In the second of a three-part series, current UFC fighter Josh Samman goes behind-the-scenes to introduce the world to the man responsible for the UFC having one of the most comprehensive drug testing program in all sports: Jeff Novitzky
Despite being hard-nosed in his role as the UFC’s Vice President of Athlete Health and Performance, Jeff Novitzky is welcoming to all athletes, and he reminds us that harsh failures are more about deterring PED usage on the front end than anything else. To that end, he makes himself accessible to all of the more than 500 athletes on the UFC roster, and even laments over missed calls from athletes.
“I never get tired of hearing from them,” Novitzky said. “This is my job. They can’t call me enough. The earliest I’ve received a medication question was 5 a.m., some as late as 1 a.m. My phone is connected to my hip, and I have this fear that I’m gonna miss one phone call, that someone’s gonna call me with a question about a supplement, and I miss their call, and they go ahead and take it. I feel like that would be on me, and I can’t ever let that happen. I take the phone with me, day, night, gym, everywhere I go, so that doesn’t happen.”
The job is about more than late night supplement questions. More recently, Novitzky has been a part of the driving force behind other aspects of athlete health. IV bans, suggested guidelines for weight management as well as early day weigh-ins have all been a part of policy change since Novitzky took this position with UFC.
“I wish I could take credit but (early weigh-ins) weren’t my idea,” he said. “This was a collaborative idea from coaches, fighters and managers, and as we surveyed many of them and took their input, that was one thing we heard over and over.”
From there, Novitzky said he went to the commissions with the help of UFC Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner, whom he calls the most respected man in MMA. Together, they are looking to take the process of early weigh-ins nationwide.
“We talk to commissions, we talk upstairs with Dana (White), and we just express our feelings and continue to educate as to why this will be healthier and safer,” he said. “I’m pleased with how it’s been going. It’s universally praised by fighters, and now I think we have the ball rolling to where it will be difficult for commissions to say no after seeing them go so well.”
As for the recommended check-in weight of eight percent, Novitzky says it was calculated based on rehydration information collected gradually over the last year.
“Our strategy has been a measured approach. Let’s take it one step at a time, with early weigh-ins and more time to rehydrate. Now we have recommended guidelines that we highly encourage,” he explained. “I know this stuff doesn’t change overnight, and the culture has been about dramatic severe weight cutting in that last week, but I think we are moving into the right direction.”
Novitzky notes that the eight percent guideline is not a rule, but that if efforts aren’t successful in curbing heavy weight cuts, some commissions have opened dialogue of alternative methods that he isn’t sure of.
“The next step that is conceivable,” he said, “although it scares me in certain ways, is a state rule where you can only put on so much weight between weigh-in and fight. To have to lose weight or dehydrate the day of the fight may lead to something that you think may be safer, but actually gets someone hurt.”
If a fighter does get hurt, they’ll soon have access to the UFC Athlete Health and Performance Center. Novitzky’s pitch raises when talking about it.
“This is going to be a 30,000 square foot facility, with nutritionists, strength trainers, rehab centers, you name it. And the idea is for our new fighters to have an onboarding process where they can come out and test, do some evaluation, and see what their optimal weight class is, based on body composition, muscle structure, everything,” he said.
To help them, they’ve reached out the some of the most qualified experts in their fields, including Dr. Robert Kenefick. Kenefick, a research physiologist for the US Army, specializes in rehydration, and is no stranger to athletics and combatives.
“This is the level of expert we want to be talking to,” Novitzky said. “These are hardcore hydration and rehydration experts. Kenefick is world renowned, and he came to International Fight Week and engaged from the check-in process to weigh-ins. He spent time with fighters and camps, asking questions, and he has expressed an interest in moving forward with us, in helping us team up with universities so that these studies can be published with not just UFC, but all of combat sports. We feel an obligation as leaders that we are doing this for the entire MMA community.”