In an unprecedented move, the UFC is relocating next weekend's UFC 232 pay-per-view event from Las Vegas to Los Angeles because of a licensing issue involving Jon Jones in the state of Nevada.
UFC president Dana White broke the news on SportsCenter on Sunday. UFC 232, originally scheduled to take place at T-Mobile Arena this coming Saturday, will now be at The Forum in Inglewood, California. All 26 fighters scheduled to compete at UFC 232 are expected to move with the card.
Jones (22-1) is scheduled to meet Alexander Gustafsson (18-4) for the light heavyweight championship in the UFC 232 main event. The fighters were only informed after the news was released. Gustafsson was on a helicopter tour around the Grand Canyon when the news broke, and the promotion initially had trouble reaching him.
The issue in Nevada arose last week, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) reported an atypical finding of a drug test Jones submitted on Dec. 9.
That result showed the presence of the same long-term M3 metabolite for which Jones tested positive in July 2017, prior to a title fight against Daniel Cormier in Los Angeles.
That positive test resulted in the UFC stripping Jones of the light heavyweight championship, a 15-month suspension from USADA (which he has since served) and a $205,000 fine from the state of California. USADA ultimately ruled the circumstances of the case did not suggest intentional doping, but that the metabolite is still a banned substance.
In an ensuing investigation of the Dec. 9 test results, USADA ruled the trace amount found in Jones's system is consistent with "residual amounts" of the initial 2017 test -- meaning the low amount does not suggest Jones re-administered a parent drug.
Jones wrote on Twitter that he felt the USADA ruling proved he was a "clean athlete."
I'm focused on achieving my ultimate goal of reclaiming my Light Heavyweight title. I have willingly submitted to every USADA test in the lead up to this fight and USADA has confirmed what I've been saying all along, that I'm a clean athlete. I sincerely thank the California— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) December 24, 2018
State Athletic Commission and Andy Foster for doing the right thing and supporting me through this process. I cannot wait to fight Alex Gustafsson this Saturday December 29th at the Los Angeles Forum in Inglewood.— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) December 24, 2018
According to the UFC, USADA has informed the promotion and the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) it does not consider the amount to be performance-enhancing and will not classify the Dec. 9 test as a failed drug test.
"Both USADA and worldwide anti-doping experts told us this was not a re-ingestion of a prohibited substance, it was remaining effects from the July 2017 positive test -- for which he was already sanctioned," said Jeff Novitzky, UFC's vice president of athlete health and performance. "And probably more importantly, he retains no performance-enhancing benefits from the small presence of the substance."
However, with Jones' title fight just six days away, the NSAC was not in a position to evaluate the circumstances in time to grant Jones a license to compete at UFC 232.
At that point, the UFC explored moving the card to California, where California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive director Andy Foster is familiar with the details of Jones' case after he adjudicated the July 2017 process. Foster has also stated publicly he does not believe Jones intentionally doped in 2017.
"Nevada does not have the time to see us and go through a hearing to find out what California already knows," White said. "There's not enough time for Nevada to do this, so we're moving the event to California where the commission has already dealt with Jon Jones. They were the ones dealing with this and they have all the history with him."
Earlier this month, Jones was given his licensure to fight in California ahead of UFC 232, even though the event was scheduled to take place in Las Vegas. That hearing came after California agreed to allow USADA to hand Jones his punishment, which was ultimately 15 months.
Foster told ESPN that Jones flew on a private plane to California on Saturday to submit a drug test at the CSAC's request. Those results were expedited, and CSAC was informed Jones passed the test. That was a requirement the commission needed in order to move forward with approving the fight.
"At some point somebody has to stand up and do the right thing," Foster said Sunday. "I have a lab that says there's no evidence of a new injection. There's no short-term metabolite in his system. It's that same old crap that he's already ingested. I can only go by what the scientists tell me and I have multiple who are telling me there is no new injection. He has very, very low levels in his system."
Foster added that while this turn of events is not "uncommon" when dealing with this kind of metabolite or performance-enhancing drugs, he's never seen it show up before because California doesn't usually test with this level of sophistication.
"Is this fighter hot right now?" Foster said. "No. He's a clean fighter. And he's been punished already for those metabolites before. He's cleared to fight here. He doesn't have any active steroids in him."
Jones has withdrawn his application for a license in Nevada. He is expected to appear before the commission in 2019 to discuss the matter. The NSAC released a statement on the matter to the UFC, which the promotion provided to ESPN.
"Today, NSAC Executive Director Bob Bennett announced that, in consultation with NSAC Commission Chair Anthony Marnell III, unarmed combatant Jon Jones will be allowed to withdraw his pending application for licensure, which was intended to clear him to fight in a major contest in Nevada later this month," the statement read.
"After extensive analysis of Mr. Jones' prior 18 months of USADA in- and out-of-competition anti-doping drug testing results, Director Bennett, Chair Marnell and Mr. Jones agree that he will appear at an evidentiary hearing in January. This will allow for a measured, thoughtful and comprehensive discussion of his anti-doping testing protocol and results and provide an opportunity for the NSAC to determine the appropriate path forward for him in Nevada. We look forward to his hearing."
Bennett was not immediately available for comment when contacted by ESPN on Sunday.
Jones, 31, is widely considered the greatest fighter of all time, but he has endured a long list of regulatory and legal issues. He is the only UFC champion to be stripped of a title for disciplinary reasons.
White acknowledged Jones' troubles, but said keeping Saturday's fight together was "the right thing to do."
"Who's made more mistakes than Jon Jones? The answer is nobody," White said. "Jon Jones has got his life together and he did not test positive. He did not do anything wrong here. Gustafsson has flown in from Sweden, been here weeks training for this fight. Jon Jones has trained for this fight. Neither guy violated any rules or did anything wrong. These guys need to fight, it's for the title. This is the right thing to do."
Tickets at the new venue will go on sale Wednesday. Full refunds will be offered on all tickets for the Las Vegas event. White said those who bought tickets for the Las Vegas card will be offered the opportunity to attend the event in Los Angeles.