Jon Jones Gets UFC Push as Drug Tests, Suspicions Mount

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By Pete Hoffman

UFC is beginning to plot out the next few major events of 2019, while still waiting to hear on the status of superstars such as Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Daniel Cormier, Stipe Miocic, and Brock Lesnar. But one star is ready for a quick turnaround: Jon Jones, who successfully reclaimed his light-heavyweight-title (which he never actually lost) on Dec. 29 versus Alexander Gustafsson, following a 17-month hiatus. Jones is now scheduled to defend his belt against No. 3-ranked Anthony “Lionheart” Smith on March 2 at UFC 235, booked for T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

But not so fast. Jones is waiting on a Jan. 29 hearing with the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) to grant him a license to fight in the state. Nurmagomedov and McGregor are set to appear in front of the NSAC on the same date to find out punishment for their roles in the brawl after their main event at UFC 229.

Nevada would not license Jones for the Gustafsson fight after traces of the banned substance Turinabol were found in Jones’ system in a drug test conducted earlier in December. Jones tested positive for the same substance in the lead-up to his previous fight (a KO victory over Cormier at UFC 214 in July 2017, later changed to a no-contest), which led to a lengthy suspension. Jones denied any new ingestion of banned substances, and UFC executives led by Dana White backed him. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) said the latest results were consistent with a residual effect from the prior year's exposure. That led to UFC 232 being relocated to California, which accepted the explanation for the positive test and agreed to quickly rubber-stamp Jones, on just six days’ notice. 

Jones is a mega-talented fighter whose only pro loss came via disqualification. His résumé also includes arrests for DUI and for his role in a hit-and-run incident, plus a positive test for cocaine. He has been adamant in denying his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong were adamant, too. 

Now UFC seems to be making a great effort to get Jones back in the cage — and as soon as possible. Though he tested positive again leading up to his most recent fight, Jones being granted his license to fight by the NSAC seems a fait accompli.

Sports doping expert Bryan Fogel told “Outside the Cage” he thinks the handling of the Jones situation has been a bit off. Fogel is the director of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Icarus,” which depicts Fogel’s amateur efforts to use performance-enhancing drugs and circumvent doping authorities — in the process, he stumbles onto a major scandal involving the state-sponsored doping of Russia’s Olympic team.

“Everything at the end of the day is, follow the money,” Fogel said of his suspicions around UFC backing the alibi for Jones’ test results and pushing for his approval by the NSAC. Jones is a star, money-making attraction for UFC: Moving UFC 232 to the Los Angeles area suggested the rushed relocation cost the promotion less financially than pulling Jones off the card altogether. 

But Fogel saved his biggest critique for Jeff Novitzky, the former federal agent who investigated the use of banned substances in baseball, cycling and the Olympics and is now the VP of Athlete Health and Performance for UFC. Fogel said Novitzky’s credentials do not qualify him for the high-ranking UFC role: “He’s not a scientist, he’s not an expert in anti-doping, he doesn’t run a lab, and this guy is essentially calling the shots for the UFC?” 

Here’s a slightly out-there solution: Instead of suspensions for failed drug tests, perhaps it should be a financial punishment. Test positive, and your opponent (assuming he or she tests clean, of course) keeps your purse. 

Until the cycle is broken, Jones will keep coming back and fighting, the UFC will keep making money, and fans will keep questioning whether or not Jones is cheating.

Follow Pete Hoffman, Isaac Feldman and Outside the Cage for all your MMA and UFC coverage. Listen to their weekly Outside the Cage podcast.