UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett cleared his name last week regarding a failed drug test he submitted to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in December 2016.
An independent arbitrator ruled Barnett's out-of-competition test failure was caused by a contaminated legal supplement he'd taken legally, and issued the minimum sanction of a public reprimand. USADA had sought a four-year suspension.
It was a historic case, in that Barnett became the first UFC athlete to successfully appeal a USADA sanction through arbitration. But while the final result was in his favor, Barnett said the 15-month process raised multiple concerns over the testing program in general.
"I'm proud my innocence held up and that USADA has to recognize that publicly," Barnett told ESPN. "But the fact we worked with them from the beginning and they had knowledge this supplement was tainted -- we could have been done with this a long time ago.
"The fact is, [USADA] seemed far more insistent on trying to be punitive than to recognize the facts and move on."
According to Barnett, USADA independently confirmed that a supplement in his possession was tainted with the banned substance Ostarine as far back as April 2017. Barnett aided the investigation by producing meticulous records of his supplement use.
Once USADA confirmed as much, Barnett felt the matter should have been settled. The agency still sought a suspension, however, and even classified Barnett as a second-time offender, counting a previous failed drug test from 2009, six years before the UFC began its anti-doping program.
"It felt like [USADA was saying], 'OK, he's proved this was a tainted supplement; how do we go after him another way?'" Barnett said. "They were just moving the goalposts back until they had something, which is incredibly backwards from this idea of creating an equitable, fair environment.
"Maybe [USADA] felt I was someone who would look good to punish, but more likely I think it's the concept of results. I think the best results this program could have is no one tests positive anymore -- that the system works and people operate within it.
"But I think we got hung up on the negative, this idea of finding offenders and issuing punishments. The punishments have somehow become an indicator of how well the program is performing, more than anything else."
USADA director of legal affairs Onye Ikwuakor told ESPN the agency followed its normal protocol in Barnett's case and, although the fighter demonstrated certain precautions, it felt comfortable seeking a suspension.
Ikwuakor said he was surprised by the ruling but believes the case reflects well on the program as a whole, as it highlights the importance of athletes' rights to arbitrate a case.
"This program is not set up as 'take it or leave it,'" Ikwuakor said. "We have a process we have to go by before we propose a sanction, and the athlete may not like what we offer. And that's fine. No hard feelings. If you do not like this offer, that's fine. There is a hearing that's available to you, and every other UFC athlete, to put forth an argument.
"It was a surprising outcome, but I think it demonstrates athletes have an opportunity to legitimately put their case forward. It's not just 'What USADA says, goes.'"
Barnett doesn't disagree with that in principle, but he believes his case never should have gone to arbitration in the first place. He also claims that he had certain resources at his disposal during the process that other athletes may not have.
"Even before it got that far, I was sitting there saying, 'Why would we go to arbitration? Why is that the preferred model?'" Barnett said.
"It's not, especially if you're a fighter. Most of these fighters don't have a lawyer on retainer. There is a lot of work that goes into an arbitration hearing, and lawyers aren't cheap. No fighter wants to go to arbitration. It's not preferable; it's a last resort.
"But [USADA] was very casual in saying, 'You can just go to arbitration.' I was like, 'I don't want to go to arbitration!' I wanted to work with them and get this done in a non-confrontational manner."
Even though Barnett (35-8) avoided a suspension, he is not eligible to fight immediately. Barnett withdrew himself from the UFC's anti-doping program in late 2016 to take a break from competition. He is required to re-enter the program for at least six months prior to any return to fighting.
Of course, that raises the question of whether Barnett would ever subject himself to USADA oversight again. He says he intends to fight again, so that means he will need to either agree to USADA testing or secure a release from the UFC.
"I'm not anywhere near a training camp, so I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get there," Barnett said. "There is a concern that maybe someone will take this personal. Am I under someone's crosshairs now? I don't know.
"Bureaucracies are big, unwieldy animals that don't hardly ever shrink or alter their course, but I do hope my case changes some things.
"It's difficult enough to have to sit out and wait, and have these supplements tested. That is hard enough on a fighter. For an agency to then try and find ways to punish them or create a guilty party out of it, it's excessive."