LET’S talk honestly about the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in boxing. A lot of people are competing these days to “break stories.” News outlets quote every utterance from Eddie Hearn, Conor Benn, and others involving performance-enhancing drugs. But there’s relatively little reporting that puts the recent spate of positive test results for banned PEDs in context. Donald McRae wrote an exceptional article about performance enhancing drugs that appeared in the April 1, 2023, issue of The Guardian. Matt Christie has written some excellent editorials about the use of banned PEDs for Boxing News and Tris Dixon has followed suit on other platforms. But pieces like these are the exception rather than the rule. So let’s go back to square one. Here are some basic building blocks for anyone who wants to understand recent developments regarding illegal performance-enhancing drugs and boxing.
(1) The first fighter of note to test positive for steroids after a professional championship fight was Frans Botha, who decisioned Axel Schulz in Germany to win the vacant International Boxing Federation heavyweight crown in 1995 but was stripped of the title by the IBF after a urine test indicated the use of anabolic steroids. It’s a matter of record that, since then, numerous fighters (many of them world-class) have tested positive for the presence of a prohibited performance enhancing drug or masking agent in their system.
(2) PEDs work. They take an athlete to a place that he (or she) might not be able to get to without them. When used in conjunction with proper exercise and training PEDs create a better athlete and give an athlete who uses them an unfair competitive advantage.
(3) A liar is a liar even if he tells the truth most of the time. And a drug cheat is a drug cheat even if he tests clean on most occasions. PED use is difficult to detect. With today’s sophisticated microdosing techniques, traces of illegal performance enhancing drugs often leave a fighter’s system within 24-to-48 hours. Just because a fighter tests clean on a particular day doesn’t mean that the fighter is clean.
(4) Many athletic commissions and other entities that govern boxing are run by men and women who don’t understand performance enhancing drugs and have little or no interest in dealing with the issue. Their testing is woefully inadequate. The adjudication process varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And the decentralised nature of boxing allows for rampant abuse.
(5) Almost always, fighters who test positive for an illegal performance enhancing drug express shock and maintain that, if the prohibited substance was in their system, it was ingested without their knowledge. Then they threaten legal action that will cost the decision-making entities hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend against. So often, the decision-makers find loopholes and issue rulings that allow the fighters to continue fighting without further sanction. Because the threat of legal action works, it’s used again and again.
(6) The Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) is the most reliable PED-testing agency in boxing. It conducts more thorough testing than any other entity and has the best reporting requirements. When fighters sign up directly with VADA prior to a fight, VADA sends all test results to both fighters, their designated representatives, the supervising commission for the bout, any sanctioning body that is sanctioning the fight, the Association of Boxing Commissions, and the promoter(s) for the fight. VADA will not conduct testing pursuant to a contract where results go only to the promotional entity that pays for the tests or only to a fighter who has tested positive. Nor does VADA sweep positive test results under the rug by privately “adjudicating” matters in favour of a fighter who has tested positive. VADA tests and reports. It doesn’t adjudicate.
(7) The World Boxing Council Clean Boxing Program is a good-faith effort to address the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in boxing. Under the program, all fighters ranked by the WBC in the top 15 in any weight division are subject to random testing by VADA at any time. Some of the WBC’s adjudications with regard to positive test results have been problematic. The Conor Benn “eggs” fiasco referenced later in this article is an example of that. And the WBC Clean Boxing Program program is underfunded. But give the WBC credit for bearing its fair share and then some of the cost of combatting illegal PED use in boxing.
(8) There was a time when the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) raised eyebrows because of its relationship with Golden Boy (under the guidance of Richard Schaefer) and Premier Boxing Champions (under the leadership of Al Haymon). From January 1, 2010, through August 22, 2018, USADA administered 1,501 tests for performance enhancing drugs on 128 professional boxers. Yet it reported only one adverse finding regarding a professional boxer to a governing state athletic commission. And that report came after a website called Hale Storm Sports revealed that Erik Morales (who was scheduled to fight on a Golden Boy card two days hence) had tested positive for a banned substance. It’s not plausible that USADA administered 1,501 tests to 128 professional boxers and that only one of those tests came back positive. By contrast, during the same time frame, VADA reported a positive test rate of almost four percent. Using the VADA benchmark, one would have expected that 60 of the 1,501 tests conducted by USADA would have yielded a positive result. After these numbers were made public in an investigative report, USADA stopped testing professional boxers.
(9) Some fighters simply refuse to be tested when confronted by a collection officer. Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr was scheduled to fight Danny Jacobs on December 20, 2019, in Las Vegas. On October 24, pursuant to a request by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, a VADA collection officer went to the gym where Chavez was training to collect a urine sample from the fighter. Chavez arrived at the gym shortly before 2pm. The VADA collection officer introduced himself and Chavez refused to provide the sample. As the afternoon progressed, he repeated his refusal several times. On October 30, the Nevada State Athletic Commission placed Chavez on temporary suspension. So promoter Eddie Hearn simply found a more compliant state athletic commission and Jacobs vs. Chavez Jnr was contested in Arizona.
(10) Some fighters find a way to “miss” a test, as Jermall and Jermell Charlo did when they were unavailable to be tested by VADA prior to their December 22, 2018, fights against Matt Korobov and Tony Harrison in Brooklyn. In that instance, the New York State Athletic Commission sought to distance itself from the issue, saying that the VADA tests were “separate from the New York State Athletic Commission’s Rules and Regulations.” It then ordered the Charlos to undergo new tests administered by the commission which failed to meet VADA and World Anti-Doping Agency standards.
(11) Dillian Whyte was suspended from competition by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) for two years after testing positive for Methylhexaneamine following a knockout victory over Sandor Balogh on October 13, 2012.
(12) Prior to his July 20, 2019, against Oscar Rivas in London, Whyte tested positive for epimethandienone and hydroxymethandienon (two metabolites of the banned drug Dianabol) in a test administered by UKAD. The test result was reported by UKAD before the fight to Whyte’s team (including promoter Eddie Hearn) and the British Boxing Board of Control but not to Rivas’s camp. The BBBofC allowed the fight to proceed without Rivas knowing of the positive test result. Whyte won a decision. Then, on December 6, 2019, UKAD ruled that the metabolite levels contained in Whyte’s urine were “consistent with an isolated contamination event” and “not suggestive of doping.” A joint statement issued by UKAD and Whyte read in part “Having rigorously scrutinised and investigated the detailed factual and scientific evidence provided by Mr Whyte, UKAD is satisfied that the presence of the very low amounts of metabolites in his June 20, 2019, sample was not caused by any fault, negligence or wrongdoing on Mr Whyte’s part and, given the circumstances, could not have affected the fight between Mr Whyte and Mr Rivas.” The statement further declared, “Since the charge against Mr Whyte has been withdrawn, neither UKAD nor Mr. Whyte intend to…