UFC middleweight Cung Le will have the legal option to appeal a one-year suspension he received after testing positive for elevated levels of human growth hormone (hGH) following a bout on Aug. 23 in Macau, China.
UFC president Dana White confirmed Le's right to file an appeal to ESPN.com on Wednesday. The appeal would be overseen by a third-party arbitrator, according to Lawrence Epstein, UFC chief operating officer.
"The (American Arbitration Association) would hear whatever Cung Le's arguments are. He has a certain time to file his intention to appeal. An arbitration panel would be set up, he'll make his case, arbitration will make its decision and that will be the end of it."
Le's manager, Gary Ibarra, confirmed to ESPN.com Le plans to exercise the right to appeal.
"Of course," Ibarra said. "The UFC is fully aware of the issues we have with the testing (on Aug. 23). These are valid arguments we have raised."
This case is unprecedented, as it's the first time a fighter will appeal a drug suspension to the UFC directly. Athletes have the right to appeal suspensions to state athletic commissions, but it was unknown if Le would have the same option since the UFC acted as its own regulatory body in Macau, where this is no regulatory body.
A post-fight blood test on Aug. 23, performed by the Hong Kong Functional Medical Testing Center and ordered by the UFC, revealed Le, 42, had an hGH level of 18.162 mIU/mL, which is above normal ranges.
The UFC initially suspended the San Jose-based fighter nine months on Sept. 30. The promotion eventually extended the suspension to one year, following a discussion amongst "senior management."
On Oct. 2, Le released a statement questioning the testing procedures executed by the collection agency. The Hong Kong lab is not one of 32 labs certified by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is considered the gold standard in terms of hGH testing in sports.
White said a WADA-certified lab was not used to collect the blood samples on Aug. 23 because it was an unprecedented move the company decided to implement that week. Previously, the UFC has only ordered urine tests on its athletes on fight-night.
Dr. Don Catlin, anti-doping specialist and founder and former director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical lab, expressed his opinion that any hGH testing not up to WADA standards carries very little weight.
"There are so many different hGH tests worldwide," Catlin said. "We've reviewed all of them. WADA has developed its own special test that we use worldwide. WADA controlled labs have reagents that are are made available to them and they work. They are complicated tests but it can be done and can be done right.
"So, when somebody comes and says, 'We have a test from Hong Kong,' they can't tell me anything about how it was done. It was probably done by some commercial lab for clinical purposes. They're not verified. You can't look up in medical journals what the basis of the test. With WADA, there is lots of information out there that you can verify and say, 'This test is OK.'"
Le also pointed to a scientific study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, that states GH production in the body can increase during prolonged physical activity. Le fought Michael Bisping on Aug. 23, losing via TKO at 0:57 of the fourth round. According to Ibarra, blood was drawn from Le immediately after the bout. He also said the lab destroyed a "B" sample, which are preserved in the event of an appeal under WADA code.
Le, whose chiseled physique drew speculation of performance-enhancing drugs leading up to the fight, maintains he did not take any banned substances. He dismissed speculation prior to the fight, crediting his appearance to changes in his diet, health and work ethic. Test results from Aug. 23 for his serum testosterone levels, Erythropoietin (EPO) and other banned substances returned negative.
White said the UFC will never authorize a non-WADA accredited lab to perform blood tests again, but defended the UFC's actions on Le.
"Our drug testing is only getting better and anybody who is using anything or is cheating in any way, shape or form -- you're going to get caught," White said. "It doesn't matter if you're the greatest guy ever and we love and have a great relationship with you. If you're cheating, you're cheating.
"As a company, I can't tell you of a guy we love more than Cung Le. He went over to China and not only did The Ultimate Fighter (reality series) for us, but he kept that whole show together. He did an amazing job. I literally could not tell you all the good things I have to say about Cung Le. We would never dog him."
The UFC is expected to announce a comprehensive, year-round random drug testing program to test its entire roster in 2015. The promotion is currently in discussions with third-party collection agencies to run the program. Epstein said future appeals of drug test results from that program would be handled similarly to Le, by an arbitrator.
"It would be slightly different," Epstein said. "We're talking about using a third-party organization to do everything; handle drug tests and the proceedings in general. It would be the same, in that an arbitration panel would be commissioned to handle any appeals but (the UFC) really wouldn't have any involvement at all."