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Former and current UFC fighters raise concerns about USADA’s consistency: ‘Something needs to be done’

With some fighters suspended for years at a time, and others seemingly back in action within months, Tom Lawlor and Sean O’Malley both have concerns about the consistency of USADA’s approach.

USADA Investigates Athletes For Steroid Use

NOTE: This article was written by a professional fighter as a guest post, and published under the Bloody Elbow byline at their request.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is recognized by the UFC as the official, independent anti-doping agency for the promotion. The U.S. Congress also recognizes it for the Olympics and other official sports. The goal of the UFC in using USADA is to protect clean athletes and eliminate unfair advantages due to performance enhancing treatments, such as steroids and blood doping.

USADA helps educate athletes on what substances and products are allowed or prohibited, and makes decisions about penalties for failed drug tests. The fact that the UFC utilizes USADA to potentially even the playing field is very commendable. However, apparently, there are kinks to be worked out in the details.

Bloody Elbow spoke to former UFC fighter, and TUF 8 alumni, Tom Lawlor about his unfortunate experiences.

”The biggest issue for me is that commissions are there to enforce fairness, but not everybody’s being treated fairly,” he said.

Qualified USADA staff visit a fighter’s location for random, unannounced testing. For the agency to be able to find them, fighters submit a schedule called a “Whereabouts” ahead of time — saying, for example, “Saturday 10AM-11AM ABC Gym at 123 Street, City, State, zipcode.” If the fighter isn’t there at the appointed time, or is on the toilet and doesn’t answer the door, they get a phone call and have one hour to show up. If they still don’t arrive, they get a missed test attempt, or “Whereabouts failure.” If the athlete gets three whereabouts failures within a 12-month period, they may be ineligible to compete for two years.

If a fighter wants to see a three-hour long movie and turn their phone off, they better remember to ‘update their whereabouts’ schedule ahead of time, or else they’ll be making a mad dash out of the theater once they check their phones when the credits start rolling.

UFC 113: Machida v Shogun 2 Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Once the USADA system was implemented, Lawlor says that he tried to avoid all things not approved by the FDA. “If you look on different labels, like Emergen-C – which I was drinking all the time – it isn’t regulated by the FDA. I thought for sure that something as readily available as that would have been,” he admitted. “So I think there’s a disconnect between what the fighters believe is regulated and what’s not, despite us going through online courses and modules provided by USADA and the UFC.”

In 2016 one of Lawlor’s samples came back tagged for ‘ostarine,’ which is a “selective androgen receptor Modulator,” and is on the WADA prohibited list under S1 Anabolic agent category. It’s not approved for human consumption but it’s apparently being investigated as a way to treat a variety of muscle wasting diseases such as osteoporosis, cancer, and hypogonadism. USADA claims on their website that there are, in fact, products that contain ostarine, but only illegal ones — since it has not been approved officially for human consumption.

In Lawlor’s case, he stated, “The amount found was .00017 nanograms. It was the smallest amount that you could possibly find in there.” To this day, he has no idea what he ingested that had ostarine in it. “After the test, they give you the opportunity to have some products that you’re taking tested,” he said, and explained how he worked with Jeff Novitzky, Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance for UFC, who acts as a contact between USADA and athletes. He suspected imported coffee beans and other ingredients sourced from China might be the culprit, so they were was dumbfounded when they came back negative. Lawlor decided to give up testing other things when the cost became high and it became clear that he’d have to pay lawyers out of his own pocket.

The UFC is currently the only MMA organization to be officially regulated by USADA, so Lawlor – having most of his income generated from fighting – asked to be released from the promotion so that he could fight elsewhere. The UFC did not grant his release. He asked if he could do professional wrestling to generate some kind of income, and he was granted permission.

“Also In that time frame I somehow received an email directed to Robbie Lawler, who I am clearly not. I contacted USADA, they said, ‘It was human error on the part of the person imputing the data, and we can assure you there was no mix-up in the actual testing.’ Which kind of makes me think. I went on the website to see if he was tested on the same dates I was, but they wouldn’t release that information. That was kind of demoralizing to me.”

MMA: TUF 26 Finale O’Malley vs Ware Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Sean O’Malley also failed a drug test before his bout at UFC 229 on October 6th. Again a minuscule amount of ‘ostarine’ was the culprit. He claimed that it came from a tainted supplement, and wrote on twitter that he wouldn’t be stupid enough to take a banned substance before the biggest fight of his career. “Jeff (Novitzky) thought it was going to be these caffeine pills, when I sent him a list of my supplements,” O’Malley told Bloody Elbow, “So we sent those in but they came back negative. I sent in the rest of my supplements a few weeks ago and am waiting on those results.”

Tom Lawlor was given the maximum suspension from USADA for an anabolic agent: two years. “Sean O’Malley has gone through a similar thing, and also didn’t have a supplement to pinpoint,” Lawlor said. “I’m very happy, honestly, that he doesn’t have to sit out for two years. He’s a young kid who probably put all his stock into fighting, and it could change the course of his life. It could ruin his career for the rest of his life. I don’t know how readily available information is about how ostarine is being put into supplements and other products, and if that’s why he got a lesser suspension. There’ve just been a ton of inconsistencies along the board with the way USADA and commissions have handled different suspensions.”

When CroCop admitted he’d taken a banned human growth hormone injection to heal an injury and he got a two-year suspension, the UFC released him immediately. ”He was able to fight right off the bat, go do whatever he wanted with a free pass, while I was in a similar situation and not afforded that same opportunity,” Lawlor said.

Jon Jones failed for drugs that affect hormone levels and anabolic steroids multiple times, and was up for a four-year suspension based on his previous failures. He was eventually given a 15-month suspension. USADA explained that Jones was “cooperating,” as the reason behind his shortened sentence. They don’t have to give any more information.

“We may never find out what that ‘cooperation’ was,” Lawlor said, “It could be giving information about a teammate, or drug dealers, etc. That kind of presents a problem in and of itself, that this guy who clearly makes more money for the UFC than I do, was given basically a pass and will be available to fight this upcoming December. There have been a lot of inconsistencies with the way these situations are handled.”

Sean O’Malley stated that, in his opinion, USADA needs to change the rules. “It really sucks getting suspended and fined for something I didn’t intentionally do. I tested for .08 nano-grams. I support USADA and fighting clean 100%. Something needs to be done. This isn’t right. I missed out on a HUGE fight and a huge payday.”