Performance-enhancing drugs are a subject that MMA fans have become all too familiar with. After partnering with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2015, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) has made 134 sanctions against UFC fighters, with four suspensions being handed out in 2022. Given the length of the average USADA suspension, many fighters who test positive for banned substances go on to have storied fight careers after ‘popping’ for a performance-enhancing drug. With UFC 280: Oliveira vs. Makhachev going down this weekend in Abu Dhabi, and a certain ‘snake in the grass’ competing in the co-main event, there’s no better time than now to examine some fighters who went onto have successful careers after failing a USADA test.
After the ‘snake in the grass’ comment in the introduction, of course, you would expect to see TJ Dillashaw on this list. Dillashaw tested positive for recombinant human erythropoietin, or EPO as it’s more commonly known, in April of 2019, nearly three months after his title loss to Henry Cejudo. Dillashaw had an incredible career before ever testing positive for a banned substance, but could be set to make even more history after his suspension. His suspension came to an end when he faced Cory Sandhagen in July 2021. After a grueling five-round affair that saw Dillashaw tear a ligament in his knee, he was awarded the split-decision win. Now, TJ is just under a day away from challenging Bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling for his 135-pound title. If Dillashaw can capture the belt, not only will he be a three-time champion, but he’ll become the oldest belt holder in the history of the Bantamweight and Flyweight divisions. Dillashaw is already one of the best his division has seen and if he reclaims the title he never lost before his suspension, he could vault his name up the rank amongst the greatest to ever do it regardless of weight class.
Amanda Lemos made her UFC debut in July 2016 losing to Leslie Smith by TKO. To rub salt in the wound, she was then suspended for two years just four months later after testing positive for the steroid stanozolol and its metabolites. After accepting the suspension and spending two years away from the UFC, she returned to face Miranda Granger in late 2019, who she beat via first-round submission. From there she rattled off four more wins in a row before facing Jessica Andrade in a main event in April. She lost the bout via first-round sub but has since returned and picked up another win over Michelle Waterson-Gomez. Since her suspension, Lemos has a 6-1 record and a main event—a long shot from the start of her career with the promotion.
Yoel Romero’s case for this list is not exactly the typical one. Romero tested positive for ibutamoren in March 2016, shortly after his split-decision victory over Jacare Souza. Romero served a six-month suspension and returned to action with a bang by knocking out former champion Chris Weidman with a flying knee. From there he went 1-4, knocking out Luke Rockhold but losing to elite competition in Paulo Costa, Israel Adesanya, and Robert Whittaker twice. The reason Romero is not like the other members of this list is that he was eventually exonerated from wrongdoing. In 2019, three years after his USADA violation, he was awarded $27.45 million as a result of a lawsuit against a supplement company that gave him a tainted supplement leading to his violation. Romero still competes today in Bellator and is currently riding a two-fight win streak after dropping his debut to Phil Davis—safe to say he’s had quite the career since that tainted supplement.
‘Suga’ Sean O’Malley has taken the MMA world by storm in recent years, skyrocketing up the list of fan-favorite combatants. But it has not been entirely smooth sailing for the Bantamweight during his UFC tenure. Obviously, there was the loss to Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera, but O’Malley has also run into trouble with USADA since his promotional debut in 2017. Like Romero, O’Malley’s case was eventually said to be “consistent with exposure to ostarine as a contaminant,” USADA announced in a statement, meaning that there was a chance that the violation was the result of a tainted supplement. Regardless, O’Malley served a six-month suspension in late 2018 for his first violation. Before he could return from the first suspension, he was in trouble with USADA for a second time. On the ninth of January 2020, O’Malley was once again flagged for a positive test. As a result, he again accepted a six-month suspension with his return slated for UFC 248: Adesanya vs. Romero. Since then, ‘Suga’ has gone on quite the streak. He’s rattled off five stoppage wins with five performance bonuses, losing only to ‘Chito’ in August 2020. His most recent fight was a no-contest with Pedro Munoz after an inadvertent eye poke halted the bout in the second round last July. O’Malley has his biggest challenge ahead of him at UFC 280 when he will fight 12 spots up the rankings to take on former champion Petr Yan. If ‘Suga’ Sean can get the job done, he will almost certainly be granted the division’s next title shot.
I mean come on, how could a story about fighters with USADA violations going on to do great things not feature Jon Jones? Jones has a storied career both inside and outside the cage and is no stranger to USADA violations. His first encounter came in July 2016 when he was flagged for a potential positive test leading up to his UFC 200 main event. He was removed from the event and was issued a one-year ban from competition. The suspension led to the UFC stripping him of his Light Heavyweight title. In his return bout, he faced Daniel Cormier for the second time. Jones stopped Cormier via knockout and looked to be returning to the place that he was before the first suspension ever happened. Unfortunately for Jon, his win would be overturned to a no contest after both his “A” and “B” samples tested positive for turinabol, an anabolic steroid. As a result of the second USADA violation, Jones was facing a 48-month suspension before it was shortened to 15 months due to Jones’ cooperation with the investigation. With his doping violations seemingly in the rearview mirror, Jon returned to the Octagon to fight Alexander Gustafsson for the vacant Light Heavyweight Championship in late 2018. He would go on to stop ‘The Mauler’ and subsequently defend his title three more times.