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Opinion: Pro boxing held back by looking other way at PED abuse

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The fight game always comes with a caveat: are the boxers clean? Or, if they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PED), will the rules be enforced? Until boxing takes a stand, writes Isaiah Hall, the sport will continue to suffer credibility issues.

Professional boxing has a reputation of being linked to corruption and cheating. This proved to hold true in the recent fallout of undefeated WBC Junior lightweight champion Oscar Valdez’s positive test for the banned substance, phentermine. Despite testing positive for the substance on Aug. 13, Valdez was still able to defend his title against challenger Robson Conceicao.

Phentermine is a central nervous stimulant that increases endurance and is listed as a banned substance by VADA, which both fighters signed up for. The WBC also uses the agency as part of its Clean Boxing Program. VADA, which costs less than similar testing agencies like USADA, holds a reputation for being more thorough due to its use of Carbon Isotope Ratio (CIR) testing. Valdez claimed he had "no knowledge" he had taken the banned substance. He was tested again on Aug. 30 and came back negative, although that test came 17 days after his initial failed result. Both Valdez's lawyer, Pat English, and promoter, Bob Arum, explained the failed test by blaming the positive result on Valdez's switch from coffee to herbal tea during training camp.

He defended his title in September 2021 against Conceicao. The fight was closely contested, but Valdez pulled out the victory on the judges' scorecards. However, since the loss, Conceicao has filed a complaint to the WBC about the officiating, judging and Valdez being allowed to retain his title despite testing positive for the banned substance a month before the fight.

Conceicao’s complaint will likely not reap any changes. In this situation, Valdez is the A-side, the more popular fighter that more people want to see. A-side leads negotiations and decisions on the fight while the B-side simply follows. Conceicao has little leverage in this situation and it’s part of the unfortunate life of the B-side fighter. The importance of the A and B-side is because the A-side fighters are getting away with things that the B side can’t. For example, Valdez was still allowed to fight and wasn’t stripped of his title for testing positive for a banned substance, however in 2018 Billy Joe Saunders saw his bout with Demetrius Andrade canceled after testing positive for a banned substance oxilofrine.

In Tyson Fury’s first fight with Deontay Wilder, the fact that he had served a two year ban after testing positive for nandrolone in February 2015, was swept under the rug in the promotions leading up to the fight. He blamed the positive result on eating uncastrated wild boar. After breaking the rules and serving his suspension, Fury was welcomed back with a title shot against Wilder. It alludes to a conscious effort being made by promotional companies and boxing commissions to allow boxers to break the rules and not be severely punished for it.

In 2018, Canelo Alvarez’s bout with Rocky Fielding came after serving a six month suspension earlier that year following two positive tests for clenbuterol. He also blamed his positive result on contaminated meat, a claim that could be feasible because Mexican farmers use Clenbuterol to increase lean muscle in cattle.The World Antidoping Agency has struggled to verify whether the Clenbuterol positives are due to doping or contaminated meat.

There is a noticeable pattern in which boxers are blaming contaminated foods for their positive test results and it's not just average boxers but world champions. The possibility of food being contaminated is real but many of these boxers are informed about the dangers of contaminated meat and champions like Alvarez and Fury are rich enough to buy better quality meat that’s not contaminated.

Regardless of the honesty of Valdez's claim, or whether the trace amounts found in his system were intentional or not, allowing him to defend his title places another stain on boxing’s already treacherous resume concerning drug testing and the health and wellness of all participants.

The reality of boxing is that a fighter’s life is on the line when they enter the ring. Now when you add these banned substances into the picture, it creates an unfair advantage for a fighter and a boxer could be injured even worse in the ring. The actions of the boxing commissions and VADA show that they aren’t concerned about the safety of their fighters. There’s also a major gap in the anti doping agency making it easier for boxers to use a banned substance, cycle off in time for testing and still reap the benefits of the drug. Boxing’s anti-doping agency is laughable in comparison to other professional sports and a universal change is necessary.

Ali Easley, a veteran boxing Coach and Area Olympic representative runs Crown Boxing club in Lansing, has been involved in the sport of boxing for 45 years. Easley suggested that State boxing commissions play a major role in the corruption of the sport.

“I feel there’s been a lot of control given to the state and gaming commissions that they kinda make their own decisions,” Easley said. “I think that’s what hurts the sport of boxing in particular because we don’t have a universal policy. You can see where maybe a fighter could be suspended from the state of Nevada for something but the state of Tennessee would allow them to compete. So that makes the rules a little convoluted and it does lend a little bit of discrepancy and less credibility to the sport when you don’t have a universal rule.”

Boxing will continue to have a corrupt image if change doesn’t occur. There is no consistent drug-testing in boxing. Some state athletic commissions test on their own.VADA tests for 70 substances that WADA bans only in-competition and it’s not consistent testing. The problem with this is between fights, a boxer could begin using an anabolic steroid or other banned substance during training. The boxer knows the time it takes for a substance to fully leave the body so they can cycle off. Then, the fighter signs to be tested by VADA and will have had the benefit of the use of the PEDs while not testing positive for them.

The UFC does it’s testing by USDA and fighters are tested year round so that it’s harder to cycle these substances off. It would be great for boxing if there was a universal policy that tests year round across all states and commissions in the sport of boxing but the problem is that there are so many governing bodies in boxing that all seem to be at war with one another. The WBC, WBO, IBF and all these different entities in competition for position as the most desirable title leads to corruption.

Implementing a more consistent testing system like USDA with random testing before and after the fight could help limit the boxer’s ability to cycle on and off a banned substance. However, this system would have to be implemented universally across all state commissions to ensure fairness and integrity in the sport of boxing.

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