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Why Brock Lesnar's narrow USADA exemption for UFC 200 isn't a scandal

Iain Kidd breaks down the Brock Lesnar USADA exemption situation and explains why it's not a scandal, including quotes from a UFC official on the terms of the anti-doping policy.

There has been a lot of controversy about the UFC's decision to grant Brock Lesnar a narrow exemption to a specific clause in their anti-doping policy. Many people seem to feel that the UFC has behaved in an unethical way by granting this exemption. Personally, I disagree. I think the decision was both reasonable and proportionate, and I'm going to explain why that is.

Before we jump in, I'll go over the details of the situation for those of you who might not have been following along. Under normal circumstances, any athlete who has performed with the UFC before and then leaves for another organisation, or retires, has to undergo 4 months of random USADA testing before they can compete. That policy is in place to stop people retiring or leaving between fights to avoid random testing. There is a clause which allows the UFC to exempt fighters from this one particular section of the anti-doping policy. Here is the relevant language:

5.7 An Athlete who gives notice of retirement to UFC, or has otherwise ceased to have a contractual relationship with UFC, may not resume competing in UFC Bouts until he/she has given UFC written notice of his/her intent to resume competing and has made him/herself available for Testing for a period of four months before returning to competition. UFC may grant an exemption to the four-month written notice rule in exceptional circumstances or where the strict application of that rule would be manifestly unfair to an Athlete.

For those of you interested in the details of the anti-doping policy, I reached out to the UFC for some of the reasoning behind certain  clauses, and for clarification on various technical points. You can read those at the bottom of the article.

It appears Lesnar signed a contract to compete on UFC 200 somewhere in early June, while UFC 200 takes place on July 9th. That means Lesnar will only be tested for around 5 weeks, instead of the usual 16 weeks, due to the UFC making use of an exemption clause built into the policy. Scandal, right? Well...not so much, for various reasons.

First of all, some have suggested that USADA could have been testing Brock from the moment he entered negotiations with the UFC. The problem is that USADA are not able to test athletes who don't have a contractual relationship with the UFC. It's out of their jurisdiction. Until Lesnar signed on the dotted line, they couldn't test him. Since signing, he has been tested at least once, and I fully expect that by the time UFC 200 rolls around USADA will have tested him several times.

You might be asking why it's OK that Lesnar doesn't have to undergo 16 weeks of testing while every other fighter does. The truth is, not every other fighter does. Debuting fighters who come in on short notice, for instance, don't undergo that "waiting period." They are tested from the moment they sign a contract, just like Lesnar. He is, for all intents and purposes, being treated like a new fighter, which really, he should be, because like them he hasn't been signed up to the anti-doping policy before.

That 4 months clause is specifically to avoid guys retiring/leaving the UFC to avoid testing. Brock Lesnar left the UFC before the USADA deal was ever a thing. Either he's more prescient than Mystic Mac himself, or his leaving had nothing to do with avoiding drug tests. By the way, the WWE has its own testing policy, though from what I hear it's perhaps not quite as stringent as the USADA policies under Jeff Novitzky.

So we can safely assume he didn't retire to take advantage of the loophole the 4 month waiting period was intended to close, but here's another, related point. Brock Lesnar never signed up to the anti-doping policy. He was gone before it came into force.

If you're someone who believes strongly that the fighters should have more rights, you should probably be siding with Lesnar here. If the UFC had held him to that particular policy without granting him an exemption, they would have been holding him to a clause he never agreed to in the first place. In my opinion, fighters who never agreed to the anti-doping policy in the first place are the perfect candidates to receive a one-time exemption from that particular clause.

This exemption only applies to the 4 month waiting period. Lesnar has been, and will be tested randomly for as long as he has a contractual relationship with the UFC. Between now and UFC 200 he'll be just as subject to drug tests as his opponents.

Some people think the UFC shouldn't have the ability to grant the exemption at all, which is a perfectly reasonable opinion to hold. I've read through the entire policy, though, and the ability for the UFC to grant exemptions is incredibly rare. The very next section of the policy states that fighters coming back from a period of ineligibility (e.g. a failed drug test) also have to be in the testing pool for 4 months before they can compete. Guess what? No UFC exemptions here.

My colleague Karim Zidan brought up that BJ Penn also retired before the USADA policy came into play, and yet he was still subject to the 4 month testing period. This shows that the UFC is granting exemptions only under exceptional circumstances, which is exactly how such a policy should be used.

The truth is that the UFC didn't have to engage USADA. The truth is that Lorenzo Fertitta is a very sharp man, and he and the rest of the UFC knew going in that this deal would not only cost them millions of dollars to fund, but would cost millions more in fights falling through due to test results. They bit the bullet on that. This exemption, which is what is allowing Brock Lesnar to make UFC 200 one of, if not the biggest UFC events of all time, is a reasonable measure to allow them to mitigate some of those losses.

To not grant an exemption would be costing them millions of dollars over what the USADA deal already costs, and for no good reason. Brock isn't trying to exploit the loophole section 5.7 closes. He didn't retire to avoid tests. Even the most die-hard UFC critic will admit that forcing the UFC to make Lesnar test for 16 weeks instead of 5, and miss the biggest UFC event in years in doing so, would be punitive and disproportionate, as well as outwith the spirit of the clause.

Here's a quick summary of my arguments:

As the USADA policy was not in place during Brock Lesnar's tenure, there's no logical argument that he left the UFC to avoid testing and exploit a loophole, which is what the policy was designed to prevent.

Fighters who did not sign up to the UFC/USADA Anti-doping policies are ideal candidates to be considered for exemptions to the policy, as they never agreed to be bound by that policy.

As debuting fighters are able to compete in short notice bouts in the UFC, preventing Brock Lesnar, who did not previously agree to be bound by the USADA anti-doping clause, from doing the same could be seen as unfair.

This exemption only applies to the 4 month waiting period. Lesnar has been, and will be tested randomly for as long as he has a contractual relationship with the UFC. Between now and UFC 200 he'll be just as subject to drug tests as his opponents.

Forcing the UFC to pass up on having Lesnar at UFC 200, given the above, is unreasonable. This particular use of the exemption is justified and reasonable.

UFC Q&A

1) It seems that section 5.7 of the UFC's anti-doping policy is designed to prevent fighters exploiting loopholes in the policy by leaving the UFC in order to use PEDs. Is that a fair characterization of the principle behind that policy?

Answer: Section 5.7, modeled after similar requirements in the World Anti-Doping Code, is to prevent a fighter who is under the UFC Anti-Doping Policy from retiring to avoid anti-doping requirements, and then attempting to return to compete without adequate notice.

2) From my reading of the policy, the 4 months of testing before the first bout requirement in section 5.7 applies to who leave the UFC to fight for another organization and then return, as well as fighters who retire. Is that correct?

Answer: Section 5.7 applies to all fighters who are under contract with UFC and retire or cease to have contractual relationship with UFC.

3) From my reading of the policy, it seems fighters who sign for the UFC for the first time are the only fighters who do not have to undergo 4 months of USADA testing before their first fight, is that correct?

Answer: All fighters become part of the registered testing pool immediately upon entering into a contractual relationship with UFC and are subject to USADA drug testing at that time. If an athlete is not under contractual agreement with the UFC, then there is no legal way for them to be tested under our policy since they are not contractually obligated to comply with the UFC Anti-Doping Policy.

4) From my reading of the policy, it seems the policy applies to fighters who retired/ceased to have a contractual relationship with the UFC prior to the anti-doping policy coming into force, as well as those who specifically signed up to the policy, is that correct?

Answer: The UFC Anti-Doping Policy only applies to fighters who are under contract with the UFC. As stated above, if an athlete is not under contractual agreement with the UFC, then there is no legal way for them to be tested under our policy since they are not contractually obligated to comply with the Policy.

5) My understanding is that USADA cannot test an athlete, even one who intends to come out of retirement, until the athlete has a contractual relationship with the UFC. Is that correct?

Answer: Correct.

6) My understanding is that Brock Lesnar has been tested by USADA and will continue to be tested by USADA until & after his fight, until his contract expires or he gives written notice of his retirement, is that correct?

Answer: Lesnar was included in the registered testing pool the day his most recent contract with UFC was finalized. UFC is aware that Lesnar has already been tested by USADA and USADA has the authority to test Lesnar at any point while he is part of the registered testing pool.