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A rule in the UFC’s anti-doping policy cost Andrea Lee her spot on UFC 216. Should the same have applied to her opponent, and the replacement who took her spot?
Lee (8-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC), a first-time UFC fighter, was removed when it was discovered she had a previous anti-doping violation, which required her to enter the USADA drug testing pool for six months prior to fighting in the octagon.
Kalindra Faria (18-5 MMA, 0-0 UFC), Lee’s scheduled opponent, had no previous anti-doping violations. But as a UFC newcomer, it appeared she was subject to a rule requiring new fighters to be in the testing pool for one month. The same followed for Mara Romero Borella, the opponent who eventually replaced Lee. Yet both Faria and Boreal were exempted from the rule.
MMAjunkie reached out to UFC anti-doping partner USADA to clarify the situation. USADA deferred questions to UFC VP of Athlete Relations Jeff Novitzky, who said the UFC considers the new bout an injury replacement, despite the fact neither replaced an injured fighter.
“As Paige (VanZant) was injured, this fight really replaces the Paige vs. Jessica Eye fight,” Novitzky said. “So it fits under that criteria.”
Rule 5.7.6 of the UFC’s anti-doping policy indicates the exemption applies to the circumstance in which a fighter steps in for an injured fighter. An exemption is permitted “automatically” when a fighter “is named to a fight card as a replacement for an athlete who was withdrawn from the Fight Card due to loss of eligibility, injury or other event not reasonably foreseeable to UFC.”
But Novitzky said the rule is applied more broadly in cases in which an injury to one fighter causes an entire bout to be scrapped from the event, and a new bout is booked to replace it. As MMAjunkie previously reported, VanZant (7-3 MMA, 3-2 UFC) withdrew from UFC 216 with a back injury. Eye (11-6 MMA, 1-5 UFC) declined to face Lee on short notice, opening up a spot on Saturday’s pay-per-view card at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Novitzky said the UFC and USADA work together when short-notice replacements arise, with the promotion clearing details with the anti-doping agency “to make sure they have a comfort level that the circumstances fall under any given section in the policy.”
However, he added, the ultimate authority in whether an exemption is granted lies with USADA.
“We worked with USADA to put the rules together, but they are sole authority on enforcing the rules of the policy,” Novitzky said.
With injuries and last-minute withdrawals a constant in the UFC’s business, the exemption is part of a balancing act for the promotion. One one side, its goal is to have the most comprehensive anti-doping program in sports. On the other, it needs flexibility when it needs to fill fight cards.
The issue was brought into focus this past December when Angela Hill, a strawweight UFC veteran fighting for the all-female Invicta FC, was called up on short notice only to be scratched because of a four-month window required of returning athletes. Several UFC vets then complained the anti-doping program effectively shut them out, as short-notice fights are often the only chance for a return. The UFC eventually waived Hill’s testing window, arguing it was manifestly unfair to apply it.
The exemption has been a source of controversy, however. The promotion was embarrassed after it granted one to returning ex-champ Brock Lesnar, only to see him fail a drug test that was collected prior to a winning fight with Mark Hunt at UFC 200, but not reported until after the event.
In February, when the UFC and USADA revised the anti-doping policy, the one-month injury exemption was added, while the window for athletes returning from retirement was extended to six months. For the former, Novitzky said the intention of the rule was to provide a more level playing field to athletes who’d previously competed for the UFC without any anti-doping incidents and were released by the promotion for competitive reasons.
“We saw that that wasn’t really fair,” Novitzky said. “So we changed that scenario and added the scenario we’re talking about here.”
Novitzky admits the one-month exemption also exposes the promotion to more possible anti-doping issues. Without prior testing, it is relying on the assurances of fighters and managers who have little vested interest in telling the truth about drug use. But he points to “checks and balances” put in place as a deterrent.
One check, he said, is a comprehensive review process prior to a fight booking that checks fighters’ medical, legal and anti-doping history. In the case of Lee, he said, that process was underway when the media erroneously reported the fight was booked.
“The medical team will vet a fighter to make sure they’re medically cleared, and our legal team looks at immigration and code of conduct and criminal history, and my team as well,” he said.
Another is a new rule recently adopted by the Association of Boxing Commissions to include USADA suspensions in an administrative database followed by all major athletic commissions.
“The commissions can choose what they want to do with that, but the reality is most reputable commissions are going to see those USADA suspensions and adhere to it,” he said. “And that’s good, because say in these last-minute injury replacements or other unforeseen reasons a fighter gets in there, knows they were doing something and says, ‘Hey, I want to fight anyway, this is my foot in the door.’ What’s more than likely going to happen is that fighter is tested fight night, comes back positive – now, not only are they going to be prevented from fighting in the UFC for an extended period of time, if not forever, but the odds of them returning to the regional or local show because of that suspension on the database are just diminished, as well. So it’s virtually career suicide.”
When a new UFC fighter is being considered as a short-notice replacement, Novitzky said UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard emphasize the consequences if the fighter is not clean.
“We’ve actually seen an uptick in recent instances where managers will tell Mick or Sean, ‘Ah, you know what, I think my guy’s good. He’s not interested,'” Novitzky said. “That’s a great thing. First and foremost, this program is in place to protect the UFC athletes and make our promotion healthier and safer.
“We’re starting to see that, that the trickle-down of information as far as what our program means to these local, regional fighters. Combined that with some of the advances in testing – we’re now seeing tests, and Jon Jones’ case being a perfect example, where chlorinated steroids, there’s now tests for metabolites that go out four to six months.
“I think what this means is that information is passing down to the aspiring UFC fighter that sees: ‘Hey, usually my foot in the door is that last-minute replacement. I never know when that call is coming, and if I’m doing anything within four to six months of that call coming, I’m screwed. I’m not going to be able to fight, and if I do, it’s one and done.’ I think really positive development.”
Of course, as with any program, it’s not perfect. The UFC has signed first-time fighters on short-notice, only to see them subsequently fail drug tests. Novitzky, though, defends the current policy as an effective compromise in regulatory oversight.
“The comprehensiveness and strength of the program is important, but it’s just as important to have fairness and due process,” Novitzky said. “I think a lot of these aspiring UFC fighters, their ability to have that foot in the door comes from these last-minute replacements. So to put something in place where we wouldn’t have the ability to do that wouldn’t be fair to them.
“Now, on the other side, there are those checks and balances. We don’t want want to put fighters in that are dirty. And so we have those checks and balances. But it’s clearly a balancing act.”
For more on UFC 216, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
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