THERE is something missing from the press pack provided to the media here in Las Vegas ahead of the Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez rematch. Within the thick document that details the careers of each fighter, the numerous bios, quotes and ring records, the word clenbuterol cannot be found. Nor is there any mention, bar a fleeting reference from Canelo to “everything that has happened” since the first fight, of the Mexican being suspended for six months after testing positive for the banned substance as recently as February.
Back then, it was huge news in the boxing world. The sport’s most marketable fighter had failed a drug test and, importantly, it was announced to the public. Yet even in the immediate aftermath of the findings, there was still talk that Canelo would be allowed to take on Golovkin on May 5, the original date for the sequel. Because in the world of boxing, particularly for those names and faces at the top, almost anything goes.
It was a mistake, we were told. Canelo’s only crime was eating contaminated beef in Mexico. Cattle is given clenbuterol to increase their leanness before they are chopped into fat-free steaks for unwitting human beings to consume. It’s an excuse so common it’s a dubious notion that someone of Canelo’s standing would be so careless with what he was eating. But feasible, nonetheless.
“I’m confused about the whole case,” the BBC’s Mike Costello tells Boxing News. “The problem is, for all the snipers who want to take aim at Canelo and get him out of the sport, what you cannot ignore is the historical problem in anti-doping with clenbuterol and Mexican beef. Footballers, athletes and athletes from a number of sports have been given a reprieve because of Mexican beef, because it is widespread. That’s one issue.
“But you have to believe that someone like Canelo would be aware of that. I know he said afterwards he should have been more careful but that’s the plaintive cry of every drugs cheat. This is really, really quite confusing because you just cannot be certain here.”
Sanctioning body bosses seemed certain. They threw arms of support round Alvarez before they could possibly have carried out any kind of investigation. It’s hard to think of another sport where the supposed heads would be so forgiving, so publicly, so soon. The rematch was pulled when the Nevada State Athletic Commission announced there would be a hearing in April. Whatever the outcome, Canelo – and the boxing world – would not be in a position to fulfil the May 5 date given the level of controversy and uncertainty. For fans who care about the sport, the cancellation of the rematch at that point was a relief.
Canelo was suspended for six months. Reports that hair samples came back negative soon followed. They suggested that Canelo would not have been ‘using’ PEDs at the time of the test. The fighter agreed to rigorous testing from Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA), who caught Canelo in the first place. Whatever the truth of the failed test, Golden Boy Promotions were working hard to clear the muck and grime that was building up around their star attraction’s name. They were not the only ones. WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman declared Canelo should be forgiven. WBA boss Gilberto Mendoza even went as far as saying the failed test would make Canelo’s return with Golovkin more attractive. But nobody could provide any concrete evidence that Canelo had not cheated.
“The issue here is that the attitude to it is just too lax,” says Costello. “I mean every time [sprinter] Justin Gatlin stepped on the track [after returning from a drug ban] he was booed, and roundly booed. I can’t see that happening to Canelo.
“We have to accept that the WBA’s Gilberto Mendoza is one of those figures who runs the sport but for him to say this going to add to the drama of the rematch. Can you imagine if Sebastian Coe had said something like that about Justin Gatlin? When you have that kind of attitude, you have to doubt there is going to be the passion to root out the drug cheats.”
During Canelo’s suspension, he fixed an injured knee, he trained hard. The rematch was rescheduled for September 15. To many observers, the suspension of just six months seemed lenient.
“He’s been banned from February to August so that’s six months,” Costello continues. “I’ve written about this on the BBC website. If you’re a golfer you’ve missed all four majors, a tennis player two of the Grand Slams, a footballer you could miss 10 or 20 matches depending on where you play in the world. But if he boxes twice a year what has he missed? Zilch. The rematch has been rescheduled so what’s the punishment? He wasn’t banned from training. How has he suffered?”
“Okay, he missed out on his date on May 5, but he’s got it here. He could have been injured on May 5 and it would have been postponed to September anyway. So, that’s the issue. You ban someone for six months but the best of them only fight twice a year anyway, so big deal.”
But Costello’s opinion is not shared by Thomas Hauser, an esteemed writer who has worked hard to expose the failings of the drug-testing system in American sports, namely the practices of United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). In a deeply concerning investigation, Hauser recently revealed that out of 1,501 tests on professional boxers the agency has conducted since 2010, only one was reported as positive. Compared to that meagre and wholly unrealistic figure, VADA catching Canelo, and the resulting punishment, should be seen as a positive move for a sport too used to brushing their crimes under the carpet.
“I think that six months was a substantial punishment,” Hauser tells BN. “You had what was the biggest fight of the year being pulled down because Canelo tested positive for clenbuterol. I was very surprised when that happened because I thought Nevada [State Athletic Commission] was going to find a way round it because, lets face it, there are a lot of powerful economic interests. But Nevada, to its credit, stood tall. I think Canelo paid a significant price for that. That was not a slap on the wrist. He had the damage to his reputation, he lost a payday. He might make it up now but he still lost that one. I think it was the most significant action to a positive test that I’ve seen in boxing.”
On Thursday this week, WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman – in discussion with Boxing News – went as far as naming the restaurant who potentially served Canelo his portion of clenbuterol-laced beef. Sulaiman, by insisting on VADA testing for all boxers who contest the WBC title, was instrumental in Canelo being caught but he has been quick to forgive. He insisted that eight restaurants where Canelo ate during a vacation in February were investigated before it was ruled that contaminated meat was the culprit. The extent of those investigations remain unknown but it does seem fanciful that each restaurant would have provided samples of meat that would in turn have been tested for traces of clenbuterol.
“I give Mauricio Sulaiman a great deal of credit for implementing the Clean Boxing Program with VADA testing for the WBC but when it comes to speaking on the merits of particular cases, whether it’s Alexander Povetkin or Canelo Alvarez, my sense is that he speaks from the heart rather than logic,” Hauser says.
“I’m not in a position to judge whether or not Canelo ate tainted beef, what I know is that there is strict liability. If an athlete has certain substances in his system he is held accountable to the rules. Canelo acknowledged that and he paid a price. His image was tarnished, he had a six-month suspension.”
For Hauser, Canelo’s situation has been resolved. He was caught and he was punished. Let’s applaud VADA for their part in it, let’s learn from it, and move on. The real problem, that of a failure from promoters to take a real stand against drugs or even acknowledge their existence, and USADA appearing to assist that want, is only going to get worse.
“The focus should not be on Canelo because he’s paid a price,” Hauser continues. “The focus should not be on one particular fight, it should be on the systems of USADA. I would like to see people including government agencies and law enforcement bodies go to USADA and ask them to explain those numbers. Because if there was only one positive test out of 1,500 it doesn’t ring true.”
It would seem only a matter of time before the sport is permanently damaged by the drugs it seems unwilling to remove. Hauser believes this problem is the most troubling in boxing’s long history of problems.
“You will have more fighters with brain damage because they’re getting hit in the head harder,” he explains. “You use PEDs so you have more endurance, you are faster and you can hit harder. So the cost, in human terms, is we’re going to have more fighters who are cognitively impaired. Boxing is dangerous enough as it is without adding this very ugly factor.”
The ugliness seems set in. For the sport to clean up its act, for promoters not to be in a position where the biggest talking point of a fight has to be omitted from their marketing material, it’s going to take an almighty change. One where boxers are subject to random testing all-year round. VADA are willing but are the promoters? The answer would seem to be no.
“The VADA training camp testing programme is step in the right direction but it’s only once the fight has been signed,” explains Costello. “These guys only fight twice a year, they’ve got so much scope to take what they want when they want through those off periods. That’s the problem, the out of competition surprise testing is the key component in policing of drugs and there’s so little of it.
“Victor Conte said if you get caught close to competition it’s not a drug test it’s an intelligence test. You are plain stupid if you get caught that close, knowing that the testers are going to arrive close to competition. It’s a great step forward but it’s just not widespread enough.”
It comes down to cost, of course. The tests are expensive, and so too are the contingency plans when a major star is pulled from a promotion after failing one. Ultimately, if things don’t change, it’s the sport that could pay the biggest price of all.