Former UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw has been suspended two years by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) after testing positive for EPO ahead of his January 19 loss to Henry Cejudo. The suspension was announced Tuesday by USADA and first reported by ESPN's Brett Okamoto. The 33-year-old Dillashaw, who vacated his title last month after an undisclosed "adverse finding" from his USADA test, did not contest the result.
A two-time champion at 135 pounds, Dillashaw (16-4) moved down in weight to unsuccessfully challenge for Cejudo's flyweight title and was knocked out in the first round.
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"We all know the pressures to win at all levels of all sport are real and intense," USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart said in a released statement. "It is exactly why strong anti-doping efforts are necessary to protect clean athletes' rights, health and safety and to ensure that those who do succumb to these pressures and decide to break the rules will be held accountable in a real and meaningful way, as in this case."
EPO, a recombinant human erythropoietin, is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the kidneys that binds with receptors in the bone marrow after being released into the blood stream to simulate the production of red blood cells. It's a hormone often linked with the illegal process of blood doping -- the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells through injections to enhance performance -- that is often linked with the sport of cycling.
Dillashaw joined Gleison Teibau as the second UFC fighter to be suspended for EPO since USADA began its partnership with the fight promotion in 2015. Tibau similarly received a two-year ban, the maximum sanction for a non-specified substance under UFC's anti-doping program, with Dillashaw's suspension retroactively dated to Jan. 18, 2019.
Jeff Novitzky, UFC vice president of athlete health and performance and a former agent for both the Food and Drug Administration and Internal Revenue Services, spoke to ESPN about his history investigating EPO.
"I'm quite familiar with EPO from my days investigating professional cycling teams," Novitzky said. "It's a very effective substance. It's not a substance you find in contaminated supplements, it's injectable only. You have to know what you're doing when it enters your system.
"On a scale of seriousness in anti-doping, it's up near the top."
Dillashaw almost certainly would have been stripped of his title had he not willingly vacated it in March. He also received a one-year ban from the New York State Athletic Commission, which oversaw his loss to Cejudo in the main event of the UFC Fight Night card in Brooklyn.