Former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw will have to sit on the sidelines until January 2021 after he tested positive for the performance enhancing substance known as erythropoietin, more commonly referred to as EPO.
EPO is a synethic hormone used in blood doping that increases red blood cell production, which results in more oxygen intake to allow for greater endurance and conditioning. The use of EPO is typically seen in endurance sports such as cycling or running and Lance Armstrong famously admitted abusing the drug during his career.
As shocking as it was to find out Dillashaw was using EPO, another disturbing revelation surrounding his case was discovering that USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) only screens for the banned substance randomly but not with every drug test taken.
EPO has been notoriously hard to catch in the past because it has such a remarkably short half-life for detection in the human body — typically between 4 and 13 hours — and the testing is expensive.
Still, UFC president Dana White can’t believe that USADA isn’t doing more of that testing, especially considering the bill that they are footing to ensure fighters are competing on a level playing field.
“What shocked me is what I’m paying USADA and that, that didn’t get caught earlier,” White said following the UFC 236 weigh-ins on Friday. “That’s what shocked me. I know [Jeff] Novitzky came out and explained it. He knows better than I do but still there’s no excuse for that, in my opinion.
“It bothers me. We’re spending all this money for USADA to make sure there’s a fair playing field so I’m always 100-percent confident if you’re doing something, you’re going to get caught and that wasn’t the case. That bothers me.”
Jeff Novitzky, who is the UFC’s vice president of health and athlete performance, explained the difficulties in catching athletes using EPO, the cost involved and how the testing done by USADA is already more stringent than even the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
“All the testing is strategic testing. There’s a reason behind the test that they do,” Novitzky explained on Friday. “And when it comes to EPO analysis, what I believe they’re doing is passport information, so they’re looking at urine and blood markers over time. That data is put into a computer, and there’s an algorithm that would spit out something that would have a red flag or be a bit suspicious, and those fighters are the ones that they want to dedicate extra testing dollars to.
“Our EPO percentage, I was told this week, far outranks the WADA standard. So we test more EPO than the Olympic movement and probably more than any other professional sports organization out there. So add to that, I think we need to take a couple weeks and let things calm down. I know everybody’s excited now about this high-profile (case), but from what I know about from percentages, we have an effective program to detect EPO use.”
There were specific concerns raised about Dillashaw because last year his former teammate and past opponent Cody Garbrandt accused him of using EPO previously.
Because EPO testing is done randomly, there’s no way to know for certain if every sample that Dillashaw has ever submitted has included that particular test.
“As a part of our investigation for all positives, we review an athlete’s prior test history,” USADA officials said in a statement to MMAWeekly. “When it’s potentially relevant, we may request special analysis for those samples.
“Here, following our review, we conducted further analysis on his sample collected on December 28, 2018 and it also revealed the presence of EPO.”
It’s unknown if the testing frequency for EPO will change based on the complaints lodged in the wake of Dillashaw’s suspension or if Novitzky’s statement rings true that as much as possible is already being done based on the difficulty to actually bust athletes for using EPO in the first place.