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This Controversial Theory in Pro Fighting Could Change Drug Testing for All Sports

The ‘pulsing effect’ can be used to explain away any positive test

The main event of UFC 232 — rangy, skilled striker Alexander Gustafsson versus returning light heavyweight great Jon “Bones” Jones — was supposed to be an incredible rematch from UFC 165, when Jones escaped with a narrow victory. But before either of them could climb back inside the octagon, the bout was more or less derailed by a drug test turning up trace amounts of the steroid turinabol in Jones’ bloodstream, forcing the UFC to quickly relocate the fight to California from Nevada after that state’s athletic commission reported that it lacked sufficient time to investigate the results.

Jones, who has failed drug tests before, drew predictable jeers from rivals like Daniel Cormier, whose second and much more conclusive loss to Jones was changed to a “no contest” after “Bones” tested positive for turinabol. “I mean, shit, he should [have defeated Gustafsson]! Dude starts with a head start every time,” Cormier tweeted. “A pinch of turinabol in an Olympic-sized pool from 2017 that stays in your system for eighteen months … that’s a joke.”

But the USADA — the nonprofit drug-testing agency established by the U.S. Olympic Committee and funded by the U.S. government that also serves as the UFC’s official testing body — chalked up the appearance of turinabol metabolites in Jones’s system to an alleged “pulsing effect” related to usage of the drug many months earlier. “All of the experts [we consulted] determined it was not a reingestion of the substance, but rather a very, very small amount that was occurring and still showing up but that did not provide any performance-enhancing benefit,” explained UFC Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance Jeff Novitzky, who then never bothered to explain the scientific basis for this conclusion.

Chad Macias, who serves as director of research at the Institute for Human Kinetics and helped prepare Gustafsson for his fight against Jones, pulled no punches when I ask him about this turn of events. (He will also be speaking to the Nevada Athletic Commission later this month in order to formally lodge his objections and possibly get Jones sanctioned.)

“If we let this one go without questioning USADA’s underlying evidence for their decision to allow Jones to fight, we will provide a way of institutionally protecting people who have failed drug tests and will continue to fail them,” Macias explains. “The existing scientific literature is quite clear that there’s a short detection window for the metabolite in question. Plenty of athletes have been using oral turinabol, precisely because it clears the system quickly, and because they could use USADA’s ‘pulsing’ theory to justify these periodic reappearances. And since USADA doesn’t maintain ‘biological passports’ for the athletes they test, the way the World Anti-Doping Agency does, you can’t even verify these minor variations in their blood tests over extended periods of time.”

In other words, drug testing in the UFC and possibly other sports federations could be rendered totally ineffectual due to a reliance on whatever undisclosed research has led USADA’s decision-makers to approve this “pulsing” theory.

“USADA isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act and has no obligation to observe due process as we would see in a criminal case,” says steroid expert and fitness journalist Anthony Roberts. “And their CEO, a lawyer, has written law-review articles gleefully noting how it’s good for USADA that they don’t have to answer to anyone. For them, doping is a strict liability offense. If the drug is in your body, and the test was valid, you’re guilty. The standard of proof is ‘comfortable satisfaction,’ not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ And now they’re further confusing matters by claiming the power to determine which of their positive tests are actually invalid.”

Combine a testing development like that with a sport like MMA, which has a long history of performance enhancement, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. During its glory days, MMA athletes were untested, and freakish performers such as Vitor Belfort and Ken Shamrock sported super-sized, obviously enhanced physiques. Later, after the introduction of various state athletic commission-supervised drug testing programs, some fighters availed themselves of testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) exemptions related to their alleged impotence and declining virility. That is, until the Nevada Athletic Commission banned TRT in 2014.

“Even before it got connected with USADA, the UFC was a mess,” says Macias. “I was working in 2014 with Phil Davis, who is about as freakishly talented as a naturally elite athlete can get, and he fought Brazilian Glover Teixeira at UFC 179 in Rio de Janeiro. Phil beat Glover in a good match, getting the decision, and then we got the drug testing results and you could see what a clown show this was. When we got our copy of the drug test, it was on a sheet of paper with ink smears and an uncentered header. For the first three fighters in the main event, the sheet read ‘no metabolite detected’ whereas Phil’s line simply read ‘tested negative’ — the verbiage was different for him for no apparent reason. This led me to believe they just threw the document together in a hurry and may not have even run any tests at all.

“More largely what it told us is that the UFC was claiming its local representatives did advanced drug testing, but they left this up to the Brazilian sports commission — and their scientists either screwed up the results or simply fabricated them. Phil left the UFC shortly after that and went to work for Bellator, which honestly isn’t any better in terms of drug testing but does give the athletes much more freedom in terms of wearing endorsements on ring attire and other promotional matters.”

In Macias’ opinion, Brazil — a country that’s produced many UFC champions — has long been a haven for performance-enhancing drug users. “In the early days of the sport, the Brazilians dominated, and this was supposedly because of their superior jiu-jitsu, but it was really because they were all doping and doping knowledge was widespread among fighters who trained in the various schools there. Now, if you listened to the recent Joe Rogan podcast with fighter Donald Cerrone, you’d learn that Jon Jones’ training center, Jackson Wink MMA, is a place where up-to-date steroid advice has been traded freely. Ex-fighter Brendan Schaub made the same accusations a few years earlier.”

Some fighters suspect that Jones returned to the sport after his third drug suspension only because he agreed to “narc” on training-camp associates, and Jackson Wink’s fighters have received a staggering number of USADA violations in recent years. But in Roberts’ informed opinion, doping at a high level and dodging USADA scrutiny is hardly a difficult task. “For an MMA fighter, a good steroid program wouldn’t be super-expensive,” he says. “The main problem would be obtaining pharmaceutical-grade products, without which the chance of cross-contamination is nearly 100 percent.

“Underground labs don’t have the sterilization procedures in place to not have each batch of drugs contaminated with sub-physiological but easily detectable amounts of other stuff. So a fighter thinks he’s using testosterone dosed low enough to avoid detection, but the glassware was used to brew another steroid and he ends up testing positive for that. I’d bet that half the guys who test positive for a drug that’s notoriously long-lasting are actually victims of cross-contamination.”

And there’s no shortage of designer drugs to supplement conventional steroids. “We’re talking mechano growth factor, insulin-like growth factor, testosterone and epitestosterone mixes [like the famous BALCO ‘cream,’ which increases testosterone while keeping the testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio within normal limits and thus prevent failed drug tests], growth hormone and xenon gas,” Roberts tells me. “Seriously, xenon gas. It’s hard to procure, because you need to purchase a huge canister. You inhale it and it increases your cardiovascular fitness, but it’s still undetectable.”

Even Macias’ Institute for Human Kinetics sells a host of performance-enhancing procedures, albeit ones that are legal in nearly all major sports federations. He lists a few of them directly for me, “Platelet-rich plasma injections, stem cell treatments, cryotherapy, ultraviolet light treatment, acupuncture. We help our clients by using all of these treatment modalities. The difference between these therapies and a steroid regimen is pretty clear: The treatments we provide are more expensive and work slower; the intention is to help clean athletes at least get back to their full potential in order to compete with dirty athletes who will fail drug tests.

“By contrast, steroids are a kind of no-brainer, albeit a no-brainer that can raise your cholesterol, raise the risk of heart disease and have other negative effects. Steroids can turn a Joe Average into something close to elite in a relatively short amount of time. The danger and the reward are both considerable. What I’m providing is reward without the danger to athletes like Usain Bolt, who have worked with me when they were recovering from injuries because this was a safer route — a route that will have better, more sustainable results over the long haul.”

So why, I press Macias, should any of us care that Gustafsson’s expensive but legal treatments were seemingly no match for Jones’ steroid-enhanced strength and stamina? “Because at the end of the day, the UFC claims it has a set of rules related to drug use, and it seems like we’re carving out a special exception to those rules for a top star like Jon Jones. He’s fighting another elite competitor in Gustafsson, but it isn’t anything close to a fair fight. In fact, it’s a waste of time and only interesting to fans if Gustafsson won in spite of that.

“Imagine if baseball carved out a special exemption related to impotence or infertility so that Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez could’ve kept hitting home runs, but denied that exemption to every other player. We can argue about what should and shouldn’t be legal, but while rules are in place, everyone ought to be held to them. Otherwise, why not just race, say, Usain Bolt against a cheetah, or a race car?”