On February 18, 2015, top executives from the Ultimate Fighting Championship held a media conference at the Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa.
The subject: the announcement of a comprehensive, year-round drug-testing program. Few specifics were given.
Details of the program would eventually be revealed June 3, when the UFC announced a partnership with the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
USADA, the world's leading anti-doping testing agency, would handle the UFC's new anti-doping efforts. For the first time, a mixed martial arts organization would subject its athletes to a testing program as stringent as the one Olympic athletes go through.
The excitement generated by the announcement paled in comparison to the booking of a major fight. But the UFC's deal with USADA was a landmark moment for the sport. The plague of performance-enhancing drugs could no longer be swept under the rug. The UFC's position as the unquestioned market leader left it responsible for lighting the way for the rest of the industry, and it was doing exactly that.
Though the program officially began July 1, UFC athletes didn't get a true taste of what life under the new USADA regime would be like until October. The early months of the program were spent educating UFC athletes about PEDs and what they could expect from the program. USADA representatives, along with new UFC anti-doping hire Jeff Novitzky, traveled to the biggest MMA gyms in the world to give in-person training seminars to the fighters on its roster.
There were tests in the early days of the program, but the volume was low. USADA wanted every fighter on the roster to be educated about what was coming. They created a comprehensive website to house all of the educational material each fighter would need to be fully prepared. An introductory video hosted by former UFC fighter Brian Stann is embedded front and center; it is impossible for a fighter logging into the website to miss.
And the other resources available on the site—from a list of banned supplements to a complete copy of the rules—give all athletes the tools they need to educate themselves about the program and about the supplements they are taking.
"When we agreed to take on this effort, our sole goal was to do the best we could to create a culture where athletes can compete clean and fair and where they can actually win doing that. I think creating that culture doesn't happen overnight," USADA CEO Travis Tygart told Bleacher Report. "We started with education, because this program is a fundamental change from what the athletes were accustomed to. And our top goal is to ensure they have the tools, the resources and the in-person education to be able to access what they needed to do it right and to be successful as a clean athlete."
The true rollout of the program began in October. According to USADA's testing database, 50 fighters were selected for a total of 81 tests in the third quarter of 2015.
In the fourth quarter, that number jumped to 131 athletes and 272 tests. USADA sample collectors began showing up at fighters' homes. They rang the doorbell at 6 a.m. They showed up at the gym and waited for training to finish. UFC athletes began taking to social media, posting Instagram photos of USADA representatives collecting blood samples and often expressing their disappointment at being woken up from slumber so early in the morning.
And this was not limited to the United States. Tygart said the biggest challenge faced by USADA is the global nature of the program. With roughly 550 athletes on the roster, there is plenty to manage.
Overcoming language barriers and figuring out a way to conduct zero-notice testing in foreign countries are but two of the difficulties Tygart and his team must overcome. This difficulty was highlighted when controversy erupted around an attempt to test former featherweight champion Jose Aldo last August.
USADA's educational materials are available in six languages, USADA media relations specialist Ryan Madden told Bleacher Report.
Still, Tygart is pleased with the progress USADA has made in setting up a network of reliable sample collectors and trustworthy labs, even in countries with awful track records in anti-doping.
"We're not relying on the Russian anti-doping agencies or the Russian labs," Tygart said. "We do have testers who can go into places within Russia or down in Brazil to collect samples with no notice. It takes an effort. But we're fully committed to doing that."
It is not an instant process. Tygart said the time frame for rolling out the full program was 12 months.
"I think we are on track to do that," he said.
Since the launch of the program, only two fighters have received official sanctions from USADA: Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and Gleison Tibau. Filipovic was suspended for two years after admitting he used human growth hormone, despite his test results coming back clear. And Tibau was suspended two years for using erythropoietin (EPO). Several cases remain in arbitration, including the high-profile case of middleweight contender Yoel Romero.
Critics of USADA's program will point out the new testing program has caught fewer cheaters than state-run testing from Nevada and others. But for Tygart, this is a sign USADA's efforts are creating a cultural change in mixed martial arts. The program's top priority is not to catch cheaters, after all; first and foremost, it is designed as a deterrent. The fear of being caught, of being exposed as a cheater, is a powerful tool in USADA's arsenal.
But even more powerful is the fear of being hit with a heavy punishment. A one-year suspension just isn't that big of a deal, but when that suspension gets stretched to two or three years? That's a different story. That's a heavy chunk carved from a career, and it seems many fighters have decided it's not worth the risk.
"I think people are on notice. It's a totally different game when it comes to anti-doping. If they take the risk, they're going to get caught. No athlete wants to cheat to win. It's against the very nature of what an athlete is supposed to be. We've heard that resoundingly from the athletes in the UFC," Tygart said. "But sometimes they feel like that's the only way they can win. There's that cultural pressure to do it. And that's precisely why creating that culture where clean athletes can compete clean and fair and where they can win is so critically important.
"It's not going to happen overnight. But it's a new day from a testing standpoint for all of these athletes. I think they are complying and realizing that if they try to cheat the system, they're going to get caught and be exposed. So they aren't doing it. And that's the ultimate goal."
Jeremy Botter covers MMA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.