Pugs, Drugs and Mugs: The Uncomfortable Truth About PEDs in Boxing
By Martin Potter
The views in this article are those of the author, not those of the publication
For over 30 years I’ve watched and loved the sport of boxing, but like most relationships there have been rocky (excuse the pun) patches. Now though I feel that the relationship has reached a low point, just a few moments away from being counted out, and the reason is performance enhancing drugs, along with the sport’s shameful attitude towards them.
The sweet science is increasingly starting to resemble an actual science lab as top level competitors seek chemical advantages.
Despite not being on a par with football, basketball or NFL in terms of popularity, the money that elite fighters can generate often eclipses what other sportspeople earn – Floyd Mayweather routinely topped the annual list of the world’s highest paid athletes. The rewards for being a top pound for pound fighter are extremely high.
So in the sport of boxing, where rewards are high but taking performance enhancing substances could be potentially lethal to an opponent, surely the punishment must be the most severe?
Surely the bans are longer and the shame greater than in other sports?
Surely the risk of getting caught and losing those potentially huge rewards mean it’s not worth it, right?
Well actually, this is where the problem becomes worse.
No one involved in boxing really cares enough. The fans, the writers, the bloggers, the podcasters, the TV channels, the fighters, the promoters, the managers, the governing bodies – they all pretend to care about PEDs in boxing, they all pay it lip service and express outrage, albeit briefly, when a cheat is caught.
But when that cheat protests, when he is ‘cleared’ or when he returns following a (short) ban, the outrage is forgotten, the excuses believed and in many cases the fighter is cheered, lionised and anyone who dares mention the drugs is shouted down, as if they are the problem. In short, there isn’t really much of a risk.
Contaminated meat, spiked drinks, mislabelled supplements, dodgy medicine, ignorance, the tests were wrong, they didn’t tell me quickly enough, it wasn’t a failure, it was elevated levels, I tripped and fell and my arse landed on a syringe full of EPO.
Ok, so I made the last one up, but these are just some of the reasons and excuses that have not only been given, but swallowed by fans faster than steroids at a Big Baby training session.
What doesn’t make sense is that in every other sport – sports where PEDs have far less capability to do serious harm to opponents – similar excuses are simply not accepted. When a sprinter, a swimmer, a weightlifter or cyclist is found to have an illegal substance in his or her body, that person will not only receive a ban, their reputation will be forever tarnished.
Fans boo them at events, every article in the press makes reference to them having received a drugs ban and even television presenters fumble awkwardly for the right words to describe and introduce them. Drug cheats in almost every sport apart from boxing are eternally shamed.
In many well known boxing publications articles about PEDs have been written and on many podcasts and radio shows the matter has been discussed. All who write or speak about PEDs do so in a way that passionately criticises their use, which is a good thing.
However, those same magazines and those same podcasts will then talk or write about other fighters who have previously failed tests and will either fail to mention their PED past or will reference it, but in doing so use the excuse narrative put out by the fighter or promoter.
What is even more galling is that often these articles or talks will be proclaiming the greatness of said drug cheat, without making reference to the synthetic assistance that may well have accelerated their rise to greatness.
Proclaiming drug use is terrible for boxing in one article, whilst proclaiming the greatness of a known drug cheat a few pages later strikes me as rank hypocrisy!
When defending those who have been found to have PEDs in their system, fans, promotors and those in the boxing media will often say that fighters should be given a chance to prove their innocence, a chance to appeal and use the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ line that is a staple of British criminal law.
My problem with this is that the crime this most resembles is drink (or drug) driving and in those cases, if both ‘A’ and ‘B’ samples show a failure, you are then charged and, due to the scientific nature of the evidence, there are very few (if any) defences outside of technicalities.
All you can do is offer mitigation and hope for a lenient sentence. If you get off on a technicality, it is not because you’re not a drink driver, it’s because the police or courts have messed up the admin process.
So let’s apply that to a boxing drug cheat: you take a scientific test, if your ‘A’ sample fails, you can test the ‘B’ sample. If the ‘B’ sample fails then you clearly have PEDs in your system. Surely there is then no legitimate way to prove you are innocent?!
You can offer mitigation (the ignorance excuse perhaps) and I accept the severity of the ban should maybe depend on the substance, but ultimately as a professional athlete you should be accountable for what’s in your body. If you get off on a technicality, it’s not because you’re not a drugs cheat, it’s because the testers have messed up an admin procedure.
Even when fighters do get caught and banned, the punishments are often pitiful. Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez received a 6 month ban, which when you consider that he only fights twice a year, wasn’t really a ban at all.
When he did return, he fought in one of the most lucrative matches of the year for world titles before being given one of the biggest financial multi fight deals in boxing history. How the hell is that a punishment? What message does that send to other fighters?
Tyson Fury accepted a back dated ban for PED use, yet when he returned to boxing, such was the brilliance of the narrative put out by him and his team about cocaine use, weight gain and depression, many boxing fans didn’t even know about the PED ban or refused to accept it.
In fact, many hailed Fury a hero and in his comeback fight he walked to the ring to a song called ‘When I got high’; people laughed. That is symptomatic of how seriously PED use in boxing is taken.
Obviously Fury now has a multi million pound promotional deal, is lauded as an inspiration and considered the best heavyweight in the sport, with his ban all but white washed from all mainstream media coverage.
I realise that defenders of both Canelo and Fury, or any other fighter caught using PEDs, will provide me with a list of reasons why I am wrong. PEDs are bad for boxing, they will say, but my fighter never really did them.
My response is pretty straightforward – tell me why the science is wrong, the actual scientific facts, and the fighter you support is right? Do I trust trained professionals in a lab who have no reason and nothing to gain by incorrectly flagging up a failed test, or do I trust fighters and promoters who have huge financial motives for both using PEDS and not getting caught? I’ll stick with the science, thanks.
So fans ambivalent attitudes are a problem, the media coverage is a problem, almost everyone in boxing is a problem and, most disappointingly of all for me, I am also a problem.
I am a mug. I have paid to watch Canelo, Fury, Whyte, Povetkin and others both at the live gate and on Pay Per View, knowing they have served bans, when maybe I should boycott them. But the truth is, I won’t because I know no one else will and no one else cares.
So what can be done? The first thing, the most important thing, is that the drug testing process in the sport needs to be consistent and unified across the world and all the governing bodies.
There should not be a set of rules in Nevada and a different set in London. There should not be VADA, WADA, USADA, UKAD and whatever other ridiculous acronym bodies that exist; boxing should have one global testing body.
That testing body should not pass off punishment responsibility to state boards or country boards – the testing body should decide the bans and all boxing boards and governing bodies should agree to this, putting a proportion of licence fees and sanctioning fees towards it. If athletics can afford it, I’m sure boxing can.
Bans should be clearly spelled out. 2 years for a first offence, 4 years a second offence and a lifetime ban thereafter.
If it’s on the banned list, it’s on the list – no ‘out of competition’ grey areas. No differences in length of ban dependent on substance. That way, everybody knows where they stand.
The attitude of the media often influences that of fans, so mainstream boxing magazines, websites, podcasts, radio shows and TV coverage should be both consistent and constant in criticism and highlighting of cheats.
Boxing News has made a decent start by refusing to list fighters in their rankings who have had more than one drug ban, but they could do more. How about putting an asterisk next to the names of fighters who have had one drug ban and in every article, interview, review or preview that mentions a fighter who has had a drugs ban, mention it immediately alongside their name.
Shame those who have used PEDs and make others not want to experience that shame. If it’s a constant in the media then boxing fans will move away from accepting the fighters propaganda and the outlets for that propaganda will disappear. If a fighter won’t talk about their PED use, then refuse to give them coverage.
Governing bodies should stop rewarding people who have returned from bans. No immediate world title fights and a give them low ranking position; a returning fighter has to earn his way back to the top. This in turn would perhaps prevent huge promotional and TV deals for fighters who have just come back.
Maybe my views are too black and white and my solutions both too simplistic, but also too complicated to implement. But I believe boxing has a choice; it is the ultimate come back sport and it can recover from all the recent PED issues, get off the floor and reclaim its title as the noble art. Or it can can put its head down, refuse to take the advice of the wise heads in the corner, and then get KO’d before spending it’s time as a punch drunk pug of a sport, stumbling around in a drug fuelled haze searching for past glories.