By Philip O’Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 18-month-old anti-doping program may be making waves but its designer Jeff Novitzky, who came to prominence chasing high-profile drug cheats like cyclist Lance Armstrong and sprinter Marion Jones, says it is definitely helping clean up the sport.
The UFC will host its first title fight of 2017 at UFC 208 in Denver on Saturday, with former bantamweight champ Holly Holm meeting Germaine de Randamie to decide who becomes the organization’s first women’s featherweight champion.
Both fighters will be well aware that if Cris “Cyborg” Justino hadn’t failed a dope test in December, she would be fighting for that belt.
Justino joins a growing list of big-name fighters like Jon “Bones” Jones and Brock Lesnar – both former title-holders – who have fallen foul of Novitzky’s new program, which is administered by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
“We expected early on that there was probably going to be some bumps and bruises and high-profile positives and there was,” Novitzky told Reuters in an interview at the UFC offices in Las Vegas, Nevada, recently.
“But in terms of judging the success of a program, I like to interact with our fighters and with our camps and those that have been around the sport for a long time. And the feedback I’m getting from them is that it has made a significant difference.”
The former United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official was brought on board as the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance in April 2015 with a view to dealing with its doping problems.
Much of the UFC’s revenue comes from pay-per-view TV sales which take a hit when fighters like Jones, who tested positive ahead of a title fight last July, are banned from competition.
But Novitzky says the organization cannot turn a blind eye to doping, while the independence enjoyed by USADA ensures the process is fair.
“I was pretty depressed after the Jon Jones scenario happening so close to such a landmark event, UFC 200,” the tall, shaven-headed 49-year-old admits.
“But I was really uplifted the days after that, as I was approached by other fighters and coaches and basically they all said, ‘Wow! If we didn’t think this was a real program before, we certainly do now’.
Novitzky said Jones’ ban may have hurt the company but it helped win the athletes’ trust and respect for the program.
“The beautiful thing is that the program is transparent, so any other fighters, fans, camps can go online to the USADA website and look at the numbers and see how many times Conor McGregor is tested on a quarterly or yearly basis,” Novitzky explained.
The California native said that the kind of banned substances used deliberately in the UFC “runs the gamut” from steroids to growth hormones, and that fighters also need to be particularly careful when it comes to nutritional supplements.
And the authorities need to work harder to catch the cheats, he said.
“I think governments across the world can do a much, much better job.”
Novitzky says it is practically impossible to eliminate doping completely but strong sanctions imposed on high-profile athletes ensure that athletes now think twice before cheating.
“A first-time offence under this program can be anywhere from two to four years, and that’s the level where the risk starts getting up to a level where it definitely outweighs the reward,” he said.
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)