According to U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, the relationship between the USADA and the UFC began to break down this past summer.
That’s when UFC CEO Dana White said there was a “100 percent” chance Conor McGregor could fight this year. White also pushed back on the anti-doping agency’s assertion that the ex-champ, returning from a broken leg suffered at UFC 264, needed to enroll in the UFC’s anti-doping program for at least six months before fighting.
“Who cares what USADA says?” White told TSN this past July.
The UFC CEO later backtracked in a fiery rant largely directed at the media’s use of his quote, but the message to Tygart was clear. The UFC never asked the USADA to give McGregor an exemption that would allow him to fight earlier, Tygart told MMA Fighting, but the promotion didn’t need to.
“They didn’t [ask for an exemption] in part because they knew what our position was, because we made it crystal clear with them, in writing and in conversation, and publicly when we made the statements that we did,” Tygart said. “But they for sure didn’t like the statements we made.”
On Monday, Tygart said he was on a call with UFC executives when they informed him the promotion was “going in a different direction” and would not renew its contract with the non-profit organization, which had run the UFC anti-doping program since 2015.
“They said something about their own tailored program, or flexible program, set costs, and I pressed them on the cost, because we gave them one number that was very consistent with the past eight years’ numbers, including inflation and pool size, athlete size increases and that kind of stuff,” Tygart said. “And we never heard another peep about the number. Never a question about, ‘Can we cut some here? This seems too high.’
“It was now financial suddenly, and I said that that rings very hollow, because this is the first you’ve ever, you know, the day we have a scheduled call about it, you tell me that costs are an issue, when they’ve never been before, and you all are now valued at $12 billion, and $7 million dollars to a $12 billion company is frankly peanuts. So what’s really going on here?”
Tygart said he never got an answer. (The UFC did not respond immediately to MMA Fighting for a request for comment on his characterization of the conversation.)
Tygart said the UFC’s lofty valuation “doesn’t happen in large part without a USADA-run program,” and the promotion’s previous executive team understood the agency’s contribution to the sport and its athletes. Under new leadership and new financial targets, he speculated USADA’s place was no longer secure.
“Look, for sports organizations, and for a $100 million-plus fighter, that’s a lot of control to give up, especially when you’re a publicly traded company and you’re most concerned now about your bottom line,” Tygart said. “I hope they honor at least the six months, but time will tell.”
As of Jan. 1, 2024, Conor McGregor’s six-month testing window will no longer be the USADA’s concern. Tygart expects the UFC to hire another firm that falls short of the anti-doping agency’s standards.
“There are some private companies out there,” he said. “Some of them are owned by venture capital firms or private equity firms, and they’re willing to run any kind of program, whether it has credibility or not, if they can make a little bit of a profit. And so my guess is they’ll get some sample collection company that does that.
“[Drug Free Sport International], for example, and some other even professional sport that does it, and then they’ll probably try to subcontract out with a laboratory, and then UFC likely will handle all the results will be my guess. So they’ll bring it in house and control every aspect to it: who’s tested, what’s tested for, at what times they’re tested, send out collectors to go test it. I don’t know, but that’s my prediction for sure.
“That’s not a model that comes close, probability-wise and effectiveness-wise. But that’s the model you can control and get the results that you want when you want them, without the same level of openness and transparency and independence that our program provides.”
The USADA was regularly criticized by MMA observers for a lack of transparency and inconsistency in adjudicating the cases of athletes accused of anti-doping violations. Some of that could be attributed to the ever-changing science of performance-enhancing drugs and the tests designed to catch them – and the willingness of athletes to challenge the USADA’s findings. But almost all fighters agreed the type of testing – random, out-of-competition testing – was the best way to clean up the sport.
UFC heavyweight Curtis Blaydes once said he was more than willing to submit his whereabouts to the USADA for year-round testing. “If they get one guy a year, then it’s worth it,” he told MMA Fighting in 2017. “That’s one less cheater in the UFC.”
Tygart joked at least one UFC fighter had “a bounty on my head,” but he stressed the majority of fighters approved of the anti-doping program, citing job approval surveys of fighters.
“They overwhelmingly support the program and to many athletes, it’s why they got involved with the program,” he said. “Their athletes are independent contractors, so it’s tough that they don’t have the rights and the voice that they really should have, and we were sort of a glimmer of hope for them in that, that we were gonna be here to protect them and support them. And now that rug’s been pulled out from under their legs, and that’s really sad and unfortunate.
“We initially got involved with this program back in 2015 because athletes came to us, and there were several UFC athletes at the time who literally approached us and almost begged us to get involved, because it was so dirty and it was the wild, wild west. The UFC recognized they needed credibility, and as recently as late March talked about our credibility, and I think one of their leaders said the reason they chose us originally was because we’re not here for anything other than doing what’s right for clean sport. We don’t have a business interest, but we’re here for clean sport and the rights of clean athletes.”
Tygart said the UFC’s decision to part ways with the USADA doesn’t erase the agency’s work over the past eight years. He said the USADA will remain in MMA via the PFL, handling the tournament-based promotion’s drug testing program.
The USADA turned into a visible thorn in White’s side over the issue of Conor McGregor, but Tygart said the promotion wouldn’t have done anything differently to keep its relationship with the UFC.
“Certainly not us, other than compromise our integrity for money, which we don’t do and never have done, and have been in this situation many times where people want us to do that,” he said. “That would have made it work, but we were unwilling to do that.”