The Asterisks Behind Jon Jones’s Drug Test Failures

Today marks two years to the day since Jon Jones had his most recent drug test controversy when an “atypical finding” prevented him from being granted a license by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) to compete at UFC 232. And as with all his other testing incidents, Jones swore his innocence and continues to do so to this day.

Perhaps no one but Jon Jones himself really knows if he has intentionally taken performance-enhancing drugs during his MMA career. As his complicated test history has proven, science may not lie, but it also does not necessarily tell the whole truth. It is no secret that Jones has failed multiple drug tests, but the official statements that clear him of intentionally cheating are gradually fading to black as he continues authoring his legacy.

These statements declaring Jones’s lack of intent are very rarely mentioned in articles or general discourse related to his drug test failures. At this point, it may even come as a surprise to many newer fans that each drug test that Jones failed had a final determination that he did not intentionally cheat. Yes, the asterisks of Jon Jones’s legendary career are not only his failed drug tests but also the obscure asterisks attached to the drug tests!

This piece will aim to re-expose these asterisks that are seemingly buried deeper and deeper as time passes, not as an argument for Jon Jones’s innocence but as a resource for ethical journalism and a reference for objective and/or newer fans who are fascinated by the subject. It is not intended to sway any solidified opinions or provide an extensive examination of the cases in question. Rather, we will take a brief look at each drug test failure and grasp what exactly Jon Jones means when he says he was “proven innocent.”

The word “innocent” indeed may be a stretch, as even the biggest defender of Jon Jones would tell you that he has behaved carelessly at times and thus has deserved to be punished. They also would concede that banned substances have been found in Jones’s system, further tainting his “innocence.” But it seems the spirit of Jones’s argument is, “I was found not to be a cheater,” which is a fact…a fact that may be inconvenient for many to revisit or accept, but one supported by unambiguous documentation.

UFC 182

DRUG TEST ISSUES: Days after retaining his light heavyweight championship at the event against Daniel Cormier in 2015, a cocaine metabolite was found in Jon Jones’s system. He also had very low testosterone levels, which is an indication of possible PED use.

WHY JON JONES SAYS HE WAS PROVEN INNOCENT:

1) The Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) used the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code for its testing procedure for the event. According to the 2014 WADA Prohibited List, there should not have been any out-of-competition testing done for recreational drugs. Simply put, this test finding is irrelevant, which is why Jones was not sanctioned for the presence of a cocaine metabolite in his system.

2) After testing was done to determine if Jon Jones’s testosterone level stemmed from an exogenous (non-natural) source, the Sports Medicine Research & Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) issued the following statement:

“Based on the review of steroid profiles and available IRMS data, there is no evidence to indicate the administration of exogenous testosterone or testosterone precursors.”

You can view the original document here.

Though the testosterone levels raised reasonable suspicions and the cocaine positive will continue being a source of memes and jokes indefinitely, this all would take a backseat to the much larger testing issues to come.

UFC 200

DRUG TEST ISSUES: Days before the 2016 event, Jon Jones was removed from the main event against Daniel Cormier after testing positive for two banned substances: clomiphene and letrozole.

WHY JON JONES SAYS HE WAS PROVEN INNOCENT: A “dick pill” that Jon Jones consumed was proven to be the contaminated supplement that contained both banned substances. Jones’s poor decision-making in allowing the banned substances into his system resulted in the suspension, but the official statement provided by the independent arbitration panel presiding over the case said in no uncertain terms:

“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.”

You can view the original document here.

Following the outcome and arbitration statement, Jones issued a statement of his own:

“Although I was hopeful for a better outcome in the USADA ruling today,  I am very respectful of the process in which they allowed me to defend myself. I have always maintained my innocence, and I am very happy I have been cleared in any wrong doing pursuant to the allegations made that I had intentionally taken a banned substance.

“I am pleased that in USADA’s investigation they determined I was ‘not a cheater of the sport.’ Being cleared of these allegations was very important to me. I have worked hard in and outside of the octagon to regain my image and my fighting career and will take these next eight months to continue my training and personal growth both as a man and an athlete.”

Jon Jones often cites USADA when addressing his proven “innocence,” but it is actually not USADA making these statements but independent arbitration panels, which are used to preside over contested cases. Jones is erroneously conflating USADA with the independent arbitration panel, so when people respond with, “USADA never said you were innocent,” they’re not wrong. It would be more effective and accurate for Jones to use phrases like “proven innocent in the final decision” or “by independent arbitration” to prevent his point from being lost in translation and the exchange veering off into semantics instead of whether or not his name was vindicated.

This outcome was very similar to that of the next test failure, which appeared to possibly be the case that would break Jonny Bones.  

UFC 214

DRUG TEST ISSUES: Following his KO victory over Daniel Cormier in 2017, it was revealed that Jones had tested positive for trace amounts of Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone aka Oral Turinabol (an anabolic steroid). The result of the fight was then overturned to a no contest.

WHY JON JONES SAYS HE WAS PROVEN INNOCENT: Primarily (but not exclusively) due to the “extremely low” amount of Turinabol found in Jon Jones’s system and because it could not possibly have any performance-enhancing benefits, Jones was found to not have cheated intentionally. He was suspended anyway largely because he was never able to prove how the banned substance (trace or otherwise) entered his system. The suspension was later reduced because Jones agreed to provide “substantial assistance” to USADA, but the reduced suspension has nothing to do with why Jones claims he was proven innocent here.

Chief arbitrator Richard McLaren issued the following statement after an extensive investigation:

“I find that all of the evidence available to me leads me to conclude that the violation was not intended nor could it have enhanced the Athlete’s performance.”

You can find the official document here (Section 7.17, pg. 20).

This led Jones to issue this statement: “It’s difficult to express myself at this moment, but I can definitely say my heart is filled with gratitude and appreciation. I want to thank all of you who have stood by me during the toughest stretch of my life. It has meant the world to me and always will.”

Jones felt a sense of victory and closure after the independent arbitration panel’s findings, but this was not the end of the Turinabol chapter.

UFC 232

DRUG TEST ISSUES: An extremely low amount of Turinabol was found in Jon Jones’s system again leading up to his fight against Alexander Gustafsson in 2018.

WHY JON JONES SAYS HE WAS PROVEN INNOCENT: Aside from the same fact that scientists once again agreed that no performance-enhancing benefit could come from the amount of Turinabol found in his system, there was also no proof of re-administration. In other words, Jones tested positive for the same Turinabol traces he popped for in 2017 (UFC 214) due to the pulsing of the M3 metabolite. Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance for the UFC Jeff Novitzky fielded questions on this complex issue, including addressing topics on the precedent for this M3 metabolite situation, microdosing, USADA objectivity, and the credibility of sources external to USADA.

One of those sources was Dr. Daniel Eichner, president of SMRTL. When Jones regained his Nevada State Athletic Commission fighter’s license after his latest drug test issue, the commission cited Daniel Eichner in their official statement:

“Dr. Daniel Eichner, President and Laboratory Director of SMRTL, reviewed the above investigative reports and determined that they show no evidence that dehydrocholormethyltestosterone (DHCMT) has been re-administered. Dr. Eichner further provided that there is no scientific or medical evidence that the athlete (Jones) would have an unfair advantage leading up to, or for, his contest scheduled on March 2, 2019.”

You can find the original document here.

After this latest resolution, Jon Jones has repeatedly claimed that he’s been proven innocent and has accused his detractors of conveniently remembering the accusations but not the vindication. When Jones makes these claims, he is not specific on what “proof” he is referring to, so many fans may believe he is delusional or in denial. But the independent panels that presided over his cases felt that the evidence presented on Jones’s behalf met the burden of proof for non-intent, and this well-documented fact is what Jones is referring to.

CONCLUSION

In each of Jon Jones’s test failures, an authority prepared an official statement declaring that Jon Jones is not a cheater. The semantics on the usage of the term “innocent” or whether it was USADA directly can be disputed, but the fact remains that an entity not named Jon Jones with authority presiding over the cases have said each time that he is not a cheater. Whether because of contaminated supplements, trace amounts that could not affect performance, or non-re-administration, the fact is that Jones has been declared not to be a cheater, hence his use of the term “innocent.”

For media members, I feel that it is the duty of every journalist in this field to make reference to these official statements when writing on any topic directly related to Jon Jones’s test history. It does not need to be a thorough revisitation of each case; it could be put just as succinctly as Jeff Novitzky put it:

“You look at both of Jon’s (suspension) cases…Richard McLaren, maybe the most credible anti-doping guy in the world and/or his group in both written decisions, in both instances, they determined this was non-intentional.”

Even more succinctly stated and more article friendly: Each of Jon Jones’s test failures that led to suspensions was found to be non-intentional through independent arbitration.

To simply list the drug test failures is not presenting both sides of the story nor the whole truth. When the only statement on the other side is “Jon Jones has always proclaimed his innocence” without referencing the authorities who said the very same thing, there lies a crucial omission that misrepresents the case and Jones’s claims of innocence. It is an integral and fundamental component of the story to include why Jon Jones claims he is innocent: because every time he failed a drug test, it was determined that he did not intentionally cheat. It is not editorializing nor opinionated to state that the final decisions in his cases included a statement that absolved him from being a drug cheat. That’s a very relevant, impartial fact.

For fans and media members alike, you are not necessarily a “hater” or biased if you believe that when there’s smoke, there’s fire. And for fans specifically, I can understand the urge to simplify things and not revisit each case individually and instead proceed with the snapshot information consumption that dominates today’s digital literacy. But the objective truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as being “guilty by math.” In other words, each official statement saying that Jon Jones is not a cheater does not become void because there were other such statements issued in the past.

In the context of the law, a man cannot be found guilty by a jury of his peers just because he was tried multiple times for the same crime. In many cases, this wouldn’t even be permitted as evidence up for discussion during the deliberation. But regardless of where you believe Jon Jones sits on the innocence/guilty spectrum, it should be no mystery to anyone how or why he continues to proclaim his innocence. Because at the end of the day, if you were in Jon Jones’s position where every time you were sanctioned, the presiding authority ultimately declared that you did not cheat, then you too would become quite accustomed to uttering the phrase, “I was proven innocent,” especially when people of all walks of life seem determined to pretend that no such proof exists.

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