Saturday, October 8, 2022

Boxing at the PED Crossroads

The big story in boxing this week was Conor Benn's positive drug test for Clomiphene, a women's fertility drug that is banned by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), an organization that was contracted to provide testing for the Oct. 8 Conor Benn-Chris Eubank Jr. fight. Yet the drug in question was not proscribed by UKAD, the British anti-doping association, which also conducted drug tests for the two participants. With daylight between the two testing agencies in what constituted a permissible substance, the promoters of the event tried to push forward with the fight. 

Ultimately the bout was cancelled once the British Boxing Board of Control decided that it would no longer sanction the event, but this being boxing, nothing is ever that clear. Benn and the relevant parties for the fight were informed of the failed drug test on September 23rd, yet only when the incident was reported by Riath Al-Samarrai of the Daily Mail on Oct. 5th did the wheels start turning regarding the cancellation of the fight. 

So, to sum up, boxing wound up doing the right thing by cancelling the event for a fighter failing a PED test, but only after the public was informed. Absent Riath's scoop, it's possible that the fight would have proceeded. 

This is some dirty business, but the chutzpah demonstrated by the promoters for the event, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing and Kalle Sauerland of Wasserman Boxing, is not unprecedented. Just last year, Top Rank succeeded in staging an Oscar Valdez world title fight despite a failed VADA test. In the recent past, Erik Morales was allowed to fight on a Golden Boy card after failing a drug test during training camp. And it even gets worse. Dillian Whyte had failed a drug test in the lead up to his fight with Oscar Rivas, yet Rivas wasn't even informed of the positive test until after the fight.  

None of these stories paint boxing in a positive light, but the sport has made significant progress with drug testing. Not long ago the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight was derailed after Mayweather requested additional drug testing. His request was interpreted by Top Rank as so offensive that it was considered a deal-breaker – they would of course subsequently fight years later. Now, comprehensive drug testing is part of many top fights in boxing (if not the majority of them).

That VADA has become a part of world-class boxing demonstrates that the industry has started to take drug testing more seriously. The WBC now requires its champions and contenders to enroll in its Clean Boxing Program (which includes VADA testing) in order to be ranked by the organization. Now I'm not going to pretend that the testing is frequent enough or catches everyone that it can, but it is a positive step in the right direction. (In full disclosure, the WBC was the sanctioning body for that Oscar Valdez fight, and they did not strip him of his title.) 

While boxing has indeed made progress in incorporating stricter drug testing, key stakeholders haven't always played a constructive role in pushing toward a cleaner sport. For one, boxing's top promoters have to stop their double talk regarding doping. When their own fighters aren't involved or when an opponent fails a test, promoters will talk tough regarding drugs in the sport, but when their own fighters are involved, especially ones that bring in money, they often resort to legalese and mumbo-jumbo and will try to find an avenue to salvage a fight, despite a failed test. Sometimes they are shot down in their efforts, as this week showed, but as in Valdez-Conceicao, they "succeeded" in staging the fight despite a failed test. 

I also fail to understand why the key television networks and platforms don't have a firm policy on PED testing. If something were to happen in a fight where one boxer entered dirty, and they knew about it, couldn't they be a party to potential lawsuits as it relates to negligence? Wouldn't there at least be significant reputational risk? Yet the networks continue to absolve themselves of culpability, as if they don't play a meaningful role in the sport. 

And of course, the commissions themselves could play a much tougher role than they do. Why don't the major commissions uniformly adopt the most stringent drug testing? Why in the United States, for example, do most boxing commissions only suspend a first-time drug cheat for six months as a default punishment. At the top levels of boxing fighters only get in the ring twice a year at best; a six-month suspension is a laughable deterrent. Wouldn't 18 months exhibit some real teeth? Why can't the Association of Boxing Commissions (the ABC) adopt tougher uniform standards for testing and disciplinary measures for drug cheats?

The boxing industry needs to put additional actions behind its (inconsistent) tough rhetoric. If the industry wants a clean sport (and in an enterprise that features person-to-person violence as its calling card, it really should), then more must be done. Boxing has taken some solid steps forward, but at this point, so many have been half measures. 

I hope in ten years from now boxing is on a firmer footing as it relates to its drug testing and disciplinary measures for those who dope. Unfortunately, many of the current stakeholders in boxing, the ones with the power, still try to finesse legal angles to skirt rules or bury their collective heads in the sand instead of looking out for the greater good of the sport. And until Bob Arum or Eddie Hearn or Frank Warren or Stephen Espinoza or Adam Smith take a stand, we will continue to see a slapdash trajectory toward advancing to a cleaner sport.  

And listen, I'm not naive. I understand that those in boxing aren't in the sport for altruistic purposes. They are there to make money. And that's fine. But the taint from this week and similar episodes in the past hurt everyone involved with boxing. It turns off existing fans, potential new ones, the media, sponsors, and benefactors.   

This week's episode with Benn was a fiasco for all who were involved in trying to usurp VADA's authority. But this incident was just one prong in a multi-faceted problem. Boxing needs to move past its "clean sport" window dressing rhetoric to an era where those who cheat face significant repercussions. It's time for the adults in the room to start acting like them instead of pointing fingers in other directions. More need to take responsibility and have to understand that by assuming leadership on the issue, they will actually be helping themselves down the line. Now those in boxing aren't often into long-term planning, but if we can get a man on the moon, we can get a promoter or a TV executive to think about five years from now. That's the only way this is going to work. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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