Earlier this month, Jon Jones returned to the UFC’s octagon in his heavyweight debut against former interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane, which ended Jones’ three-year layoff from the sport. The former light heavyweight champion, nicknamed Bones, became a two-division champion after submitting Gane with a guillotine choke two minutes into the first round.
With his illustrious career consisting of a record 15 title fight victories, many fans believe him to be the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. Dana White, the president of the UFC, called Jones the ‘GOAT’ in a UFC 285 post-fight press conference. The interview wouldn’t be the first time White sided with Jones. When negotiations between Jones and heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou failed, Jones temporarily retired from fighting. Following Jones’ departure from the sport, the organization began to defame Ngannou, with White saying that Ngannou didn’t want to fight Jones and that Jones would easily handle him.
The favouritism in the UFC shows becomes even more astonishing when considering Jones’ past controversies. July 2016 would mark his first encounter with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), as he tested positive for clomiphene and letrozole metabolites before a rematch against long-time rival Daniel Cormier. Jones claimed the metabolites were due to his usage of tadalafil, an erectile dysfunction medication, but the USADA still issued him a one-year ban.
Following his return in July 2017, Bones knocked out his long-time rival Cormier in the third round, reclaiming the light heavyweight throne. A month later, Jones had his second encounter with USADA after receiving news of a failed drug test in which he tested positive for Turinabol. Since this was his second violation of USADA’s rules, he faced a suspension of up to four years but only served a reduced suspension of 15 months. Despite independent arbitrator Richard McLaren’s decision that Jones’ use of prohibited substances was unintentional, fans and fighters alike, including the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Curtis Blaydes, and Luke Rockhold, voiced their beliefs that the USADA was playing favourites.
More recently, in 2019, USADA made changes to their anti-doping policy, targeting eight substances and increasing the threshold level that needs to be broken in order for a fighter to test positive. Under the new levels, none of Jones’ previous samples would have tested positive. In media interviews leading up to his latest bout against Gane, Jones expressed relief at being “officially cleared.” He mentioned he was “grateful to be the athlete who fought the system.”
The favouritism seen here does not end with Jones but extends to other superstars within the UFC, such as Ronda Rousey. Due to a lack of public information regarding the athletes registered in the USADA’s testing pool, athletes are able to temporarily retire, thus exempting themselves from substance testing until their return. Rousey is one such example, with White claiming that the former women’s bantamweight champion was still being tested after her supposed retirement at the end of 2016. However, the USADA’s database of all tests conducted proved this to be false by showing that Rousey wasn’t tested in all of 2017.
Injuries mark another avenue to exploit this loophole, with Conor McGregor suspected of taking this path following his departure from the sport and the testing pool due to a broken left fibula and tibia. Unofficially dubbed the “McGregor rule,” USADA enforced new protocols regarding reentry after Mcgregor’s departure from the USADA testing pool. Specifically, it now requires athletes to remain in their testing pool for six months before entering into a bout. However, suspicion regarding the uniform application of anti-doping rules arose once again following McGregor’s claims on The MMA Hour that the USADA informed him that it only required two tests upon his return, rather than the six-month protocol.
The favouritism the UFC shows to star athletes like Jones and McGregor sets a dangerous precedent for the company. It creates an unfair dynamic in which those with the resources, fame and organizational support can gain an advantage through performance-enhancing drugs with a lack of consequences. Prospects within the UFC face the brunt of the USADA’s inability to regulate performance enhancing drug usage, having to face already-established fighters who may be taking advantage of the loopholes present.