The largest mixed martial arts governing body in the world is, once again, going to court.
On Tuesday, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) issued a press release announcing that they will resume seeking legal action against the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on the basis of alleged unfairness in the former’s quest for signatory status.
The IMMAF, in addition to overseeing multiple international, amateur MMA championships each year, concerns itself with the mission of achieving international and Olympic recognition for the sport of MMA. One of the primary steps to doing so is by being a signatory to the WADA Code, an imperative move to satisfy the Olympics’ anti-doping requirements.
Yet despite the IMMAF’s implementation of a robust anti-doping program – the IMMAF has partnered with renowned anti-doping firm Sporting Integrity Ltd., which is led by the former Director of Ethics and Anti-Doping at UK Sport, Michelle Verroken – WADA has yet to grant IMMAF signatory status.
In June of 2018, Inside The Games reported that WADA had labeled IMMAF’s application as “not satisfactory” in a press release.
The IMMAF, however, has taken issue with WADA’s decision, even going as far to allege that WADA is not acting in accordance with its stated policies – an allegation that has led to the IMMAF’s now-resumed legal case.
In an interview with The Body Lock that took place last July, IMMAF CEO Densign White opined that WADA’s treatment of the IMMAF should “embarrass” the leading anti-doping agency. White argued that WADA was denying the IMMAF at the behest of the Global Association of International Sporting Federations (GAISF), an international grouping of various governing bodies that oversee the world’s top sports.
The IMMAF has applied for observer status – a category for sporting federations more attainable than, and often preceding, a membership application – from GAISF to no avail. According to White, other combat sporting federations represented in GAISF are actively attempting to bar the IMMAF from membership, a feat far more easily justified if the IMMAF is held without WADA signatory status.
“I think [other combat sporting delegations] see MMA as a threat to their progression because we’re coming along very quickly, very strongly. The sport [of MMA] is very popular; it’s got huge numbers of people watching it, and it’s getting a lot of attention globally.
“I think they see that as a threat to their very own existence,” White posited in that interview with The Body Lock.
White and the IMMAF claim in their press release that “WADA should be a fully independent body but maintain that they need a green light from GAISF to accept IMMAF as a signatory,” a situation that the IMMAF considers problematic because of their belief in a conspiracy to preclude them from entry into GAISF.
And, given that the IMMAF is still waiting in a holding pattern for GAISF to approve the body for observer status – a decision that apparently has no clear end on the horizon – the resulting circumstances have led the IMMAF to sue.
In August, the IMMAF officially filed suit in the ordinary Swiss courts in Lausanne, Switzerland, bringing about a landmark anti-doping case.
In an August 30 letter to IMMAF shareholders, White explained the reasoning for bringing legal action against WADA, writing that “[t]his is because we believe WADA to have made a political decision rather than one based on the merit of our application, as well as one not made independently of GAISF. Indeed, WADA had previously written to us to confirm that our anti-doping programme was compliant with the WADA code. Their decision has also put them on the wrong side of other Swiss laws, too many to mention here but included in our submission to the court.”
The lawsuit was postponed, however, in September, after WADA agreed to meet with the IMMAF and discuss amending the way in which they handle applications to become signatories, which White described as the crux of legal action.
At the time of the meeting, WADA responded to The Body Lock’s request for comment by noting that, “[a]s this is a pending case, we are not in a position to comment. However, we can confirm that as part of the ongoing review of the World Anti-Doping Code, WADA has put in place a Working Group to review the current policy for the acceptance of new Code Signatories.”
Tuesday, the IMMAF issued a press release discussing the decision to resume the legal case, claiming that WADA’s attempts to assuage the IMMAF’s concerns were not satisfactory.
“At the end of August 2019, we accepted a request of WADA to postpone our court case (scheduled for 4 September) to allow them more time to review the current procedure for a sport organisation to become a signatory. But now, WADA has asked for a further 5 months extension, which the IMMAF Board of Directors has unanimously rejected.”
White went on to write that the decision was not a desired one, but one that the IMMAF deemed necessary.
“We regret that we have to take legal action, but it seems to be the only way to force this issue. WADA should be a fully independent body but maintain that they need a green light from GAISF to accept IMMAF as a signatory. We continue to wait for GAISF to consider our application for Observer status. As a WADA code-compliant sport, we should also be a WADA signatory. Without this status, IMMAF’s sanctions are easily bypassed to the detriment of our athletes, their safety and Clean Sport.”
For the IMMAF, WADA signatory status would be a major step towards international, GAISF, and Olympic recognition for mixed martial arts. Now, with the case set to proceed on January 14, the IMMAF, WADA, and the mixed martial arts community will seek to find some clarity on this nuanced issue.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.