Boxing has shown time and time again just how imperfect it can be when utter incompetence and big-money interests reign supreme…
By David Matthew on May 21, 2012
We are at a point in boxing where a fighter professing to be "clean" is code-speak for "I don't have anything in my system other than what my advisers/trainers gave me to mask itself as a negative drug-test." With the advent of Olympic-style, VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency) standardized drug testing, we may finally be able to truly clean up the sport, but not without growing pains, canceled fights, and fan disarray.
The time has come for revolutionary infrastructural change in boxing. Whether it's in the fraudulent judging of championship fights, the failure of the organizational commissions/bodies to operate with integrity, or the sport's inability to ensure the highest standard of fairness and regard for its fighters' long-term health, the system is broken.
The latest exposÃ© of boxing's organizational incompetence comes in the form of failed drug tests produced by Andre Berto and Lamont Peterson. In the preparative months before his anticipated rematch with Amir Khan, Peterson tested positive for synthetic testosterone. For Berto, his highly charged rematch with Victor Ortiz has been canceled due to a positive test, which revealed trace amounts of Nandrolone (a steroid) in Berto's bloodstream.
In preparation for Peterson's clash with Khan last December, Team Peterson demanded VADA-standard random blood/urine testing. Alike, Berto was the fighter initiating strict drug-testing standards in his fight with Victor Ortiz, once even accusing Ortiz of juicing in the aftermath of their first epic battle. That these two fighters-both adamant about strict drug testing-were the ones who were later found to have illegal substances in their blood is beyond ironic. It's emblematic of deeper problems in the sport. That is, a lack of sound guidance and leadership in a sport where an anarchist anything-goes-as-long-as-the-money-is-right mantra has prevailed over meaningful organization and sane governing.
As hard as it may be to accept-at least initially-it's quite plausible that both Peterson's and Berto's failed tests were as much a result of the careless incompetence of those in control of the fighter's bodily integrity as much as it was anything else, including a willful intention to cheat. What has enabled this carelessness is a system that has failed to properly check everything from the wraps inside of a fighter's gloves to the consistent testing before and immediately after prizefights.
In his first interview since his failed test, Peterson had tears welling in his eyes as he explained why he is not a cheater, and how he was genuinely sorry to the fans and to Amir Khan for this debacle. "I made a mistake and I apologize for it," said Peterson-who claims that his doctor gave him a procedure in which he unknowingly was injected with a synthetic testosterone. "It was not given to me to enhance my performance, and it did not enhance my performance." His humanist authenticity is always beautiful to observe, and anybody who has ever talked with Lamont Peterson knows that his spirit is genuine and honest, and thus it's hard to jump to the conclusion that he's lying, knowing his character.
Peterson's trainer and US National boxing coach Barry Hunter admitted that he receives pamphlets explaining which substances are legal and illegal, but that Team Peterson failed to exercise due diligence in this instance. "Excuse us for our ignorance," Hunter said, "but that's what it was." While this brutal honesty is admirable, it can no longer be a viable excuse in a sport that can ill afford to endure further organizational debacles that continue to threaten its very legitimacy.
After Berto's positive test, ex-Balco boss Victor Conte's name was immediately on people's mind, and understandably so. Conte was convicted of conspiracy to distribute steroids after he developed the banned steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) in 2005.Â Since admitting his illegality and error, Conte has since established a new company-SNAC (Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning)-and works with the likes of Nonito Donaire, Andre Berto, and Zab Judah. While some immediately wanted to throw the hammer down on Conte after Berto's botched drug test, they would be presumptuous in their condemnation. Conte has been vocal and adamant about his lack of involvement in Berto's failed test, issuing this statement:Â "Andre Berto's positive test for nandrolone has absolutely nothing to do with me or any supplements I provided. Likely trace contamination from a supplement or food he took without my authorization."
Conte claims that Berto likely went against his advice to not take any supplements without his counsel, and there's reason to believe Conte in this particular instance.Â Nandrolone is not something fighters would take if they wanted to enhance their performance and get away with it. It is widely known as the "kiss of death" steroid as it stays in one's system from a minimum of 6 months up to 18 months. Say what you want about Conte, but the man is not stupid, and if he were trying to juice up Berto after all he's been through with Balco, he certainly wouldn't do it by injecting Berto with a steroid trace as inelegant as Nandrolone. In fact, by all fair-minded investigation, Conte's actions and words since his 2005 conviction suggest that he supports more thorough drug-testing and standardization. "I encourage my fighters to do VADA testing and will continue to do so," Conte explained. "I encouraged Andre to do VADA testing. Boxing is now learning lessons that Olympic athletes learned years ago.
"Do I think there is rampant PED use in boxing? I most definitely do. So, what I did was a mistake and I accept full responsibility. All I can do is join the anti-doping side."
In yet another twist of irony, it seems that Conte-the man who was once largely responsible for the corruption and cutting-edge science supplementation that brought forth the baseball steroid scandal-may be the same man who could play an instrumental role in cleaning up another sport, our beloved sweet science.Â
In boxing the stakes are higher than in any other sport. If baseball players are juicing, it can produce spikes in home-run statistics and slugging percentage. If boxers are juicing, it can produce the onset of Parkinson's disease along with other neurological ailments, and in some instances death. Boxing is already dangerous enough by its very nature. The notion that fighters are taking performance-enhancing drugs that would increase their strength, punching power, and endurance is a grave threat to the very lives of the sport's participants and the moral fabric of a society that tolerates such cheating inside the modern-day coliseum. Thus, a growing need for competent minds and genuine ambassadors who look out for the sport's best interests is in greater demand than perhaps ever before.
Enter individuals like Dr. Johnny Benjamin, a respected orthopedic spine surgeon, author, and boxing enthusiast.Â "VADA has no dog in the fight," explained Benjamin. "VADA doesn't care what your sample comes back as. Their whole goal is to check samples. They don't care what happens to your career and they don't care who you are.Â They can't care because if they did, that would mean they would have some kind of interest in the outcome, which they cannot." Unfortunately, the powers that be in boxing do not operate with such vigilant neutrality, and thus we have organizations and commissions who are in bed with promoters and other vested interests. The always fiery and passionate Teddy Atlas touched on this very issue by drawing an illustrative and helpful analogy: "Would the Steinbrenners have a deal like that with the head of the umpiring organization before the World Series? Don't make me laugh. Of course they couldn't, because the sport would go down the toilet if they did. There's someone there to make sure that doesn't happen. But if there was no one there to make sure it didn't happen, it would happen. But it can't happen because they don't let it happen. But it happens in my sport. It happens all the time."
Boxing must now revolutionize in order to liberate itself from antiquated organizational structures and thinking that continue to threaten the sport's potential. Dr. Benjamin offered further insight into the present state of boxing. "I think boxing is going through growing pains because now the choices that they make and the people involved in their camps are being held to a level of scrutiny by a science that they never had before. All of the old guys around the gym have the 'this is how it's always been done around the gym' mentality and so forth. Now, when you have high-tech science and VADA testing to challenge these old-school boxing traditions, it's starting to have some problems and some growing pains." Indeed, boxing must catch up and modernize if it wishes to honor its rich tradition as the most fascinatingly intense sport in the modern world. It must catch up to the modernized application of sports and conditioning science, supplemental science, and moral integrity-and time is running out.
You can't blame promoters for wheeling and dealing to the best of their ability in order to produce the highest profit margin and success rate for themselves and their fighters-that is their job. Alike, you can't blame fighters for doing whatever it takes to win fights, including taking (permissible) supplements and applying conditioning science to give them the best chance to win a fight-that's their job. It's time for boxing to develop a neutral and wholly separate organizational sphere, which has the primary duty and function of looking after the best interests of the sport and all of its participants, immune to bribery from any promotional outfit, corrupt commission body, or high-priced agenda. In a perfect world, the need for wholly neutral governing bodies wouldn't be necessary. But, alas, we are not living in a perfect world, and boxing has shown time and time again just how imperfect it can be when utter incompetence and big-money interests reign supreme. Whether it's in the form of a federal commission established to objectively adjudicate boxing matters, or an international association complete with a commissioner and an able staff committed to the fairness and health of the sport, the time has come for a new constitution.