Feature | Oct 12 2018

The ins and outs of Billy Joe Saunders, oxilofrine and VADA

Billy Joe Saunders won't be fighting next weekend and is no longer a world champion. Elliot Worsell, with help from Dominic Ingle and Robert Smith, investigates.
Billy Joe Saunders
Billy Joe Saunders celebrates his win  |  Action Images/Andrew Couldridge

IN competition, Billy Joe Saunders has won 26 consecutive professional fights, reigned as WBO world middleweight champion since 2015, and was last seen producing one of the finest performances of the year – that year being 2017 – against David Lemieux in Canada.

Out of competition, however, it’s a different story. Bouts of ill-discipline were seemingly ironed out when hooking up with trainer Dominic Ingle in Sheffield, yet still Saunders harbours a boyish, troublemaking streak that has meant his extracurricular activities continue to overshadow the good work he produces in gloves.

Recent social media videos, for instance, landed him in hot water (to the tune of a £100,000 fine) with the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), while a scheduled WBO title defence against Demetrius Andrade, set for next Saturday (October 20) in Boston, Massachusetts, is now off after the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission’s (MSAC) denied him a licence.

It gets worse, too.

Shortly after leaving Toronto, the location of his training camp, on Wednesday, Saunders, according to the WBO, “voluntarily relinquished” his middleweight belt, meaning Andrade, Saunders’ original foe, now has the chance to claim it with a win against unheralded Namibian Walter Kautondokwa next weekend.

Billy Joe Saunders

Where did it all go wrong?

The cause of Saunders’ misery can be traced back to a failed VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Association) drug test on August 30 in Sheffield that returned “adverse analytical findings”. Specifically, oxilofrine, a stimulant, was detected in the 29-year-old’s system.

The confusion surrounding the result, meanwhile, centres on this key point: the stimulant in question, chemically linked to asthma medication ephedrine, was revealed to only be banned under the World Anti-Doping Association’s (WADA) in-competition code, which meant Saunders, who ingested the substance while out of competition, would not have failed a test conducted by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), nor had he breached the rules of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC).

“He hasn’t failed any drug test with us,” Robert Smith, General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), confirmed to Boxing News on Thursday (October 11). “It’s a different criteria. It’s very frustrating and it shouldn’t be the case.

“I’m waiting to speak to UKAD (UK Anti-Doping). There’s obviously a conflict between the two sets of rules. VADA is not a recognised organisation within WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) and we deal with UKAD who are affiliated with WADA and run by their rules. VADA do not. We need some sort of clarification with regards to our sport and how it’s affected.”

In what essentially seems a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, or at least too many cooks having conflicting ideas about how the broth should be cooked, Billy Joe Saunders has found himself a victim of misunderstanding and mixed messages.

To his detriment, and at the cost of his title and a payday, Saunders has discovered in-competition means one thing in Britain, a country in which boxing is regulated by the BBBC and UKAD, and another thing to VADA, the private organisation brought in to randomly test Saunders and Andrade ahead of their proposed October 20 bout.

“It’s disappointing there are two sets of lists where you can have one product out-of-competition and one product in-competition,” said Smith. “That seems a ridiculous scenario.

“The problem we have is a conflict over what the listings are. What is in-competition and what is out-of-competition? With regards to us, in-competition means the evening of the bout. Everything else is out-of-competition.

“Theirs is obviously a longer period of time and that’s where dispute arises and that’s what needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. I am frustrated, very frustrated, however I fully respect and can understand Massachusetts’ decision.”

billy joe saunders

Saunders’ head coach, Dominic Ingle, sang from a similar hymn sheet when he spoke to Boxing News on Wednesday (October 10), the day his fighter left camp to return to England, but found the decision of the commission tougher to accept.

“With VADA,” he said, “all the banned products are listed and somewhere in the fine print is the in-competition period which is where they start the testing 10 or 12 weeks out. In-competition for everybody, for 99.9 per cent of the world, is the day of competition. It’s only VADA who have this rule when you sign the contract.

“Now, imagine you’re in a football competition and you’re doing a four-day tournament and playing a match every day. You’re in-competition then. Three days before that, though, would you say you’re in-competition? Are you being competitive with anybody?”

Your answer to this question will ultimately determine whether you fall on the side of Saunders, the BBBC and UKAD, or VADA and the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission.

Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that Saunders, in complying with the in-competition and out-of-competition regulations outlined by UKAD, has done nothing wrong, or at least nothing out of the ordinary. Yet, equally, the notion that a training camp – the eight, 10 or 12 weeks preceding a fight – has no bearing on a boxer’s eventual performance is a difficult one to grasp.

“When you think about it, it’s a natural decision by the commission,” Eddie Hearn, Andrade’s promoter, told iFL TV. “What is the point in signing up for drug-testing if, when you fail, everyone just goes ‘don’t worry about it, just let him fight’?

“The argument that it’s all right with UKAD is totally irrelevant. You signed up for drug-testing with VADA, the best testing agency, in my opinion, in the sport.

“If UKAD thinks in-competition should just mean the night of the fight, you are telling me a fighter should be allowed to take oxilofrine and ephedrine to cut weight and get faster and stronger and potentially do more to an opponent on the night.

“The British Boxing Board needs to speak to UKAD, because VADA’s rules are quite simple. In-competition is 365 [days per year]. You’re a fighter. You can’t take performance-enhancing drugs in camp, so you can be more dangerous in the ring. It’s outrageous.”

Here’s another grey area to unpack: VADA, the private organisation run by Dr. Margaret Goodman, have their own set of in and out-of-competition rules, as well as their own testing procedures (perhaps the best in the business, given their track record), but are powerless to act upon their findings. In layman’s terms, then, they snitch, spread the word and skedaddle. Naturally, this leaves room for arguments, counter arguments, and negotiation.

“We either go with one set of rules or not, and WADA is the World Anti-Doping Agency,” said Robert Smith. “VADA has obviously been set up and I have full respect for Margaret Goodman. She does a great job. But once they’ve tested they walk away and someone else has to deal with the disciplinary matter.”

“If you imagine a pie chart, 99 per cent of that pie chart is WADA and one per cent is VADA,” added Ingle. “So why do you use VADA? Well, you use VADA because USADA (United States Anti-Doping Association) are only used in certain places or at certain times or by certain people. That’s why VADA are used. But it’s got to be agreed between you.

“If you make a fighter come to England, there’s not an option. You do UKAD and you do the tests according to WADA or VADA rules. You have to do the tests determined by the country you’re competing in – and VADA is sometimes also agreed by both parties.

“When Kell Brook (another of Ingle’s fighters) fought Errol Spence (in Sheffield), they were both tested by USADA, UKAD and VADA. But, when Kell Brook boxed Shawn Porter (in Carson, California), the commission testing wasn’t done by USADA or VADA. The commission just sent off the tests to a company and then they get the results and decide what they’re going to do.”

nutrition for recovery

Following another Brook fight, a punishing one against Gennady Golovkin in September 2016, the Sheffield fighter was cornered by testers from both UKAD and VADA, when the greater immediate need was for him to go to hospital and repair a badly damaged face.

“We had to take Kell Brook to hospital, but VADA insisted he did his test,” explained Ingle. “I told Robert Smith and he said he wasn’t interested in VADA. He said so long as Kell did his testing with UKAD he could go and be tended to. VADA followed him anyway and insisted he did the test.”

“We’re only interested in UKAD,” Smith confirmed to BN. “That’s who we’re signed up with. We’re not signed up to VADA. It’s a voluntary agency.”

So, are VADA to blame? Have they entered this notoriously dirty business, professed to give it a once-over, a thorough cleaning up, and instead conspired to not only further muddy the waters but spoil a lot of people’s fun in the process?

Well, yes and no. Unquestionably, it’s a major disappointment whenever a fight as fascinating as Saunders vs. Andrade gets canned, especially under such a cloud, with as many arguments against the decision as for the decision. It’s baffling, also, to think the fight, had VADA not been signed up for testing, would be taking place as normal in a matter of eight days. But it’s hardly VADA’s fault. Nor is it the fault of the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission, who, were it not for VADA’s August 30 test, would presumably have licensed Saunders as swiftly as they’d license any other boxer.

“Bill will appeal, and the appeal will go to the Supreme Court. He will be suing them for any loss of earnings,” Frank Warren, Saunders’ promoter, told TalkSPORT, hours before releasing this statement.

“The tests they are referring to took place in August, but since then Bill has had subsequent tests which have all come back negative. It’s ridiculous. If the fight was taking place in the UK, it wouldn’t be a problem.

“They referred to a prohibited list which is published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and they applied that to deny him a licence.

“But the test was done by VADA. The substance they found in their test is prohibited by them, but under WADA it is allowed out of competition, which is up until the day before the fight.”

Billy Joe Saunders

With all the talk of in and out-of-competition testing, it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually was VADA detected in Billy Joe Saunders’ August 30 urine sample.

The drug, oxilofrine, a substance reportedly found in a nasal spray, is a stimulant that was developed to treat hypotension (low blood pressure). To followers of athletics, however, oxilofrine is better known as the amphetamine that resulted in suspensions for former sprint champions Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell in 2013.

“He was flagged for traces of oxilofrine, which, out of competition, is perfectly legal to use (according to UKAD),” Ingle reiterated.

“The results came back from VADA and said he had ephedrine in his system, but under what they call a threshold level. A threshold level is normally applied to in-competition. So, you could have loads of substances in your system, but if they’re under the cut-off point, you can’t get banned.

“The reason for having a threshold is because there’s a chance that a product could be in an athlete’s system without their knowledge. It could be, say, contamination. You can have traces, but you’ve got to go over to get banned.

“They’ve found traces of ephedrine in his system but it’s under the threshold, so VADA are not going to charge him for it.

“Oxilofrine is a metabolite of ephedrine. If you take ephedrine, you’re going to get oxilofrine in your system because that’s what it breaks down into. It’s a by-product of the ephedrine. There’s not a threshold for oxilofrine.

“It actually says on the VADA report form: ephedrine at a certain level and oxilofrine present possibly due to the ephedrine.”

Ingle kindly supplied the VADA report form to Boxing News [below]. He also emphasised the fact he always checks a website called Global Drug Reference Online [www.globaldro.com, which is set up by WADA] to find out whether a product can be taken or not – in-competition or out-of-competition. “We checked it,” said Ingle, “and the nasal drops he used that contained ephedrine were safe to take.”

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Moreover, Ingle was keen to add that Saunders, since failing a VADA test on August 30, had completed two subsequent VADA tests, as well as one UKAD test, and none of them reported adverse findings. Not only that, when taking these tests, Saunders was oblivious to the fact he’d failed a VADA test in August.

Whether owing to a communication breakdown, or some clerical error, that’s hardly ideal. Nor is a vacant WBO middleweight title fight between Demetrius Andrade and Walter Kautondokwa an ideal way of resolving a drama that will presumably run a little while longer. It resolves the immediate, I suppose. It resolves the issue of the WBO middleweight title and a main event-less show on DAZN. But the more important issue of multiple drug-testing organisations with different rules and takes on what is deemed in and out-of-competition remains one of the key hurdles to overcome in boxing’s war on performance-enhancing drugs.

“(Demetrius) Andrade’s going to be fighting for a vacant title against some kid who’s crap,” said Ingle. “In a roundabout way, they’ve pinched the title off Billy Joe Saunders.

“What’s happened is there has been so much pressure put on this Massachusetts board and they have denied him his licence. It’s not just the drugs, it’s the video stuff as well.

“The video stuff he knows he brought on himself. But if a fighter at six or eight-round level had done what he did, do you think they would have been fined a hundred grand? They’re basing these fines on the money people are going to earn and it’s not really fair. A British title-level fighter wouldn’t be able to pay a fine like that and wouldn’t be able to box again until it was paid.

“Massachusetts, though, could have quite easily said, ‘We understand he has a private contract for testing and we’re going to bounce it back to the promoter and ask them: do you want to still put this fight on because you have a private contract between you and the fighter?’

“The contract is only between the fighter and the promoter, no one else. VADA have an agreement with the boxers and the promoter. Massachusetts could have said, ‘We’re going to follow what the British Boxing Board of Control have done. He’s from England and that’s where he “failed” a test. They’ve got no problem with that so therefore he should be free to fight.’

“If that’s an issue for the promoter and the other boxer, that’s different. But I don’t think it says in the contracts they agreed to a situation whereby if either fighter fails a drug test the fight is off or they will be fined. They just agreed to do VADA testing.”

Billy Joe Saunders

As for Saunders, back home following another futile camp, the target now is for him to return to the ring on a Frank Warren show in December.

“We’ve come over here in good faith and he’s looking in fantastic shape,” added Ingle. “He’s in the best place he can be physically. Obviously, you can’t say the same for his mental state with all this going on, but he was here ready to fight.

“It’s just one of those things, isn’t it? A head stress. Billy said, ‘What I couldn’t live with is being in a fight and losing to a kid I know I can beat.’ All this on and off stuff is not good for a boxer.

“He’s got a strong mind. He says, ‘I’m still unbeaten, I’m still a good fighter, and there will be other opportunities.’”

It’s been quite a summer for Hatfield’s Billy Joe Saunders. He saw a June fight with Martin Murray scuppered due to an injury, there were rumours of money-spinners against the likes of Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, there were video nasties released for public consumption, there was a failed VADA drug test, and there was a doomed title defence against Demetrius Andrade and the subsequent relinquishing of his WBO title.

Three months ago, he was a world champion with a clean record, whereas now he’s middleweight contender who, thanks to the convoluted nature of his sport, and depending on who you ask, is stuck somewhere between a ‘drug cheat’ and a hard-done-by pariah whose biggest crime was simply following the wrong set of rules.

“If there had been anything underhand with Billy Joe Saunders, the British Boxing Board of Control would have banned him,” Ingle concluded. “Nobody gets away without a ban if they’ve been found taking drugs and Billy Joe Saunders is free to box.”

Free to box, yes. Just not in Boston next Saturday, and not as WBO middleweight champion.