The last-minute move of UFC 232 from Nevada to California came suddenly for fans and fighters. But it didn’t come out of left field for the UFC – or the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Jon Jones’ (22-1 MMA, 16-1 UFC) Dec. 9 drug test wasn’t the first time his 2018 test results raised alarm bells, UFC Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky on Thursday told the “JRE MMA Show” podcast.
In fact, Novitzky said, Jones’ tests from Aug. 29 and Sept. 18 returned trace amounts of the same steroid metabolite that resulted in a 15-month suspension for his positive test at UFC 214.
The metabolite, identified as the long-term M3 metabolite of the fast-clearing steroid oral turinabol, didn’t provide any performance-enhancing benefit, according to experts consulted by the UFC and its anti-doping partner, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). But it also could turn up in Jones’ system for years, presenting a regulatory hurdle that came to a head in the weeks before UFC 232, which officially was moved from Nevada to California on six days’ notice. Jones fights Alexander Gustafsson (18-4 MMA, 10-4 UFC) in the main event, and the winner will become the new light heavyweight champion.
In late November or early December, Novitzky said he was aware there might be issues with Jones’ tests after UFC exec Donna Marcolini came to him and expressed concern over a pair of results that were classified as “pending.” The promotion has access to the exact dates and times of tests conducted by its anti-doping partner, USADA, whereas the public only receives weekly updates on the frequency of tests.
When Novitzky subsequently inquired about the undetermined tests, he said he was told the agency was conducting a study on the issue and to “stand by” for further explanation.
On Dec. 6, the bad news arrived via a letter from USADA, which informed the UFC and the NSAC of the “re-emergence” of the banned metabolite in August and September.
Unlike previous notifications, Novitzky said USADA wasn’t convinced Jones had again cheated. Along with the pair of positives, he’d also passed five tests, including four straight negatives between Sept. 22 and Nov. 14. After consulting with experts, the agency concluded the positive tests were the result of residual metabolites left over from Jones’ failed test in connection with his fight at UFC 214 in July 2017, and the re-emergence was the result of a “pulsing effect” that could make the metabolites disappear and reappear in the fighter’s system over an undetermined period of time.
Still, the ultimate decision on whether or not Jones could fight at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas rested with the NSAC, which was then set to regulate his comeback fight.
Initially, Novitzky said the commission didn’t balk at the results. NSAC officials were “concerned,” but indicated the positive tests weren’t their problem.
“Closer to a fight, we do take jurisdiction – (and) we will adopt these USADA tests,” he said of the commission’s response.
Everything changed, however, when the results of Jones’ Dec. 9 drug test came back. It again showed trace amounts of the M3 metabolite in the same range as the previous tests.
Novitzky said he met with NSAC Executive Director Bob Bennett and chairman Anthony Marnell on Dec. 20 in the UFC’s Las Vegas offices.
“They did not say, ‘This fight’s absolutely not happening next week,’” Novitzky said. “In fact, they, I think, were understanding of these issues, but said, look, optically, this doesn’t look great, and we feel that out of an abundance of caution, we feel we need to have a public hearing and be very transparent about this, because this, this is some weird (expletive).”
According to Novitzky, Marnell indicated he understood the issues at play in Jones’ case. But, he added, other commissioners might not agree and indicated the promotion was taking a risk by waiting for a formal hearing that could be delayed until Dec. 27 or Dec. 28.
“You’re taking a chance here that we could say, well, we need more information,” Novitzky said of Marnell’s reaction. “They were willing to listen to it but didn’t feel that they were up to speed enough on it.”
In a written statement about the timeline of events leading up to UFC 232’s move, Bennett didn’t specifically dispute Novitzky’s comments.
“I anticipate your questions being addressed by chairman Marnell, our commissioners and expert witnesses, during our commission hearing to specifically address Mr. Jones tests and the various results of those tests,” Bennett wrote.
Bennett also indicated Jones’ failed tests had been mischaracterized by USADA, which initially announced Jones’ Dec. 9 sample had returned an “atypical” finding.
“The results reported (by the World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited drug testing lab in Salt Lake City) were ‘Adverse Analytical Finding,’ not atypical,” Bennett wrote. “To the best of my recollection over the last four-and-a-half years I don’t ever recall the results from (the lab) reported as ‘atypical.’”
USADA reps declined to comment on Novitzky’s interview, saying a statement they released on Sunday was the organization’s only statement on the issue.
After the Dec. 20 meeting, Novitzky said the UFC focused on moving the event to California, whose state athletic commission had recently granted Jones receive a temporary license to fight.
California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) Executive Director Andy Foster had forcefully advocated for Jones during a hearing earlier this month and criticized USADA for delaying the resolution of his case.
“With the re-emergence (of the metabolite), Andy and the commission, unlike Nevada, didn’t need to get up to speed on it,” Novitzky said. “They’ve already had two public hearings on Jon’s issue. They were intimately familiar with some of the dynamics of this drug and this metabolite.”
As for critics who’ve accused the UFC of shopping for a commission to sanction a fight that couldn’t get made in Nevada, Novitzky forcefully denied he would ever be involved in such a move.
“If you would have told UFC, ‘Look, this is still remnants from a year-and-a-half ago, but we can’t rule out that he’s not getting a performance-enhancing benefit from it,’ well in that instance, I would leave this company if somebody told me otherwise,” he said. “If there was any indication that there would be a benefit from him, even though it technically wasn’t a violation, I’m not going to stand by anybody that licenses that guy to fight.”