Boxing: Doped, Drugged and Duped

So in a previous post I mentioned I would do a wider article on doping in boxing.

It hasn’t been a great few months for sports and integrity as a whole. Lance Armstrong’s admission to systematic doping following years of accusations and denials, the Australian report revealing the endemic use of performance enhancing drugs (P.E.Ds) and an Europol investigation into matchfixing have all left a rather bitter taste in the mouth of a sports fan. Even sports as seemingly genteel as golf and cricket have found their involved in drugs scandals. And as always boxing, the black sheep of the mainstream sport, lingers in the shadows, implicated.

There are two reasons an individual can fail a drugs test. The previously mentioned PEDs, a list of substances where the explicit purpose is to make the user a better sportsman and the authorities have banned their use. There are also recreational drug test failures; marijuana, cocaine and all the other litany of narcotics. I don’t intend to focus on these other than to say that they are illegal and listed as prohibited substances. Whatever your personal opinions on the use of those substances those are the rules; the rules that boxers signed up for when they agreed to be licensed. If one breaks the rules on has to expect to be held accountable.

I would also stress I am no expert on steroids, PEDs, blood doping or any of the other forms of cheating of that type. I do not intend… and am not qualified to… discuss the exact benefits and side effects of using such substances. I take the general… and I believe uncontroversial… view that boxers who use these substances do so because they give them an advantage compared to not using them. They (and I speak in general terms) allow the user to train harder, get better results and recover faster.

Does boxing have an issue with PED abuse?

Yes.

One only has to look at the list of boxers who have either failed tests or, more worryingly, been implicated in other ways. James Toney is a serial (1) offender (2). Shane Mosely admitted to his role in the BALCO scandal. Gamboa has just been implicated in similar circumstances. Lamont Peterson failed a test. Andre Berto failed a test. Sam Solimon appears to have failed a test. Joan Guzman failed a test, Antonio Tarver failed a test, Frans Botha failed a test, Vitali Klitschko was removed from his Olympic team due to steroid use, Ricardo Mayorga failed a test, Fernando Vargas failed a test, Roy Jones failed a test (although through the use of an over the counter supplement) and Evander Holyfield was implicated. That’s off the top of my head and a combination of recent and big name failures. A full list would run much further and much deeper. When you consider that most people knowledgeable about the detection (and lack thereof) of PED’s and other forms of doping consider the standard testing requirements in boxing to be far too lax and I think this could merely be the tip of the iceberg.

The first thing to ask is should boxing care? Does it matter if people abuse such substances?

I’d argue that boxing, more than any other sport, has to care. If a tennis player, or a golf player, or a baseball player uses PED’s or otherwise cheat to improve their performance then clearly they can harm an opponents ranking, income, image and various other things but they can’t directly hurt them physically.

A boxer can.

However much we wish to sugar-coat it or pretend there is something more to it at its basis boxing is about punching other people. Improving your performance in boxing is generally about being better at punching other people. Outside of apocryphal stories of Willie Pep winning a round without throwing a punch (and Pep himself denies that happened) you cannot win a boxing match without at least attempting to punch the other boxer.

We all know the health consequences of boxing. We know about the long term damage and tragically we also all know that one punch can be one punch too many. It is the sad little secret, the shabby shame of our love of boxing. That at heart it is still a bloodsport. It is that which means as boxing fans we should resist to our very souls anything that gives a boxer an illegal advantage over another. What happens when tragedy strikes and it turns out one of the boxers was using PEDs? Can we face that? Can we accept that if we’ve already turned a blind eye to what has come before?

But isn’t everyone on something?

Maybe.

Perhaps I’m being naïve. Perhaps I’m too innocent. Perhaps it is the case that every… or at least the vast majority… of boxers are on something. Perhaps they have simply been smarter than the testers, luckier than their peers. After all highly paid nutritionists and strength and conditioning experts aren’t brought in just to tell boxers to eat less Burger King and do Tae Bo (except of course if the boxer in question is James Toney). Elite athletes in every sport always look to get that edge and some will be willing to break the rules to do it. We all know certain boxers are willing to bend the rules inside the ring… why wouldn’t they do it outside the ring as well?

But everyone?

I just can’t accept it.

Perhaps it is naivete but I think there are too many honest boxers. Too many boxers scared of the consequences. I just don’t accept that everyone is cheating and I just don’t accept that there’s nothing that can be done about it.

So what can we do about it?

As a fan… not much.

But the sport itself is improving.

You may not like Floyd Mayweather. You may consider him arrogant, pompous, egotistical and frankly a pretty horrible human being. You may have viewed his demands for random drug testing as little more than a crude… but calculated… insult to Pacquaio. You may well be right. But Mayweather’s relentless mentioning of more in depth testing meant that the topic came onto the table and more and more boxers started agreeing to use more stringent tests. It was those more stringent tests which led to both Peterson and Berto being caught (although both offered innocent explanations) and it was such calls that led to Donaire (who works with the disgraced Victor Conte) to subject himself to year round testing (regardless of whether he had a fight coming up).

One issue that may raise its head is fear. Both Berto and Peterson’s failed tests led to high profile rematches being cancelled (with Victor Ortiz and Amir Khan respectively). Ortiz and Khan… who had done nothing wrong… found themselves lacking opponents and lacking a payday, promoters found themselves having to call off cards having already booked venues, sold tickets and paid for advertising and the venues suddenly found themselves with an empty date. I can certainly see why a cynical promoter (or even a reckless boxer) would not want testing that discovers the other boxer is doping in some form… simply due to the money they’d lose. That is something we have to avoid… and the best way to do that is to require the boxing authorities to take the lead in this rather then relying on it being voluntary and dependant on the boxers in question.

The authorities have to take a stand in other ways as well.

It’s fair to say that the punishments for failing a drugs test are… well, often little more than a slap on the wrist. In the US a boxer can expect to be suspended for one year and face a petty fine (Antonio Tarver for example was fined a paltry $2,500 for his failed test). With even moderately successful boxers often being able to command six figure purses that figure is risible in its minusculity. Worse, a boxer like James Toney… a man who has a history of failing tests… can walk into an appeal hearing and do little more than say “I’m James Toney, I didn’t dope” and have his suspension reduced to six months. In today’s world a high profile boxer generally boxes two or three times a year at most; is a year’s punishment really sufficient, let alone six months?

The British Boxing Board of Control may not be the most modern or forward thinking of organisations but one thing they have done well is issue meaningful punishments for doping abuses. When Larry Olubamiwo failed a test and admitted to a litany of drugs offences they suspended him for four years and invalidated his boxing record. Recently when John Donnelly failed a test for the recreational drug cocaine, he was suspended for two years. Those are the sorts of punishments that need to be handed out, not slaps on the wrist. A message has to be sent.

But as a fan, what can I do?

I am a single fan. I cannot force boxers to take more tests, I cannot make athletic commissions give harsher punishments.

Likewise I do not want to cut off my nose to spite my face. I enjoy boxing. I enjoy watching boxing. I enjoy watching boxing even when it involves boxers who have been implicated in drug scandals or failed tests. Perhaps I am being selfish but I will continue to watch boxing despite these scandals and I will continue to watch and enjoy bouts regardless.

What little I as an individual can do is this.

I will no longer support a high profile boxer (so one for whom stricter testing is a practical option) who doesn’t use that testing.

I know my support means little. I know not cheering a boxer makes no difference. But it is a step. A step I shall take.

4 thoughts on “Boxing: Doped, Drugged and Duped

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