IT WAS supposed to be a week of anticipation and deliverance. Boxing had positioned itself at eye level in the shop window. No one could miss it. Not the grandmothers, the doctors, nor the taxi drivers. Most certainly not the fans. And then, when everyone was looking, the sport behaved despicably.
The message, for a good 24 hours or more, was this: In boxing, we don’t care about failed drug tests.
Prior to that, months were spent carefully building the contest between Chris Eubank Jnr and Conor Benn, the sons of old rivals from a brutal era. Clauses were added to contracts and pounds were subtracted from weight limits so the mismatched pair could fight. Their profiles were heightened on terrestrial television, content was churned out on YouTube and publicity was maximised through various PR campaigns. This magazine dedicated two front covers to the fight along the way. Admittedly, and now somewhat shamefully, we were all in.
The appalling manner in which Benn’s failed drug test was subsequently dealt with then ensured that the fallout received maximum exposure, too. Results of the failed test were leaked to the Daily Mail, who then published their report on Wednesday, October 5, three days before the contest was due to take place. The night before the story broke, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) made a decision to ‘prohibit’ the bout, informing the promoters and fighters the following morning. But for another 24 hours the fight was still ‘on’ as those promoters explored the possibility of staging the contest. Unthinkably, the open workouts went ahead. It is understood that legal documentation was sent to the BBBofC, from the promoters, outlining why Eubank Jnr-Benn should be allowed to occur. On the surface, that is an out and out disgrace.
The guilt of Benn is not presumed, nor should it be. But innocence should not be presumed, either. In a sport like boxing, guilt must be deemed a genuine possibility when clomiphene, a drug known to boost testosterone levels, is found in the system of a fighter. Therefore, if a fighter tests positive for a prohibited substance, that fighter should not be allowed to compete until the reasons why are proven to be fair or a suspension has been served. That should be a bottom line we are confident is always in place. Now, we know it’s not.
Though we must not presume the worst of Benn, and it is absolutely vital that he gets the chance to clear his name, “innocent until proven guilty” is simply not workable when a fight is about to take place – a fight between a boxer who had failed a test taking on a boxer who had to boil down to an alien weight, no less.
Due care has to be taken. There is no room for chance. You take a chance with a black sock in your white wash. You take a chance with butter that is a day or two out of date. You do not, under any circumstances, take chances with the lives of athletes in a boxing ring.
But that’s what Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing and Kalle Sauerland of Wasserman Boxing appeared to be planning when they considered legal action against the BBBofC. By campaigning for the contest to occur, regardless of why – and there can be no doubt they were under significant pressure – they showed disregard for safety. Whether it was merely a trace of a banned substance and that subsequent UKAD tests were clear does not matter. It was there.
Chris Eubank Snr did not want his son to fight Conor Benn upon hearing that Junior would have to weigh 157lbs for the catchweight bout and then face restrictions on rehydration. He deemed it unsafe for a 33-year-old to fight at a weight lower than he had ever scaled as a professional. When news of Benn’s failed test came to light, via the Mail’s Riath Al-Samarrai, Eubank Snr, quite understandably, was distraught.
“The cavalier incompetence of the persons who put that contract in front of Junior to sign while I was in South Africa for almost four months,” Eubank said in a statement he provided to both BN and Spencer Fearon on Thursday (October 6), hours before the bout was eventually called off.
“It’s just a game to them. All they do is mock us [fighters] and do not seem to know that it’s on our backs, that we make them and their families financially secure… Stop playing with the lives of our sons.”
Hearn, while talking to Kugan Cassius of IFLTV, now says he ultimately did the right thing when he announced on Thursday afternoon that the bout would not take place. That is true. But the timeline of events does not paint a picture of someone trying to do the right thing. Yet it’s not just Hearn and Sauerland who should be in the dock. The entire governance of the sport in this country now looks unfit for purpose. There is no dock. There is no jury. Too frequently, there is no justice.
Boxing News understands that the result of the adverse Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) test – believed to have taken place on September 1 – was seen by the promoters, and the BBBofC, on September 23. The fighters and their teams were then informed. The bout was cancelled on October 6. That’s almost a fortnight in which press conferences, open workouts and appearances on terrestrial television to promote the bout took place. A fortnight in which fans paid for tickets, travel and accommodation.
It is easy, therefore, to presume that action was only taken as a consequence of Al-Samarri’s report exploding in the thick of fight week. Join the dots further and it’s perfectly feasible to suggest that if the story did not come out, the fight would have gone ahead.
So, why wasn’t the fight called off immediately? There are several answers, and each triggers a new question. Firstly, VADA testing is in addition to the testing carried out by United Kingdom Anti-Doping (UKAD). UKAD have the power to prohibit bouts taking place, VADA merely advise the relevant parties of test results. All of Benn’s UKAD tests came back clean. Why did Benn test clean with UKAD but dirty with VADA? Simply, the tests were carried out at different times.
So, if we have UKAD testing in place, why are boxers also facing testing from VADA? VADA is deemed as the gold standard when it comes to drug testing in sport and, like in the cases of Eubank and Benn, boxers insist on using VADA to promote a clean sport. So, why attempt to ignore the VADA results if their services have been paid for and they’re regarded as the most accurate in the sport? That is one I cannot answer.
Another reason is the failure to test Benn’s B-sample. Why hasn’t that been tested? Nobody has yet asked for it to be. The moment that comes back with the same adverse findings is when investigations can truly begin. Until it’s tested, however, people can claim rules have not been violated.
If he’s clean, why is he not demanding the B-sample to be tested so he’s certain a mistake has not been made and he can embark on process of clearing his name? Another one I cannot answer.
Why didn’t the Board immediately cancel the contest upon hearing of the adverse test on September 23? That’s a good question. A vital one. Currently, with legal proceedings in the offing, Robert Smith, the Board’s General Secretary cannot talk to the media about the case. But it’s imperative he does as soon as possible.
However, for our own sanity, we have to hope they were not merely turning a blind eye. What we do know is that cases like this are exceptionally complicated from a legal standpoint. Cancelling the fight because of one adverse A-sample from VADA would be, believe it or not, difficult to justify in court if the case went that far. Should their testing have been responsible for the failed test, UKAD had the power to stop the fight. So legal hoops would need to be jumped through when the governing body decides to cancel the fight. The common law of confidentiality – a broad principle of law that a person/organisation who receives information from another party in confidence cannot take advantage of/act upon it – would unquestionably be a factor. Regardless of why, the Board do not come out of this whole mess looking good. At best, their ability to truly control is questionable.
Back in 2018, Billy Joe Saunders tested positive test for oxilofrine, a stimulant used in nasal decongestants commonly used to treat asthma. His Boston, Massachusetts, fight with Demetrius Andrade, then promoted by Hearn, was called off by the state’s governing body, yet Saunders faced no action from the BBBofC. Why? Because the substance was only banned under the World Anti-Doping Association’s (WADA) in-competition code. Therefore, he would not have failed a test conducted by UKAD.
Hearn said back then: “What is the point of 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.”
Some excellent points, well made (in 2018). The problem we had then still exists today. And that, as already outlined, is that VADA are powerless to act on their findings. In essence, they tell tales and walk away. But when the tales they tell are based in fact, namely those found in a test tube bottle, it’s surely time their findings are worked into the rulebook in this country. There should be no room for legal loopholes. There are none in athletics, for example. And this is boxing, for goodness’ sake, a sport designed to inflict physical damage.
Those involved in this sordid mess will tell you that the VADA testing ultimately did what it is designed to do. Their flagging of a dirty test eventually resulted in the fight being cancelled.
“It is undeniable that the British Boxing Board of Control’s decision to withdraw their sanctioning was procedurally flawed and without due process. That remains a legal issue between the promoters and the Board which we intend to pursue,” read a joint statement from Matchroom Boxing and Wasserman Boxing. “However, while there are legal routes to facilitate the fight taking place as planned, we do not believe it is in the interests for those to be pursued at such a late stage or in the wider interests of the sport.”
Twenty four hours beforehand their statement was different. “Both fighters have taken medical and legal advice, are aware of all relevant information,” it read, “and wish to proceed with the bout on Saturday.”
Imagine if they had. When the whole world was watching. After the sport had screamed, ‘Look at me!’ so loudly and persuasively, a contest involving a boxer who had failed a test then took place.
Regardless, the appetite to look again is diminishing rapidly.