This weekend, T.J. Dillashaw is returning from a two-year suspension after failing a USADA drug test for EPO. The former UFC bantamweight champion has admitted using the banned substance, but downplayed any benefits from taking EPO.
“I would let every one of my opponents take what I was taking. I couldn’t care less because it did not help me,” Dillashaw said on the UFC Vegas 32 media day (transcript via Middle Easy).
“I actually feel ten times better now, than I did going into that fight. I had to lie to myself and tell myself how great I felt going into it, because you’re a mentally tough, best in the world, pound-for-pound fighter, but to be honest I couldn’t care less if any of those guys are taking what I was doing.”
While Dillashaw downplayed its effects, an admitted PED user in Chael Sonnen has a completely different take. Sonnen, who failed multiple drug tests in his MMA career, explains that he has taken various substances, but EPO was always his most preferred one.
“EPO, of all the performance enhancers, I will tell you, personal experience here. I’m an expert in performance enhancers — for all the wrong reasons — but an expert nonetheless. EPO, without question, is my favorite,” Sonnen stated.
“I felt I’ve taken everything. I’ve gone into GNC’s or health stores and tried everything on the shelf on the off chance that something would work — and it doesn’t. They’re all junk. None of that stuff anywhere on those shelves works. But the same is true with performance enhancements, you’re not going to get a bump on all of them.”
EPO stimulates the production of red blood cells, which affects the amount of oxygen your body can take in and hold. This would help with endurance, which is why it’s a popular drug most often seen in sports like cycling. It can also be a tremendous help in MMA, not only for those long bouts decided after a war of attrition, but so athletes can train longer and hone their craft better.
“It directly affects your cardiovascular output,” Sonnen said. “It’s not going to make you bigger, it’s not going to make you leaner, it’s not going to make you stronger. It’s going to give you more endurance.
“A guy that takes EPO, particularly in training, can now just train longer,” Sonnen said. “He can hit the bag that many times more. He can jump that rope many times more.”
Sonnen says he did an “experiment” during his weekly runs up a hill, and would notice a “25 or 20 percent” improvement with his time. He explains that EPO is an “incredible” drug that gives a “very meaningful difference” in performance, and it’s also very tough to catch.
“Now because of USADA, we also now know how to take it and not get caught. I’m not going to say any more on that,” Sonnen said.
The former two-division UFC title challenger says there’s only a small window where it can be detected, but the benefits can last up to six or even eight weeks.
“USADA is very clear. Here’s the things you can take, here’s the things you cannot take,” Sonnen said. “I only share that because I’ve heard a number of guys say ‘well that didn’t help me.’ That could be true, but I’ll tell you EPO would not fall into that.”
Apart from trying to downplay its benefits, Dillashaw also previously claimed he only took EPO once to cut weight and was immediately caught by USADA.
He has seemingly stuck to this story, even if it never really lined up with his former teammates’ previous statements. Cody Garbrandt repeatedly accused Dillashaw specifically of taking EPO and showing “everyone how to do it” years before his suspension, while Joseph Benavidez said he was “surprised it took that long” to catch him.
After two years out, Dillashaw will fight Cory Sandhagen on the main event of UFC Vegas 32 this weekend.