Two weeks ago, former Strikeforce champion and UFC contender Nick Diaz was delivered a five year suspension and $165,000 fine for an alleged marijuana metabolite failure following his UFC 183 bout with Anderson Silva. Diaz, a Stockton, California native, and frequent figure of controversy, found himself with the overwhelming support of the MMA community. That's not a position the polarizing Diaz often finds himself in.
Many criticized the commission's decision, and a petition to lift the ban has amassed over 63,000 signatures at this time of writing. Jeff Novitzky is a former federal agent, now working as Vice President of Athlete Health & Performance for the UFC. He is operating directly with USADA for all UFC athlete anti-doping, and has made a stance against the decision to suspend Diaz.
"I’ll preface by saying I think the commission's motives are in the right place. I do think that they really do care about the short end and long term health of our athletes and that's the reason why they've taken a harsh stance in the anti-doping world. I think they're trying to do the right thing. I think though that they're at a big disadvantage in that anti-doping is a very difficult field to 100% comprehend. Those commissioners are part time, at best. The Executive Director, Bob Bennett, who runs the anti-doping day to day operations, that’s only a small part of his full time job. I’ve been immersed in anti-doping for 13 years, and I’m still constantly learning and struggling to keep up with the intricacies of it. It’s a difficult topic and area, but it’s one you have to get perfect, and all that being said, they didn’t get this one perfect. They got this one wrong, in my opinion.
"I don’t have any insight into it other than what was presented in open forum in the commission's hearing. My understanding was that there was three tests taken the night of the fight. There was one taken before the fight, one immediately after, and one shortly after that. The ones at either end, first and last, were done at WADA accredited labs. Those will be the ones we use under our program, and they are the highest standard in laboratories, both in testing and sensitivity of equipment, and in the way samples are collected. They are sent to the lab anonymously so the lab doesn’t know who they are testing. The first and last tests came well under the threshold for marijuana.
"Under the WADA code, which Nevada follows, in order for a test to be positive for marijuana, it must exceed 150 ng/ml. Under those rules you’re allowed to have a little bit of marijuana in your system. The first test came back around 40 ng/ml, and the last one after fight was around 60 ng/ml. The concentration of urine is higher while dehydrated, so that makes sense, but both were well under the threshold. Then you have this other one, that is taken right after the fight, that is taken to Quest Labs. I’m not going to disparage them and say they’re no good, but the WADA accredited lab is the highest standard. WADA labs are constantly being sent samples, blind samples, where the company knows what’s in the sample, to make sure the different labs get it right.
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"Samples often include marijuana, they're constantly tested on that. You’re not gonna find better calibrated equipment than what WADA has. That being said, the Quest Labs sample was 733 ng/ml, one of the highest I’ve ever seen. There are big issues in interpreting those results. There’s no real scientific medical explanation for someone having a 40, then right after the fight a 733, and shortly after that back to 60."
With the severity of sanctions handed down, many speculated it was delivered with an element of vindictiveness, and that Diaz's attitude played a part in the punishment.
"It’s hard for me to get in their heads to determine that. I’d like to think no. I think there was influence based on the two previous positive tests. I didn’t hear an explanation for the five year suspension. Their proposed new regulations is 3 years, which to my understanding hasn’t even been formally passed. It could have been potentially his failure to fill out the form and leaving marijuana off his pre fight that was taken into consideration as some kind of aggravating circumstance. I didn’t hear an explanation behind that. But I think all that is moot, because looking at those three tests, I don’t think that there should have been a positive test to begin with."
Diaz’s lawyer has already said they’ll be fighting the case. It’s Novitzky’s hope that it doesn’t even get that far.
"It’s hard to tell [if the suspension will stick]. Historically, if you were to take it through a court system, they’re going to look at whether due process was served, and I think if they get some experts in there that look at these three tests, and how they were interpreted by the commission, I have a hard time believing that a court is not gonna rule that he wasn’t afforded due process. My hope is that it wouldn’t even need to get to that point."
"Yeah, that is going to be hard to ignore when you have athletes taking those steps. I will say I’ve been in contact with the commission and trying to share with them and educate a little bit on the science behind those three tests, on the credibility and reliability of the two WADA approved laboratories. The hope would be taking a little bit of time to cool off, and then re-evaluate the evidence in this case."
One disputing point of Diaz legal team was the use of different labs, and the validity of Quest labs. Novitzky stands by the fact that neither Quest, nor any other non-WADA accredited laboratories will ever be used by USADA.
"That’s something that will never happen under our program. We’re only going to use WADA accredited labs. I think you’re running into big issues any time you do that, and it’s the second instance I’ve heard of Nevada doing that. In the Silva hearing the month before, the same thing happened with his samples. He had some sent to WADA and one sent to Quest. I can’t figure it out. I think maybe it goes back to what we talked about earlier, if you aren’t 100% involved in anti-doping, again, it’s a difficult field. The part-timeness of their handling and dealing with anti-doping, maybe they don’t comprehend all the repercussions of doing something like that. It’s a recipe for disaster in my opinion."
Even though the plant has become recreationally legal in four states, and medicinally in 23, Novitzky doesn’t ever see it getting taken off the banned substance list.
"WADA has scientists and medical professionals that study each of these drugs, and the effect that they could potentially have on performance. I think there has become an acceptance, it’s legal in many states, and used by many. It’s not that you can’t have any in your system, it is just that those studies have determined that 150 ng/ml is a good threshold to prevent any possible performance enhancement."
In June of this year, the UFC sent out an email with a contract addendum, enabling USADA to test all athletes on roster. Unsurprisingly, not everyone has signed.
"I will say that not everybody has signed it. The majority have, although I haven’t run into any instance where I was told a fighter 100% wasn’t going to sign it. I think it’s just one of those deals where it takes a long time to get 600 people to sign something. In terms of the repercussions from refusing to sign it, my understanding is that they’re not going to be fighting for us if they don’t agree to this anti-doping program. We can’t have it that some are going to be subject to it and others aren’t. It’s going to be a condition of getting a bout, in my understanding."
Last week, Josh Gross published an article detailing an elevated testosterone level in Vitor Belfort prior to his bout with Jon Jones. BE’s John Nash followed up with further info, with a quote from former Nevada Athletic Commission Executive Director Keith Kizer saying a fighter with those levels of testosterone would not have been allowed to fight in Nevada. Novitzky says the situation was news to him.
"I was not aware of it. I learned about it when I read it last week. I always take things with a grain of salt when I read them in the media. I think with the whole TRT issue, it goes back to what we started with, which is I don’t think the UFC and the commissions a couple years ago had knowledge of what it was. It’s a very complicated field, anti-doping, and steroids, and TRT. I just think everyone was a little naive a couple years ago, and I give them credit for bringing in someone that hopefully knows enough about it. I don't profess to know everything there is about anti-doping, but if I don't know, I know exactly who the world experts are to call. I think that was a part of hiring me to come here, was an acknowledgement within the organization that they didn't know everything there was to know about anti-doping."
One curious piece of contract language, section 2.10, of the UFC USADA anti-doping policy provides authority to USADA to prevent athletes from associating with those who are under sanctions. Novitzky says their idea is to apply this to coaches who distribute drugs to their athletes, and that the idea comes from his experience with the sport of cycling. The athlete would first receive a warning, and each situation would be a case-by-case basis.
"Any time under this policy, for prohibited association, the fighter would have to be notified first by USADA. They’d have to say 'Hey Josh, this person has been suspended, and you are no longer to to be coached or managed or trained by him.' The spirit of this is to be able to have some authority over a coach or a trainer that is distributing or advising athletes on using performance enhancing drugs. It is not for an athlete that tested positive for using and was still going to be used as a training or sparring partner for another UFC athlete. 'Sparring partner' and 'training partner' was specifically taken out of that language for that reason. It would apply to a non-fighter that was sanctioned for advising or distributing drugs. Difficult logistics, but [going after the coaches] is absolutely the idea. The hardest sanctions are on those that are distributing. In an ideal world, you want to cut off the supply, and that’s the person you punish the hardest and the most. USADA is not a law enforcement agency, but they do have investigators on staff with liaisons in law enforcement."
Jeff followed up with an official statement post interview that he asked to be included:
"It was neither the UFC's intent in drafting the Anti-Doping Policy, nor USADA's understanding in enforcing it, that the Prohibited Association rule would extend to individuals acting as a training or sparring partner. There is no policy preventing an athlete from simply working out with another athlete who has served or is currently serving a period of ineligibility. However, offering training, coaching, nutritional or other advice, management services or athlete support services of any kind from any person who is currently serving a period of ineligibility for an anti-doping policy violation is prohibited. If an athlete is ineligible, that person may not function as an athlete support person and using a banned athlete in that manner is not permissible. A violation of this rule may result in up to a two-year period of ineligibility, although, prior to any disciplinary actions being taken, the non-sanctioned athlete will be advised that their association with the sanctioned athlete is not permitted and given an opportunity to terminate their professional/sport-related association with that individual or explain why he or she believes that their conduct does not constitute a violation of the Prohibited Association and Prohibition against Participation rules."
When asked the question of quantifying the estimated amount of PED users in the UFC, Novitzky wouldn’t say, but did give insight as to why he was originally interested in his position at the UFC.
"I have no idea, and I wouldn’t even try to guess. Here’s what I will tell you, coming off the last 12 or 13 years in my career I’ve seen PED use in every sport you can imagine. I saw it across the board. It is not a situation unique to MMA and the UFC, but it’s unique in terms of the importance of it. You're not talking about trying to break a record, you're talking about two human beings in a ring trying to inflict pain and damage on the other one. There is no more important sport in dealing with the issue of performance enhancing drugs than mixed martial arts."