On July 26, New England’s Johnny Campbell entered the cage for the 30th time in his professional career taking on regional prospect Kris Moutinho at CES 57. The 32-year-old had snapped a three-fight losing streak just a month prior, and he was looking to go on a run to get on the radar of promotions like the UFC and Bellator MMA.
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Campbell delivered on that summer night at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island, picking up a second-round TKO victory.
Little did Campbell know, however, the battle was just beginning.
Less than two weeks later, Campbell was scheduled to headline Cage Titans: Combat Night 2 in Plymouth, MA on Sept. 7. Campbell began training for the bout as he would any other, but was then made aware – through his CES 57 opponent’s social media page, no less – that he had failed his fight night drug test.
Not only was he provisionally suspended and unable to compete in his upcoming main event, but his impressive victory over Moutinho would be overturned to a no contest.
“It started probably about a month later,” Campbell told The Body Lock. “I saw on Facebook that Kris had posted his letter on his Facebook story. I’m at the gym and [teammate and fellow New England fighter] Chris O’Brien comes up to me and said, ‘Did you see what Kris posted online?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t,’ but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was something on this idea. Sure enough, I pull up his Instagram, and it shows a letter that states, simply, that his opponent John Campbell tested positive for a banned substance. It didn’t say anything about what it was; he just posted up online that I failed a urine test.”
That ambiguity, Campbell says, led to accusations of performance-enhancing drug use.
“Of course, immediately, things are circling around that I’m on steroids,” Campbell continued. “That’s the first thing that comes out. Everyone’s like, ‘Campbell’s cheating!’ I have fans coming at me on Facebook saying that ‘It’s so sad to hear this about you.’ I was like, ‘Guys, come on! It’s for weed. This is not anything that actually had an impact on the fight.’”
Difficult dealings with Rhode Island’s commission
After receiving the news in such an unlikely way, Campbell began to wonder how and why it happened that his opponent would obtain such a letter, yet he would not.
The South Shore Sportfighting product, who made his amateur MMA debut nearly a decade ago, immediately called the Rhode Island Division of Gaming and Athletics offices to try to get some clarity on the situation.
Once he actually received a letter from the state’s regulatory body, it was missing a pivotal piece needed to clear his name.
“I call [the] Rhode Island [commission] the next day, they said they sent me out my letter and ‘We’re shocked that I didn’t get it,'” Campbell said. “They mail me out a second letter, failing to include the appeal notice. So, the only document that I truly needed to rectify the situation; they just neglected to add to that letter.”
Campbell was committed to making sure he got his chance to appeal in time, and the clock was running out on getting that part of it done.
According to Campbell, he was given the proper paperwork by the Licensing and Regulation board – which he filled out – before receiving a phone call from one of the top officials of the commission, Peter Timothy of the Rhode Island Licensing and Regulation board.
“At that point – I believe it was the 27th of August, the last day to appeal – they fax me out the document,” Campbell explained.
“I filled it out; faxed it back to them, hoping that everything works out. They get the notice, and I get no response from them until last week, 8:30 in the morning, their head commissioner [Timothy] calls me and says, ‘Johnny, we really want you to resume your MMA career, and we want to put this all behind us. The only thing you’ve got to do is take another test, prove to us you’re below our thresholds, and we’ll allow you to continue fighting,'” said Campbell.
“I thought this was fantastic, so I asked him, ‘Which standards are going to be followed on that test? The old standards or your updated standards, as of 2018?’ He said, ‘We’re going to follow the new standards.’”
It is worth noting that Rhode Island updated its drug testing standards to the thresholds of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2018. The United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), citing WADA’s regulations on marijuana, states: “The urinary threshold level for the cannabis metabolite Carboxy-THC is 150ng (nanograms)/mL, and WADA accredited laboratories are not required to report adverse analytical findings below this level.”
“I told him that was great,” said Campbell, “Because according to the new standards, I provided a negative sample on the evening of the fight. When I received my drug test, it showed to me a failure for 50ng, and a failure for 15ng. Upon some research, Rhode Island had updated their standards per the World Anti-Doping Association, and WADA follows a standard of up to 150ng to be allowed in an athlete’s system. So, if I fail for 50[ng], and the standard is 150[ng]… I was a little bit perplexed.”
The Body Lock’s attempts to reach both Timothy and Gaming and Athletics Administrator Christina Tobiasz for comment went unanswered, as of press time.
Confusion within the state regulatory board
Drama, confusion, and setbacks aside, Johnny Campbell wants two things: to continue on with his fighting career and get his win over Moutinho back.
If the guidelines maintained by WADA and implemented by Rhode Island allow for the amount of marijuana in Campbell’s system, the bantamweight fighter wondered, then what was the reason for the failed test, the subsequent no-contest ruling, and the fallout he experienced as a result – including the cancellation of his next fight?
“When I asked [Timothy] about it, I told him I was a little bit confused,” Campbell said. “He said, ‘To be honest, I’m confused, too. Why don’t you take my lawyer’s number, give her a call; we just want to put this all behind us.’ I went ahead and called her, spoke to her, and the situation doesn’t get any more clear or normal [as a result]. The fact is, I failed for 50ng of cannabis. The issue is, they don’t know how much cannabinoids I had in my system. There’s no number that they can point at to say that I had this amount.”
Additionally, according to Campbell’s recollection of his conversation with Timothy’s lawyer, Quest Diagnostics — the company that provided the drug test in question — was not aware of the updated thresholds used for drug testing in the state of Rhode Island. As a result, the Whitman, Mass., fighter says, his urine sample was flagged as a failed test.
The confusion resumed as the conversation with the lawyer continued.
“The lawyer had admitted that they had not updated Quest Diagnostics in a timely enough manner, so when I was tested, I was tested incorrectly,” Campbell said. “All they know is that I had at least 50ng in my system. I could’ve had 51, I could’ve had 75, I could’ve had 149, and all of those would have been acceptable numbers to have in my system the night of the fight. It’s an inconclusive test that I failed.
“They can’t show me a document that states, ‘Hey, this is what you failed for. You had 151ng: I’m sorry, buddy, but that’s the limit. You’re suspended, and we’re gonna take your win away.'”
Next, Campbell says, the lawyer told him a secondary test taken then, far removed from fight night, could be a possible solution.
“She tells me that they need me to go take another test – pay for it myself – take the test, get an exact reading of my nanogram levels right now, and they’ll go ahead and post-date that to July 26,” Campbell continued. “If I pass, they’ll let me keep fighting. I thought that sounded fairly reasonable; I just want it all rectified, so I’m willing to do whatever needs to be done.”
The legality of post-dating a test from September to July is unknown, though it is important to note that marijuana is only prohibited by the WADA Code in-competition. Provided that Campbell was not under the in-competition window at the time of the proposed secondary test, his cannabinoid levels could theoretically be above the set threshold without any consequences under the WADA Code.
“I asked her, ‘If I were able to give you a test with less than 150 ng, will I get my win back?’ She told me, ‘I can’t talk to you about that until I get your test.’ She’ll assure me that I will be able to continue fighting, but she refuses to assure me that I will keep my win. As far as I’m concerned, and I’m sure most people will agree, the two are married together. If you remove my suspension, how could you possibly keep my win as a no-contest? If you admit fault and give me my license back, then you must give me that win.”
While these conversations between Campbell and the State of Rhode Island have given the New England mainstay a glimmer of hope, staying positive throughout this process has proved to be quite difficult. Campbell has had an MMA career that has been full of ups and downs. Now, the 32-year-old feels he is in his prime and ready to show, not just New England, but the entire world what he is capable of.
Campbell knows positive thoughts can create positive results, but this situation has lead to a somewhat negative mindset — especially considering he has little control over how it all plays out in the end. Campbell is still fighting for his career and reputation, even going above the regulatory body to try to make sense of everything.
“I’m looking at it as a glass half empty because of the way they’ve all handled the situation as of now,” Campbell said. “I’m a little nervous that I’m going to do this, spend the money to do this, get a test, get a reading, and they might still not give me my W. From the way that they’re handling this, and the way – as I understand – they’ve handled other similar situations in the past, they don’t always use logic and reason. I’m gonna get a test; I called the Mayor’s office this morning because I intend to speak to someone above them.
“I find it hard to understand why a test that comes back inconclusive, with no evidence that I failed to their thresholds, why I would be not only suspended but dragged through the mud. I missed out on a fight. I was supposed to headline Cage Titans a couple of weeks ago. I was on par to fight about five times this year, which at 32 is unheard of. I’m on a two-fight winning streak, I could’ve finished the year 4-1, and if that happened, the UFC is right there. Instead, I’m praying to God that I fight three times. If I go 3-1, I get that W back; I think that there’s still a possibility that I could be looking at a UFC, or Bellator or something. They are not making it any easier, that’s for sure.”
Moving ahead as quickly as possible
It’s natural to consider something to the effect of, “If you have the data, the guidelines, and the rules – and you’re not in the wrong – why go down this road? Why not just fight them and clear your name altogether?”
That was, essentially, a question posed to Campbell by The Body Lock. We are not walking in this man’s shoes. We are not the ones stepping in the cage to fight another human being to accomplish a dream. Campbell can look himself in the mirror and know that he didn’t cheat and that he should be able to resume his career without a no contest on his record. The issue is how can he move onwards towards his ultimate goal in the sport as quickly as possible?
“The biggest thing with this whole issue is, what can I do to rectify this as soon as possible,” Campbell stated. “We’re nervous that if I were to say that was inconclusive, you made a mistake, this doesn’t fall under me, that they might drag it out. We could go to court potentially, and then we’ll push court dates back and all of that. I don’t want to have to do this. I think it makes absolutely no sense.
“If somebody gets into a DUI incident and they test at a .05, and they tell me you tested at a .05, but you might have been higher than a .05, so we’re going to take your license. And then they come back with, we know you were a .05, we’ll give you your license back, but we’re gonna leave it on your record that you had a DUI even though you were below the legal limit. It makes no sense, and the more I think about it, it has been driving me insane.
“When I look at the database now, it doesn’t show that I’m suspended and that my win is still intact,” Campbell said. “I think they’re just trying to cover their butts, but I just want to resume fighting. I’m 32; I’m not getting any younger. I feel, right at the moment, I’m in my prime. I’m still improving as a fighter, my body is still getting stronger, so I just want to get in the cage and fight as soon as possible. If I have to pee for that to happen, I will. But I’m just nervous that they will reinstate my license and then the W might just mysteriously disappear at some point. They don’t seem to be honest or following any kind of actual policies. They’re sort of just making it up as they go along.”
Much like an MMA career for the men and women who step into the ultimate proving ground for the enjoyment of the fans, different emotions have run through Campbell throughout this process. He got a win over a rising prospect and was getting ready for a main event a month later when this situation stopped him in his tracks. Dealing with it all has had Campbell walking a fine line between joy and dejection.
“It’s just been a roller coaster of emotions with this whole thing,” Campbell said. “I get the call from the commission, and I’m jumping for joy. Then I speak with the lawyer, and I’m thinking it’s going to be tougher than I thought. Then I speak to the commission again, and I have my fist pumped because how can they have an inconclusive test, then I’m told I have to get tested again, it needs to be below the limit, and it’ll be attached to the fight. One day I’m walking around smiling, holding doors for people saying hello, f****n being all friendly, and the next day I’m like head down, miserable and kind of depressed.
“I don’t know exactly what to do. I haven’t even really got back to training yet. I grappled Richie Santiago at Cage Titans, but I haven’t trained very much since the fight, since the suspension. The whole situation has left a bad taste in my mouth, and I don’t know how to react or think because, until this is completely resolved, I don’t really feel comfortable. And I don’t like that these people control my fate at this point.”
‘Rhode Island has lost me as a fighter’
In his most recent MMA bout, Campbell made his third appearance for New England Regional promotion CES MMA, an organization that has had a proven track record of building fighters up for the UFC, Bellator, PFL, among others.
The Body Lock reached out to CES MMA for comment on the situation with Campbell.
“CES isn’t involved with the process, so all we know about the situation is what has been reported online,” CES told The Body Lock in a statement. “We hope the situation is resolved fairly and quickly, and doesn’t take away from Johnny’s impressive performance inside the cage.”
Campbell, of course, shares no ill will towards CES, but when it comes to fighting for the organization, or any other in New England, it is safe to say that he, or anybody close to him, will not be doing so in Rhode Island.
“Absolutely not,” Campbell stated in regards to fighting in Rhode Island in the future. “I already spoke with Jimmy Burchfield Jr. (COO of CES MMA), and he’s hoping to get me back in the CES cage on UFC Fight Pass one of these days… not in Rhode Island, he won’t.
“I already made a call to all of the fighters that respect me to, maybe, boycott Rhode Island. If they’re going to be misconstruing their policies, what else could they fumble? Rhode Island, I would say, has lost me as a fighter, and I would say that I bring a strong following of fighters and fans. I would say that CES and Rhode Island will lose some respect because of it.”
‘You have to pull the arrow back to launch forward’
Johnny Campbell has overcome hurdles throughout his MMA career, and this particular hurdle may be the most frustrating one of them all.
Fighters certainly have a lot to fight for, a lot that motivates them to get their hand raised in the heat of battle. Despite the chaotic and confusing circumstances surrounding his battle with the Rhode Island Division of Gaming and Athletics, Campbell believes this situation will only bring him down for the short term. Once he is free and clear to resume his fighting career – and, hopefully, get his win back – this will all be added motivation to the New England fighter known as “Cupcakes.”
“If anything, honestly, it’s going to fuel me,” Campbell said. “It’ll be like, ‘I told you so!’ I knew everything would work out because this is what I’ve built. This is what I deserve; this is what I’ve earned. I’ve earned the fact that I’m one of the best fighters on the planet. I fell because people see those 12 losses on my record, they think I’m a journeyman, I’m nothing, they’re just going to smash me. I think that’s why Kris took that fight and I messed his day up. I feel like I am one of the best fighters on the planet at 135 pounds, and this is going to fuel the fire. I just can’t wait to get back into the cage.
“You have to pull the arrow back to launch it forward. This feels like it’s holding me back a little bit, but I’m just building up kinetic energy, and I am going to launch myself with this. This is the beginning of something new and something great… as long as everything gets figured out. I’m confident that it will.”
UPDATE: The following statement was received from the Rhode Island commission following publication
“Though the Division sincerely appreciates your questions, it is our practice to abstain from disclosing any information regarding an ongoing enforcement matter.”