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It’s not weird that Jeff Novitzky would talk about Jon Jones. After all, Novitzky is the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance, and Jones is a disgraced legend and repeat drug test failure. What is weird, however, is the way Novitzky talks about Jones.
Novitzky made an appearance on the Jan. 3 edition of the Joe Rogan Experience MMA Show and, naturally, the topic turned to the perpetually punished “Jonny Bones,” who tested positive for the steroid turinabol in a sample collected the day before his UFC 214 rematch with Daniel Cormier. Jones has maintained his innocence, saying he would never do steroids.
“Dude the truth is I would never do steroids, I put that on my children and I put that on my Heavenly Father,” Jones wrote on Twitter on Sept. 14.
Of course, he has already failed a separate drug test for clomiphene, an anti-estrogenic agent, and letrozole, an aromatase inhibitor, not to mention his wonky testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio prior to the first Cormier bout at UFC 182 three years ago.
“I have been in the UFC many, many years, and I have taken sex pills several times throughout my adult life. Highly recommend it, guys. [Expletiv] great. It’s awesome,” Jones said in April.
“I probably should have taken the rules a lot more seriously and literally had everything tested. I just figured it wasn’t needed because it had nothing to do with sport performance,” Jones said. “I take USADA very seriously now, I send them everything and tell them where I am going to be.”
Jones is a reckless goof -- we know this from his non-drug behavior, as well -- and that was essentially an arbitrator’s finding in his first USADA test, concluding: “On the evidence before the Panel, the Applicant is not a drug cheat. He did not know that the tablet he took contained prohibited substances or that those substances had the capacity to enhance sporting performance.”
Maybe you believe that to be the case. Novitzky certainly does, and you know what? He believes it this time, too.
“It would not make a lot of sense for an individual, a UFC athlete, especially a championship contender like Jon Jones who knew, ‘I’m tested quite regularly in this program,’ it would not make a lot of sense that that would be your drug of choice if you’re trying to cheat,” Novitzky told Rogan. “I think it’s come out after the fact that USADA did another test on Jon a month or two months after his positive test, and he was negative. So that would be indicative that the prohibited substance entered his system sometime after July seventh or eighth, and that was likely a pretty small amount and that cleared his system pretty quickly.”
When Jones tested positive for turinabol, there were immediate questions and curiosity about the substance itself, a primitive steroid linked most intimately with the East German Olympic teams of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s entirely plausible that Jones haplessly stumbled into another unprofessional situation with deleterious consequences, because that’s a defining characteristic of the man. What is striking here is how credulous Novitzky is and his willingness to express it.
“On the surface of things, at this point in the game with that type of information out there, it wouldn’t indicate intentional use,” Novitzky said. “That could be wrong. I don’t know that definitively, and we’ll see how this plays out.”
During his time with the Food and Drug Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, Novitzky developed a reputation as hawkish, perhaps even borderline obsessive in investigation of certain athletes or potential steroid providers. He is infamous for going through people’s garbage to find evidence against them. During the Rogan interview, he even seems to enjoy the discussion of the nickname “The Golden Snitch,” given to him by Brendan Schaub. Novitzky doesn’t comport as an egomaniac, but he clearly takes his stature seriously. Given the lack of certainty in the situation, which he admits, it’s downright bizarre to see Novitzky openly lend credence to Jones’ hypothetical defense.
Frank Mir tested positive for oral turinabol metabolites and blamed tainted kangaroo meat. Where was Novitzky to publicly go to bat for him? Mir also lacked Jones’ explicit history of drug-testing malfeasance, as well as the mere fact Jones is a physically freakish marvel. Novitzky is a meticulous, thorough and typically intense investigator, yet in a case where there’s billowing smoke, he is weirdly willing to suggest the lack of a fire.
You would assume that at this juncture in Jones’ case, it might be problematic for Novitzky to speak out in this fashion; it could be seen as imprudent, trying to influence public opinion or worse. Yet, this is the second time Novitzky has made such comments in the last three months, and the last time he did it, he ended up sending out a personal statement to throw cold water on the MMA headlines that came about as a direct result of his comments on Bruce Buffer’s “It’s Time” podcast in October.
“I indicated that Jon’s camp, the UFC and USADA were all working hard and together to determine the source of the prohibited substance in Jon’s system. That is still the case,” Novitzky wrote in a statement to MMA Fighting. “While all parties are hoping to find evidence of the unintentional or unavoidable use of the prohibited substance, at no time during the interview did I indicate that there were developments leading in that direction, as was the inference of the headline.”
Novitzky also did an interview with MMA Fighting’s Marc Raimondi 13 months ago, during which he was asked to reveal the “biggest surprise” he’d faced working for the UFC so far and responded by talking about how “completely bummed” he was when Jones tested positive before UFC 200, canceling the Cormier rematch the first time. He also talked about how the UFC 200 debacle was an enriching and uplifting experience:
“Starting really the next day and through that weekend, the amount of fighters and camps that came up to me saying, ‘Hey man, this is real, keep your head up, we all see now those arguments of favoritism or conflicts of interest between the UFC and USADA, put that to rest. This is about as real as it gets.’ I was really uplifted over those next few days from the feedback I got from other athletes and camps.”
More than ever, the UFC would like to have Jones around to anchor major events, sell pay-per-views and generate revenue. It’s not too crazy to think the UFC wanted Novitzky and his clout around in the first place to help influence USADA in cases like Jones’ to help dodge a hypothetical four-year ban, nor is it too Machiavellian to think Novitzky, who is very media accessible, would use his position to impact public opinion. Maybe Novitzky just has an inexplicable, personal soft spot for Jones. I truly don’t know the answer, but at this point, there can be no denying Novitzky’s public discussion of Jones is downright disconcerting. He claims that busting Jones at UFC 200 validated the legitimacy of the UFC and USADA’s relationship, yet repeatedly suggests lenience for Jones’ failing a second time and for an actual steroid this time?
In this matter, it doesn’t even matter if Jones is being truthful and he unwittingly took turinabol, because “The Golden Snitch’s” actions are so incongruous with his past deeds and persona. Now, Novitzky isn’t USADA and he’s not “going after” fighters individually, but by all measures, the modern incarnation of Jones is an athlete that Novitzky would’ve tried to obsessively nail to the wall in the past. Now, all of a sudden, he’s a substitute teacher who believes the class clown’s dog ate his homework every day, stumping for him in public?
Then again, Jones has perpetually been in need of a good public relations person. It looks like he might have found one.