Editor’s Letter: How the Conor Benn case threatened to steal the attention from Crawford-Spence

IT LANDED like a sucker punch at a party. While everyone else in boxing was high-fiving and doing the loco-motion, in walked news of Conor Benn being ‘cleared’ by UKAD and the mood briefly plummeted.

But why should one man’s good news, particularly after a very difficult year following two failed tests, trigger such negativity? Without doubt, it speaks largely of a perception that Benn is guilty of knowingly taking performance enhancing drugs and is on the brink of getting away with it. That perception is not formed from proven facts, don’t forget.

Another reason was the timing of it. In between two mesmeric performances from two dream matchups, Benn’s announcement – on Friday July 28, several days after the ruling – screamed of an attention grab when the entire sport’s attention was (and wanted to be) elsewhere. Suddenly, during a euphoric week for boxing, we were reminded of failed drug tests and the failings of the system, and, the real crux of the disappointment, we were reminded of how the influential can bend the truth to create their own headlines. The reason given for the timing of the announcement was they didn’t want it to be leaked from elsewhere.

Though it’s fair to say that too many have already formed their opinion on those two failed VADA tests, it’s also fair – and true – to say that this case has not yet reached the satisfactory end that’s being claimed.

BN understands that what has been ruled by the National Anti-Doping Panel, in this case, is that UKAD cannot continue to provisionally suspend an athlete due to failed tests carried out by another drug-testing agency (VADA), particularly when UKAD conducted their own test(s) on that athlete during a similar timeframe. Furthermore, Benn does not currently hold a BBB of C licence so it can be argued he cannot be punished by UKAD. What has not yet been heard by the National Anti-Doping Panel is the reason why clomifene was detected in Benn’s system. Should that reason never be investigated by a regulating body, one suspects that Benn will always have a cloud over his reputation.

Is that fair? Yes and no. On the one hand we have an athlete who has failed two tests not being made to explain why, but on the other we have an athlete who has instructed his lawyers to clear his name. Should the case not go any further, one can argue that his legal team have done exactly what they were paid to do, and Benn, quite rightly, can insist he has gone through the correct procedure. With that in mind, perhaps a better independent investigation to carry out would not be on one athlete’s case, but the entire drug testing process. Because whether Benn is guilty or innocent, that process is very clearly flawed.

Benn said in a statement “The UKAD process has now formally ended” while UKAD then quickly released their own that indicated they were considering an appeal, which must be lodged within 21 days of the National Anti-Doping Panel’s ruling. The BBB of C are awaiting UKAD’s decision before making theirs. The fact that both UKAD and the BBBofC are considering an appeal suggests they are not satisfied with the current ruling, which essentially says Benn is free to box.

In the meantime, Benn can reapply for his licence with the British Boxing Board of Control, but, at the time of this writing, had not done so – though other territories, namely in the USA, have been approached. It is unknown what UKAD will do now, but it will be a costly process if they choose to appeal; potentially gravely so, when one considers a scenario where Benn demands financial compensation for his hiatus.

This latest ruling, should it stand, could have far-reaching consequences, not only in boxing, but in sport. The ball may now be in the hands of the governing bodies but their ability to return it, particularly when faced with such impressive legal counsel, is in serious doubt.

What the announcement didn’t ultimately do was spoil the party, however. What began with an astonishing and breathtaking exhibition from Naoya Inoue ended with perhaps an even greater one from Terence Crawford. Both boxers motored towards legendary status with victories over their respective closest rivals, Stephen Fulton and Errol Spence. Though it’s a pointless exercise to argue about how Inoue and Crawford would fare in mythical matchups with greats of the past, it is important that each can now say they’ve proven themselves to be the finest of their own time. That in itself is a mark of greatness.

It is something of a shame that Crawford had to wait until he was 35 years old to achieve such widespread adulation. By now he should be a household name and leading the way like Robinson, Ali and Leonard once did. Yet to bemoan the failings of a championship system at this juncture would, like the Benn announcement, also be a failure to read the room. This is a moment that the talent of Crawford has long deserved.

What we saw last week, when Inoue and Crawford delivered complete thrashings in bouts that all boxing fans were eager to see, was a timely reminder of how special and magnetic boxing can be. That neither bout was particularly competitive should not, and did not, detract from that appeal (though it is fair to consider if the Spence of 2019 would have put up a better fight).

When executed correctly, when the right fights are made on the right stages, when the fighters respect their rivals and the rules, boxing hypnotises like no other sporting spectacle. And though it’s unreasonable to expect events like Inoue-Fulton and Crawford-Spence to occur every week, it is ridiculous that very simple contests to decipher the world’s best are greeted like gifts from God because they’re so rare.

Boxing has everything in its locker to be the greatest sport on earth. But only if everyone behaves with that goal in mind.

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