UFC's Lorenzo Fertitta discusses new random drug testing efforts
Jon Jones was the center of attention in a gym packed with elite fighters. This, in itself, was not unusual. It was only natural that the throng of media that had descended upon the Jackson-Winkeljohn Mixed Martial Arts facility in Albuquerque last Thursday would be drawn to the shimmering light that surrounds the UFC light heavyweight champion, the top dog, pound for pound, in his sport. Especially with Jones in his final weeks of preparation for his April 26 title defense against Glover Teixeira at UFC 172 in Baltimore.
But it wasn't Jones's training regimen that was so attention-grabbing on this day. It was the little white bandage on his right arm. Minutes earlier, a representative of the Maryland State Athletic Commission had shown up unannounced and collected urine and blood samples from the champ. The challenger would be visited later that day for the same purpose.
In a sport where drug screening typically involves no more than a commission asking select athletes to pee in a cup on fight night, this random testing during the weeks of training camp -- with blood work included, which allows for more sensitive testing and detects more substances -- was taking the to-catch-a-cheat process to a more rigorous, more serious level.
It was not entirely unprecedented for the UFC. But the only previous random testing had been conducted by a commission with reason to be suspicious. Prior to Josh Barnett's bout with Travis Browne in December, the Nevada State Athletic Commission had requested that the fighters be randomly and repeatedly tested, presumably because Barnett twice had been flagged for performance enhancing drugs before fights in Las Vegas (and later had a California fight with Fedor Emelianenko canceled because he popped for steroids).
This time there was no red flag. Neither Jones nor Teixeira has ever tested positive for a PED. But the champion had requested the enhanced testing -- "I just think it would be great to know that the athletes that are competing are competing clean," Jones told the Fox Sports 1 show UFC Tonight -- and Maryland had agreed to undertake it. For the UFC, this was a first.
It won't be a last.
"I think it's going to be something that continues to happen on a pretty regular basis going forward," UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told SI.com on Monday evening.
Why is that for the fight promotion to determine rather than an athletic commission? It's a money matter. Enhanced testing costs more than state-funded sanctioning bodies can budget for on an ongoing basis. In both the Jones vs. Teixeira and Barnett vs. Browne random testing circumstances, the UFC had agreed to foot the bill.
"We've always tried to do whatever we can to embrace and encourage the commissions to test as much as they possibly can," said Fertitta. "Unfortunately for most commissions, they're restrained from a budgetary standpoint. They just don't have the resources to handle random testing because there's a lot more that goes into how it's done. In order for the program to be successful, it truly needs to be random and it needs to be pretty in-depth."
For a promotion that is hurting for top-tier talent at the moment, with four of its champions injured and another off making a movie, enhanced testing comes at a risk. The UFC's professed desire for a cleaned-up sport has to be tempered by the sobering possibility that at some point a big fight might be jettisoned by a failed drug test. In light of that and other potential conflicts of interest one might see in a promotion funding a commission's procedure, Fertitta was quick to stress that, beyond this planning stage, the UFC's involvement in enhanced testing will be only in writing the checks.
"We have nothing to do with the testing other than they send us a bill to pay for it. That's it," he said. "It's all done third party, all done the right way. They get the results sent directly to them and then they deal with the situation, the fighter. It's out of our hands."
Fertitta also deflects any suggestion that this sudden introduction of enhanced testing is the UFC's response to recent criticism by former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who has said that a primary reason he stepped away from the sport was a lack of a stringent program to detect PEDs. Although company president Dana White has repeatedly insisted that St-Pierre never brought up drug testing when he sat down with White and Fertitta shortly after announcing his sabbatical, Fertitta acknowledged that the matter was part of their discussion.
"We had a very, very good conversation about what his concerns were," said the executive. "We kind of got all of that out on the table." Fertitta told St-Pierre that the UFC already was working with commissions on creating an enhanced testing program. "I think it was pretty clear to him, hopefully, that we embrace it," he said. "We want to make sure that we have the highest standard of any sport. So I think we're on the same page as Georges."
What does that page look like, exactly? Fertitta had no details to offer on how the UFC will proceed from here. "We're trying to work with various commissions now to figure out how we can put systems in place to ensure that all of these guys are tested," he said. "Tested randomly, tested out of competition, in competition, every which way they can be."
Fertitta would not even specify what he meant by "all of these guys." Will the promotion seek to have just the participants in every championship fight randomly tested? Or will the enhanced program extend even beyond that to, say, the main eventers on every card? "Sometimes these things take a little time to actually get put in place where you can effectively manage it," he said. "Sometimes the media just wants everything to happen yesterday. We're doing it. It's all starting to happen now."