instead run an improved program in partnership with Drug Free Sport International, starting in January 2024.
Novitzky laid out the reasons behind making the change as he paid tribute to the progress that had been made in partnership with USADA, then highlighted how a change in direction can take the UFC’s anti-doping program to a new level.
“This has been an overwhelmingly successful program,” he began.
“I think we have transformed the sport of MMA, not just UFC, in an incredibly positive direction. We’re approaching 30,000 individual tests in our program, with a positivity rate of less than one percent. And we’ve seen the frequency of those positivity cases dropped dramatically throughout the course of the program.
“But, things evolve. You learn things. You learn from mistakes that have been made – and I’m not sitting up here denying that USADA has made its share of mistakes throughout this approach this program. You identify people and entities in this space that can make something that is already working well, even better. You learn that USADA is not the only player in this space, and that a combination of other entities and individuals can actually make your program stronger and better. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now with our program.”
‘A platinum standard program’
Novitzky has been the public face of the UFC’s anti-doping program. Their partnership with USADA, announced in late 2015, was hailed as a major milestone for the UFC as they continued their move into the sporting mainstream.
But now, Novitzky and his team’s learnings from the past eight years have put the UFC in a position where they have decided to move on from USADA. And, contrary to the social media response suggesting that the UFC would self-police and doping would become rampant, Novitzky explained that the new anti-doping program will be even more comprehensive than before, but noted that it will be more accommodating of athletes’ needs.
“I think all you guys know, I’ve lived in the world of anti-doping, going back almost 22 years,” he explained.
“I’ve learned a lot during that time, a lot. I’m never complacent when it comes to the program. And what you’re seeing happening right now is putting that 22 years of knowledge, experience, those lessons, to use, and making what is already the best anti-doping program in all sports even better.
“And, along those lines, I want to make this crystal clear: I will never, never be involved with a program that compromises the core values of what a gold and let’s call it a platinum standard program looks like. I’ve staked my career, my reputation, my credibility, in some cases, the safety of myself and my family, and everything that I’ve done as a professional on a personal level, of maintaining these standards and fighting with everything I have for clean sport, and that will continue.
“I’m not up here today to do a tit-for-tat exchange with USADA. I’m here to give you the facts of what we’re planning to do, to tell everyone what our plan is and what we’re about to do. You can take what I have to say, do your own homework and research and come up with your own conclusion of what is happening here and what we’re doing. But the narrative that USADA put out yesterday is false, it’s garbage, trash. I can’t sit up here and come up with enough adjectives of what they said and what that’s done to this program currently. Here’s what the accurate narrative is. You guys all know this. We’ve talked about it. And I’ve got up here many times and talked about this throughout the years. But the core principles of our anti-doping program are as follows: Integrity, independence, transparency, strength and comprehensiveness, fairness – and none of these principles are changing going forward, they’re only going to get stronger.”
Novitzky went on to explain that the UFC has been working on improving and simplifying the athlete whereabouts technology used by fighters to ensure that they are more easily able to maintain their whereabouts as part of the anti-doping program. He announced that the testing database will be improved, and updated more frequently under the new program than it currently is under USADA. And he said that the transparency of the program would continue, both from an information/rules standpoint, and from a record-keeping and reporting standpoint. He also said that the athlete recognitions that came as part of the current program, where fighters are presented with varsity jackets for 50 clean tests, will also continue under the new program.
Sample collection: Drug Free Sport International
Novitzky explained why the UFC has opted to move to Drug Free Sport International for their anti-doping program from 2024 onward.
“Drug Free Sport International is a sample collection agency. They currently handle collection duties for the following professional sports leagues. They have over 325 long-term tenured sports clients including the NFL, NCAA, Major League Baseball, NBA, WNBA, NASCAR, Horse Racing Integrity and Welfare Unit, PGA, LPGA, FIFA, CrossFit. They actually help out with some drug testing with various NADAs – national anti-doping authorities – throughout the world, and various sports federations. They virtually collect samples for everybody.
“Drug Free Sport International handles a collection of biological samples from virtually every sport. In fact, we see from time to time that USADA has contracted out with Drug Free Sport and their collection network of over 5,000-strong international collectors. They actually test in over 100 countries, they collect over 200,000 samples annually. So, for a sport with over 650 athletes in over 50 countries, they fit us perfectly. Easier and more efficient contact with our athletes on a global scale. I think you can see with these statistics that they have more collection experience than anybody in the game and really fit our model.”
Sample testing: Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL)
The new UFC anti-doping policy will see samples collected by Drug Free Sport International, with samples sent to the WADA-accredited Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) in Salt Lake City, Utah. SMRTL head, Dr. Daniel Eichner, will act as the science advisor for the UFC’s anti-doping program and, as Novitzky explained, “He’s going to direct the program on test distribution, smarter testing, planning, more efficient testing planning. He will evaluate the testing results in the program and make recommendations to our independent administrator.”
Eichner has already advised Novitzky to enhance the UFC’s anti-doping policy with EPO testing and enhanced research and discovery around the use of stimulants out of competition, while the collection of blood samples from athletes will soon involve non-venous methods, including use of a less intrusive leeching device.
“Right off the bat, we will eliminate the need for venous blood draws and phlebotomy from our athletes. And I’ll tell you what, right now that comes as a relief to many of our athletes who are deathly afraid of needles and blood draws, they’re going to love this,” he said.
“New devices have just come online that are leaching devices that have small micro-needles, they will puncture just the outer capillaries under the skin to collect tubes of blood. And Dr. Eichner has informed us that everything a full venous blood draw can do can be done with this device. We will increase the amount of blood testing right off the bat under this new program.”
Independent anti-doping administrator: George Piro
Novitzky then confirmed that the final say over all decisions relating to athlete sanctions will fall to the new independent administrator of the UFC’s anti-doping program, George Piro.
“When you talk about George Piro, you’re talking about an individual with the highest level of integrity and credibility you can possibly imagine,” Novitzky stated.
“While I had a noticeable federal law enforcement career, my resume pales in comparison to that of George Piro. And as I talk about George Piro, he’s quite literally an American hero. He just recently retired as the special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Miami, Florida. He previously was the assistant director of the International Operations Division at FBI Headquarters. He was the supervisor of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. He’s also a world champion in no-gi jiu-jitsu (at) masters level. He knows the sport. He knows what the athletes go through from his world-class-level training.
“We actually had George out at (UFC) headquarters a few weeks ago, and he mentioned to us that he’s watched every single UFC pay-per-view, every single fight, virtually every one live. He knows more about this sport and the UFC than probably the entire personnel of USADA does.
“And, most significantly, when the United States captured Saddam Hussein, George was solely in charge of his interrogation, the US government literally put the safety of the citizens of the United States in his hands, sent him over to Iraq, and he was Saddam’s only contact with the outside world for a period of about nine months.
“George will make every, and I stress every, final decision in the program. That authority will be his, and his alone. We will surround him with experts, with the likes of Dr. Eichner so that George has every single resource at his disposal at his disposal to make the right call, every single time.
“And I’m sure that everybody listening to this is running to their phones and computers to look up George Piro and who is this guy, and I would encourage you to do so. He was featured on 60 Minutes … go watch and go see what kind of person George Piro is and whether he would compromise the integrity of the UFC is program. (It’ll) never happen.”
‘The proof will be in the pudding’
“You know, what always happens in the UFC since I’ve been here is, out of chaos, we always come out better on the other side. And I fully expect, despite this garbage narrative that’s been put out this week, that this is going to happen here. And I would say with this, because we’re so transparent, the proof will be in the pudding.
“Let’s come back up here and sit here a year from now, and you can tell me if the bulls**t that USADA is putting out right now is true, or what I’m saying up here is true. I’ll lay that on the line with anybody.
“And then just lastly … I really want to make this clear to our fighters who are watching this, because that’s something that USADA has done over the last 24 hours, they’ve confused the s**t out of our fighters. They don’t know what’s going on.
“If you take into account the managers that have contacted Donna (Marcolini) and I, and the fighters, I’d say well over half of our roster thinks there’s currently no drug testing going on. And that’s not true. And for an organization like USADA, that stands up on a mountain and says, ‘We protect the rights of clean athletes, that’s what we do,’ they didn’t do it here. They got this thing wrong. For whatever reason, likely a lot of the ones that Hunter chronicled, and as you could probably tell, I’m not happy about it. But we’re keeping our head down. And we’re going full steam ahead and watch what we do at the beginning of the year.”