The UFC has made a significant change to its anti-doping policy, and is discussing the potential of several others.
Since the UFC partnered with the United States Anti-Doping Agency to enact its anti-doping program in 2015, its policy has been to immediately announce any potential violation. In mid-July, however, the UFC decided to change its policy, and will now announce a violation (typically a failed drug test) only after the case has been resolved.
"I have nothing but the highest caliber of respect for USADA, but it would be obtuse on our part if we did not take a look after a three-year period and say, 'What are the things we've learned and what changes might we need to make to this program?'" UFC Chief Legal Officer Hunter Campbell told ESPN.
"If an athlete has a positive drug test, we aren't putting them in a fight until their case is resolved -- but what we can do is give the athlete an opportunity to adjudicate their issue without the public rushing to judgment. Announcing the test result creates this narrative around the athlete before people understand the facts."
One key factor in the UFC's decision, which will align its program with how Olympic athlete cases are handled by USADA, is the amount of cases that have resulted in determinations of unintentional use.
According to UFC Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky, there have been 62 adjudicated cases under the UFC's program. Of those cases, 21 were ultimately ruled by USADA to be non-intentional use (most prevalently caused by supplement contamination), or cases in which a use exemption was granted.
In other words, nearly 34 percent of the adjudicated cases were found to have no intentional performance-enhancing motive by the athlete. The UFC says that figure is significant enough that it's best to wait until a case is fully resolved before releasing information.
"Part of the feedback Jeff and I have received from the athletes is, 'I would have appreciated the opportunity to adjudicate this, so the story could be I tested positive, a full investigation was conducted and it was found the use was unintentional,'" Campbell said. "That story is very different than giving somebody a six-month window, where they are trying to defend themselves against accusations they are a cheater."
There have been several high-profile examples of a UFC athlete's failed test coming to light in the public, well before he or she ultimately proves the result was due to non-intentional use. Heavyweight Junior dos Santos cleared his name in a tainted supplement case earlier this year. Female champion Cris "Cyborg" Justino was granted a therapeutic-use exemption in another case in 2017, months after it was announced she had failed an out-of-competition test.
Another change the UFC is discussing but has not yet enacted is how it views second-time offenders. Currently, a second-time offense carries the possibility of doubling any suspension length, which is why, for instance, Jon Jones recently faced the possibility of a four-year ban for a failed drug test in 2017, the second of his career.
Jones' first failed test occurred in 2016. He was suspended for one year, but was found to have acted recklessly, rather than intentionally cheat. Under the current policy, Jones was subject to a four-year ban for his second offense, even though his first was found to be unintentional. The UFC is considering an adjustment to that kind of situation.
"One of the reasons a guy like Jon Jones was facing four years is that he was a multiple offender of the program," Campbell said. "My issue with that is that Jon Jones was found to have not done anything intentional in his first offense. He was found to have a exercised a degree of irresponsibility.
"I do not think anyone who has two unintentional violations should have to face a four-year suspension. The punishment doesn't fit the crime. You have to have, and we will continue to have, increasing penalties in the event a violation is found to be intentional."
The changes are not meant to make the program more lax. On the contrary, Campbell and Novitzky applauded the program's effectiveness as it pertains to catching anyone seeking an unfair advantage.
"If you have anything in your system, you are going to test positive," Campbell said. "With the amount of microscopically low doses they can detect, if you're trying to knowingly cheat, I wish you the best because you are on borrowed time. In terms of accomplishing that, which is what we set out to, we're doing remarkably well."
The problem the UFC has identified, however, is the program has also proven very efficient in entangling athletes who did not intentionally cheat -- more than one third of the cases overall. An ideal solution would be the near-eradication of supplements, as contamination is rampant in that industry, but its use remains common in MMA.
In general, the UFC discourages the use of supplements and offers free nutritional advice from its Performance Institute in Las Vegas.
The UFC wants to educate its athletes that any supplement use comes with a risk, and even unintentional use of a banned substance will result in consequences -- but more than three years into the program, its re-evaluating whether those consequences may be considered too severe under the current policy.
"This program is meant to punish and catch intentional cheaters," Novitzky said. "None of us are saying there will be no liability when it comes to unintentional use, but to punish that level of liability in the same manner of someone who was knowingly using something is not what this program was meant to do."