DAVID Price is fighting another drug cheat. Another “cheating rat”.
This one is Russian, a serial drug cheat, someone caught more than once. He is someone whose cheating is well-documented, in fact, someone who has failed tests, been slapped on the wrist in that half-hearted way boxing authorities slap wrists, and lost title opportunities and paydays as a result. He is someone whose dastardly ways are condoned, someone who, nowadays, is considered more cheat than champ.
Which is what makes the thought of David Price volunteering to fight Alexander Povetkin on March 31 in Cardiff all the more perplexing.
This, rest assured, is markedly different to everything that came before it in the David Price vs. The Drug Cheats saga. This isn’t Price getting tricked. This isn’t Price unknowingly fighting Tony Thompson while Thompson was on hydrochlorothiazide, nor Price unknowingly fighting Erkan Teper weeks after Teper binged on a variety of performance-enhancing drugs.
No, this one, Price vs. Povetkin, arrives with ample forewarning. It is a fight between a clean fighter and someone who has a history of being very unclean. We know this going in. There will be no surprises on the night, nor in the aftermath if, God forbid, it emerges that Povetkin reverted to type at some stage during preparation and looked to gain an unfair edge. If that does indeed end up being the case, there will be no sympathy. No tears shed. There won’t even be condemnation.
Instead, this twist will be greeted by told-you-so looks, widespread cynicism and a ton of question marks pertaining to why the fight happened in the first place and, also, what any of this – this boxing malarkey – actually means in this day and age. Is it still sport? Is it purely business? Have we now reached the point where fighters are going to happily fight drug cheats – sacrificing their body and brain – in the hope of surviving, getting through it, and cashing what must be a sizeable cheque.
The news that Price has agreed to fight Povetkin doesn’t even come as a surprise anymore, let alone set any kind of precedent. This is boxing, the sporting world’s Wild West, and where there is money involved, anything goes. We realise this now. We’re reminded of it often enough.
Back in 2016, for example, Johann Duhaupas, a Frenchman best-known for losing to Deontay Wilder, agreed to fight Povetkin on less than a day’s notice following the withdrawal of original opponent Bermane Stiverne. So far, so normal. But what made Duhaupas’ decision all the more bewildering had everything to do with the reason why Stiverne, hardly a beacon of honesty himself, decided to withdraw from his proposed WBC interim title fight with Povetkin. His reason was this: Povetkin, hours before the fight, had failed a drug test and was about to box dirty. (Earlier that year Povetkin flunked a drug test ahead of a WBC title fight with Deontay Wilder, a misstep that cost him a $4 million windfall.)
Well, that was too much for Stiverne. He didn’t like the idea of it, didn’t want to gamble, and promptly jumped on the first flight back to America. Duhaupas, meanwhile, a fringe contender in need of a break, was offered the hand-me-down opportunity and, aware of the failed test, could fathom no reason why he’d reject the fight with Povetkin at the eleventh hour.
Duhaupas, when interviewed, made light of the situation, calling it a “crazy decision”, but appeared to have weighed it up and concluded that the considerable risk was worth the potential reward. “If I beat Povetkin,” he said, “I want that rematch with (Deontay) Wilder.”
That was the Duhaupas dream. Fight a drugged-up Povetkin on short notice, bank some decent money, somehow pull off a win, and then receive a further payday from a WBC world heavyweight title rematch against Wilder. The reality, though, was quite different: Duhaupas, appearing tentative and overmatched from the get-go, succumbed to a vicious knockout blow in round six and was left out cold by Povetkin.
Best laid plans and all that.
In hindsight, the worst thing about Duhaupas agreeing to box Povetkin wasn’t the threat to the Frenchman’s wellbeing. It was, instead, that it represented a sad indictment of the lengths to which a professional boxer will go in order to get paid and make a living. With Duhaupas, you see, there wasn’t even the naïve, wet-behind-the-ears hope Povetkin might be clean and they might enjoy a fair fight. He knew, beyond any doubt, the Russian had misbehaved in camp, tried to gain an advantage, and would therefore, on the night, be a boxer more than human, a boxer out to do damage – to him, to his career, to his brain. But still he agreed to fight him.
“Chris Byrd (the former IBF heavyweight champion) told me he fought guys on the juice – a lot of them – and reassured me by saying you can still beat them,” said former IBF cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham, speaking to me in 2016. “So that was my mindset going into fights where I knew someone was on drugs. You weigh it up.
“In my position, I’m going abroad a lot. I’m up against it. You go to some guy’s hometown and you’re fighting the star of that country. It’s bigger than just a fight. Things get overlooked when there’s that much riding on a guy getting a win.”
Of Steve Cunningham’s nine championship fights, six of them, he says, involved an opponent using performance-enhancing drugs. When asked how he could know for sure, he explained: “Fighters talk and coaches talk. When we go to training camp, it’s boring, there’s downtime. Boxing is a very small community and a lot of people know who is using.
“Also, my trips to Europe showed me a lot; just fighting at a level where titles are at stake has shown me a lot. When there’s big money involved, people do crazy things to get and retain power.”
David Price doesn’t know whether or not Alexander Povetkin is currently doping. He may well be clean. He may well have learned his lesson, turned a page, and stands before us, before Price on March 31, as a new man. But what the Liverpudlian does know is that Povetkin has doped in the past, boasts a resume with asterisks, and should, if he connects the dots, be worried about the prospect of it happening again.
Price is nothing if not weary, wary and wise to this by now. He’s not ignorant to the cheating ways of elite heavyweights, nor is he allowed to turn a blind eye to the very real possibility he swaps hurtful punches with a drug cheat every time he steps over the top rope and enters the ring. Make no mistake, Price knows. He has sampled the strength and power of drug cheats. He has felt the stamina of drug cheats. Worse, he has had to pick up the pieces – mend his career, fix his mind, switch coaches – as a result of being knocked out by drug cheats. It could be said, in fact, that no boxer has been cheated by drug cheats more than poor David Price.
Moreover, David Price is just a good guy. Too good for boxing, you might say. Certainly too good to be involved in a world in which it is seemingly okay to fight aided by PEDs so long as 1) you’re willing to accept and serve a ban if caught and 2) the fight makes you and your coach, manager and promoter a shedload of money.
“I would never dream of doing anything like that,” Price told me back in 2016. “One, it’s completely wrong on an ethical level. Two, I’d be f*****g terrified of getting caught. It’s my livelihood. If I get caught and banned, it’s over.
“In my naïve mind, nobody else was risking it for the same reasons. But the truth is, they f*****g are. There’s a lot of unscrupulous people out there who will do anything to get the upper hand. Teper, for example, had been caught before (in June 2014). If I’d known that, I would have probably refused to fight him. Knowledge is important. You need to know about an opponent’s past. Going forward, it has definitely made me paranoid.”
And yet, pay a fighter enough money and they’ll put paranoia to one side and play dumb. They’ll entertain the idea of crossing over to the dark side and tell themselves it is for the good of the sport and their own psyche and that justice will be served and that it is their duty to rid the world of drug cheats. One right hand on the chin, they’ll say, will put an end to all this. It will, in this case, eradicate Alexander Povetkin and avenge everything that came before it: Tony Thompson borrowing the cardio of a Tour de France cyclist to outlast me; Erkan Teper landing a left hook thrown from the depths of hell.
We appreciate why Price has taken the Povetkin fight. It’s an opportunity for which he will be handsomely paid and, furthermore, one he can use to get his name in the frame for an Anthony Joshua payday. Beat Povetkin and he’s right there; right in line. Those defeats that sullied his reputation – “cheating rats” – will be a forgotten thing of the past and Price, back in the game, will find himself on a collision course with British boxing’s hottest commodity, asked at every turn how it felt to once upon a time KO AJ in sparring. Which is why the Povetkin fight represents the key to the door; a shortcut for a man who, without it, is still working out which way up the map should be held.
Price, now 34 years of age, with four stoppage defeats to his name, knows his days are numbered, just as he knows, if he lands, he has the power to switch off the lights of every heavyweight on the planet. He knows, too, that there’s a pressing need to make some heavyweight money before doing the very thing people have unfairly urged him to do since 2013: retire. But Price going this route, ostensibly turning a blind eye like the rest, shows even the sport’s good guys are corruptible. (Think Frank Serpico becoming the Bad Lieutenant.)
In saying yes (or screw it, why not?) to drug cheats, Price has resigned himself to the fact that finding a clean fighter in the heavyweight division is as likely as finding a virgin in a brass house. His hands are up; defeated in his quest. Now, unfortunately, Price realises whenever he fights there’s a good chance his opponent will either have previously failed a drug test or be one of the many currently taking performance-enhancing drugs who have yet to be caught. (Frankly, all Price has to do is scan the WBA’s heavyweight top 15 rankings, which consists of five boxers with a failed drug test to their name, to find enlightenment.)
It comes back to opportunity, I suppose. When you have them, you can afford to be selective and righteous. You can do the right thing; pick the right one. When they dry up, however, an opportunity, no matter how grubby and ill-advised, is still an opportunity, one that may not be there tomorrow. Give him a good one, a better one, and I’m sure David Price would look upon a fight with Alexander Povetkin the way he’d look upon rematches with Tony Thompson and Erkan Teper. He’d ignore it, rebuff it, scoff at the very idea. But, alas, when all you have are bad options and bad guy opponents, pride is swallowed and principles remain at the door.
Postscript: In 2016, I asked David Price about the likelihood of a mooted fight against Antonio Tarver, a drug cheat and former world light-heavyweight champion, coming to fruition. “By taking a fight with Tarver,” he said, “I’d almost be condoning his actions.”