Few things appear to shock Jeff Novitzky but being nominated as ‘Leading Man’ in the FO World MMA Awards was certainly one of them, after his four-year tenure spearheading a role as the UFC’s drug tzar. “I’m guessing they just needed a spot to fill, but I appreciate it,” Novitsky, speaking from his office at UFC headquarters in Las Vegas, told Fighters Only Magazine. “Isn’t this the kind of thing that is reserved for my boss, Dana White?”
Novitzky came into the UFC in 2015 under a fanfare as the fight league insisted it would be stamping out drugs cheats. Enter the former agent with the US Food and Drug Administration, investigating the use of steroids in professional sports. Before April 2008 he was a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service who investigated the use of steroids. His most known work was linked to the weeding out of drugs cheats Lance Armstrong in cycling, Marion Jones in athletics and Barry Bonds in baseball.
Starting in April 2015, Novitzky was appointed the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance.
“You’d think everything would be ironed out after four years, but it continues on a daily basis. Controversy and issues arise every day and it’s very difficult to please everybody,” explained Novitzky, admitting he had never realised the scale of the job, nor indeed the vehemence that would be expressed by both MMA media and on social media towards his role – and drugs cases in MMA.
“I was under-prepared, definitely,” he revealed. “There was a certain amount of unknown coming into this, because I’d never overseen the administration of an anti-doping program. I was very familiar with anti-doping across sport and world wide, but I didn’t have experience in the every day overseeing job. I expected to see some new things, but looking back after four years I was clearly under-prepared for it. There’s been a lot of learning and it has continued to this day.”
“I’m learning something new weekly, if not daily, and I’m identifying something in the program that could be tweaked to make it better. This is definitely a field where you have to keep an open mind and be open to learning. Literally, anti-doping is developing by the day. New testing methods, new regulations, new whereabouts filings – there’s clearly a lot of challenges in a program like this.”
One of the things he was under-prepared for was the criticism (there was even criticism of his nomination for the award). “I pay a little bit of attention to that, but that’s a real balancing act. There’s a certain aspect of my job where I need to be aware of what’s being said. If a narrative turns a certain way that’s inaccurate and our fighters start believing it, I need to be aware that that’s being said. I would love to turn my phone and social media off and not pay attention, but there’s an element of this job where I have to pay attention. It’s similar to when I was an agent. That was experience I brought with me and that has helped me.”
Looking back, pre-UFC, the (very tall) 51 year old explained: “In the days of the Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong investigations, there were strong fans and supporters of theirs who were critical of how we did things. We had to answer to that. Even through my agencies, it was rare for a field agent to be talking to someone from Washington DC where all these agencies have their headquarters. I was regularly on the phone with heads of agencies who were questioning why I was doing it. My past career definitely helped me address the criticism and leave emotions out of it. I can ignore them or if they do get traction, address them. They told me when I got this job part of it would be to play point publicly when issues came up.”
But is it possible to ‘enjoy’ the role, in a sport where it is no secret that there was once a unsaid but known culture of taking banned or performance-enhancing substances. “At the end of the day, absolutely I take pride in what I’m doing. The days aren’t easy and there are literally no days off in this job. I’ve never had a job like that truly. This isn’t a Monday through Friday, 9-5 job. It’s seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Your phone always has to be on. You have to check emails literally hourly or you will be trying to dig yourself out from under a pile.”
“But yes, I am enjoying the hell out of it for two reasons. Number one, the majority of feedback I get from our fighters is they’re happy this is in place. Even thought it’s a pain in the ass and a burden to be woken up early and kept up late, kept away from my family, and after a big win to have to stick a needle in a fighter’s arm, my overriding feeling is that these athletes don’t get the respect they should for adhering to this program. It’s a burden. But I think the majority of them realise this burden is so worthwhile because this is the truest form of human competition that’s out there. Someone who is enhanced in this competition is not just an ethical or morale issue, we’re talking about the health and safety of human beings. That’s one reason why I love it. The other side is who I work for, Dana White. The tone he sets and how innovative and groundbreaking he is. He’s always thinking of new and exciting ideas to bring the company forward and it’s really exciting to be part of that.”
Novitzky is adamant that the best possible testing system is in place at present, with the fighters signed up for random testing with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). There are facile arguments out there, he insisted, that fighters might be treated differently. “Every case and the way it’s adjudicated is based on following the evidence and facts. Everybody argues one fighter was treated different to another, but every case has its own unique set of facts and circumstances. USADA – they’re adjudicating -and my role is an oversight role to make sure each of these cases are being properly adjudicated, understand the process, and publicly explain it. In the four years I’ve been here and all the cases we’ve had, I think they’ve been spot on with following the evidence and the facts of each individual case. It’s different in each and every case and that’s why they get handled different.”
Novitzky, who should be given credit for his pioneering zeal in the area, has had two extremely high profile cases in the last six months involving TJ Dillashaw and Jon Jones, both UFC champions, and both different cases and outcomes.
“In terms of the time of sanctions, and there was criticism for TJ Dillashaw’s recently after he tested positive for a very powerful substance. EPO is probably the most effective substance out there for a fighter in terms of endurance, recovery and strength. Is two years really enough? In my experience when it comes to these bans, you should set that bar high enough so there is a deterrence, but you don’t go necessarily above and beyond that with lifetime bans.”
Novitzky likens it to be the equivalent of “having the death penalty for murder but let’s put it with shoplifting and that way we’ll eliminate it”.
“We need a deterrent, and a very strong one. That being said, my role is to keep an eye on that. If we continue to see people getting popped for EPO and they take two years off for surgeries and come back feeling better than ever, then we need to change that. That’s something I’m consistently looking at and evaluating. As we sit here today I think our sanction level is an effective deterrent. I think you talk to athletes and we’ve had several who have been suspended, even the two-year suspended athletes call it a nightmare. It feels like forever. I think the bans are appropriate. But I get the argument that it can be increased. I’m looking to make sure our sanctioning level is high enough for it to be a deterrent.”
The psychology of a case like TJ Dillashaw remains fascinating. Why would a UFC champion, respected and at the top of the game, suddenly cheat ? Novitzky had been public that Dillashaw had been tested previously and that EPO had never shown up.
“I’ve had a lot of experience with athletes across sports, but the mental and psychology side in the pinnacle of MMA is off the charts as it relates to any other sport,” mused the administrator. “There’s nothing (in any other sport) that even compares to it. The aloneness of being in the octagon by yourself with tens of thousands watching you and millions on tv, there’s no one to rely on there except yourself. Not only are you exposed as not being as skilled a fighter, you can get seriously hurt in there by fighting an elite fighter. We’re on a different level here in terms of that mental game.”
Explained Novitzky: ” A lot of the time these substances that are prohibited, it’s something that can give you that mental edge and crutch. That was an interesting thing with athletes, whether cyclists or fighters. They felt the physical effects, but the mental edge made them feel invincible. The self doubt completely goes away. You’re dealing with two aspects when you’re dealing with the temptations of taking these things. You’re dealing with the physical and mental edge it gives you. This is a game where you wouldn’t believe it, some of the most intimidating dudes and girls on our roster are literally scared to death before they walk out to the octagon. I’ve had those talks with them. You wouldn’t believe it. They might talk like they’re invincible, but they’ll confide in me they can barley function when they’re warming up because they’re so fearful of what might happen after they make that walk.”
“Boxing is a lot of the same. What other sport do you have where you can’t go out and warm up in the place so you can get a sense of what they crowd will be or how close the seats are ? These guys and girls are walking out completely blind, thrown into the spotlight and then told three or four minutes later: ‘Go’. That’s just an incredible thing in sport. I don’t think you see that in sport anywhere else. Everywhere else you’re allowed to go out, get a feel for it and let the butterflies go down. Every fighter I’ve spoken to says the butterflies don’t go down until you get punched in the face three or four times.”
Then there is the Jon Jones case and Novitzky opens up completely, explaining the fascinating story of how he how he had to follow guidelines to switch Jones versus Gustafsson from Las Vegas to Los Angeles at the turn of the New Year. “Earlier I said every case follows the facts and circumstances of that one case and Jon is just very unique. What those facts and circumstances are over the course of this program is that Jon has served a total of three and a half years of suspensions where he’s not been able to fight.”
“In fines, he’s paid several hundred of dollars. In terms of earnings in those suspensions, he’s probably lost ten of millions of dollars. For those out there who say Jon got off lightly with a slap on the wrist, I would argue that is absolutely not the case. Jon is probably the most punished or sanctioned athlete under this program.”
“What the evidence shows that in both of those cases there is no evidence that he did anything with the intention to cheat. Did he make some bad life decisions that likely lead to those (first) positive tests? Absolutely. The second time is somewhat similar. The only thing that showed up in his system was these metabolites. There was never the parent compound or the short-term or mid-term metabolites. What scientists and experts have told me – I’m just a parrot when it comes to science – is they don’t know when or how this prohibited substance got into his system. Unfortunately he can’t show when and how that was so there’s some strict liability there. But yeah, these are just unique circumstances. I haven’t seen one piece of evidence since I’m here that Jon Jones is intentionally cheating or using something to get an advantage.”
It was Andy Foster, head of the California Commission, who had originally suspended Jones, but then allowed the switch from Nevada to California after his required measures from Jones and Novitzky. “I wouldn’t say vindication, I was happy we had somebody (Foster) who is as intelligent and intimately familiar with the Jon Jones case as Andy was.”
“If Jon had not been sanctioned in California and had Andy not been following the case because of that, I’m not sure Andy would have been comfortable at that point.”
Here’s what happened after Nevada said ‘NO’ to Jones and the UFC. “I called Andy Saturday morning. Friday night he agreed, he said we could have the fight in California but he needed a test from him this weekend that shows nothing is in his system. I thought I could pull it off and I started making calls. Friday and Saturday night making calls. I’m finding no laboratories open in New Mexico and I finally find a lab in California, but now I can’t find any commercial flights available to get Jon to California.”
Novitzky was beside himself. “I called Andy back and I said I didn’t know if I could get it done. His answer was ‘Jeff, you have contacts all over the world and you need to get this done’. I hung that phone up and thought ‘Oh Jeez, this was all on me’. Dana came in the room. I asked him would Lorenzo (Fertotta) have a plane available and he checked. And yeah, Lorenzo saved that fight. If not for his plane, that fight wouldn’t have happened. Myself and Hunter Campbell left Las Vegas, we flew to Albuquerque and picked up Jon. We then flew to Los Angeles and had a car waiting for us there. We drove to the laboratory. We were there five minutes while Jon gave his sample and signed some paperwork. We then drove back to the plane, flew from Los Angeles to New Mexico and Hunter and I landed in Vegas at about midnight. When we landed we had a text from the laboratory saying his sample was clean. I was supposed to go home that Wednesday and see my kids and I didn’t get home until Christmas Eve that Monday. That’s part of the job. It doesn’t happen every event but I’m expected, especially if it falls in my wheelhouse, to be there. I wasn’t the only one. There was more employees in production and elsewhere that probably had to work through Christmas to get this thing done. I’m not one to complain about what that did to my holidays. But I tell you what – it made me appreciate getting home to my kids a lot more than had I been home the Wednesday before.”
In answer to any critique of the use of USADA by the UFC, Novitzky explained: “It’s interesting about VADA and USADA, I’ve read some criticism in the boxing world that VADA is catching all these cheats and USADA isn’t.”
But here’s the rub, per the drugs tzar. “They send their samples to the exact same laboratory. The one is the Sports Medicine Research Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City. It’s even the exact same staff. They don’t even know who the samples belong to, by the way, they come in with a number. They’re all treated the same. Whether it’s NCAA or Major League Baseball or VADA collected. They’re all tested blindly there. The technicians have no idea who the samples belong to.”
“If something shows up on a number, USADA is in charge of checking who the sample relates to. USADA’s required to have every report out of that laboratory to go to WADA. So there’s oversight. There’s no ability to bury a positive test that came back from SMRTL. I’m not trying to disparage VADA, they’ve got a good program. But the criticism that VADA is somehow better than USADA, there’s no facts or basis to make that case.”
“We’re really happy with USADA. I don’t think we could have gone any other direction to start with because of the global nature of the UFC. USADA has all those contacts in place already so whether you’re in the jungle or Brazil or on top of a mountain in Russia, they have the people in place who can make those collections. The best thing is the independent nature of USADA. It really should be somebody separate from the promotion itself or else business interest could come into play. Fighters might think people might be treated differently based on their earnings within the UFC, but you can’t let that happen or else athlete will lose trust. I don’t care how strong your program is, if your athletes don’t have faith in the system, it’s over.”
Novitzky is content with the blueprint going forward, but there will be innovations, as he explained. Faster, easier, cheaper, more widespread. “I think we’ve got the UFC program pretty settled. That’s not to say we won’t tweak it and evaluate to make it stronger and fairer. My vision or my goal here is to use in this program new, more efficient and cheaper technology,” he told me.
“We can potentially be a pilot program for these new technologies. We’ve already started one with these dry blood spot testing. Instead of having an phlebotomist come and draw blood out of the vein, we now have these small leeching devices. You place it on your arm and these small micro-needles puncture and a couple drops of blood come out of your arm. You don’t even feel it.”
“The visiting testing officials then put that blood on a piece of paper, seal the paper and then send it in the mail to the laboratory. They can read from those small blood spots most of the same things they can from a vial of blood. You’re talking about a decrease in cost of hundreds of dollars per test there. My goal is to continue to try and develop and pilot technologies so that no amateur or sport promotion will no longer have the excuse of it being the cost. I would love to use this program to make anti-doping as a whole cheaper so not just MMA, but all sports can implement his technology in ten to twenty years from now. It doesn’t matter if you’re NFL or high school football, you can have a low cost anti-doping program. That’s the goal, that’s the dream.”
Leading Men are pioneers. And that is why Jeff Novitzky is one this years nominated figures in the World MMA Awards.
This Article First Appeared In Fighters Only Magazine.