THOUGH he refuses to squeal, there can be no denying the involuntary noise he emits, when asked the question he didn’t expect to be asked, sounds just like a squeal. “Ooooooh-weeeeee,” goes the heavyweight. “You can’t ask me about drugs!”
This uncomfortable squeal, by the way, is also the sound boxing officials make when posed similar questions. “It’s bad for boxing,” he eventually concedes. “That’s all I can say.”
Others are less reticent. One former champion tells me, “Everybody knows he is on stuff. It’s so obvious it’s almost funny. But he makes people money, so will get away with it.” Someone else says, “I was in training camp with him and his coach was telling me – pretty much boasting – how he manages to take this drug and avoid failing a test.” Another reveals, “They made me and everyone else leave the gym after sparring because he was being administered something his strength and conditioning coach told me was on the banned list.”
These testimonies could be issued by anyone, just as they could be about anyone. For if it isn’t clear by now, a mastering of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) – do it and don’t get caught – is as much a part of some boxers’ training regime as sparring, bag work, pad work and skipping. It’s every bit as calculated. Every bit as meticulous. Every bit as vital.
Deny that at this stage, six weeks on from Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, the world’s premier boxing star, failing a couple of drug tests for traces of clenbuterol, and you’re as behind as the testers, as naïve as those who get busted, or simply guilty of believing in a romanticised version of the noble art that no longer exists – if, indeed, it ever did.
If Harvey Weinstein was a sport, he’d be boxing. Grubby, grotesque, all secrets and lies, this is an industry that has always needed to grow up and clean up, yet many of its protagonists, the ones responsible for the cover up, would rather everyone shut up.
Outsiders, meanwhile, those who enjoy the product but aren’t privy to the production, probably need to either wake up or give up.
“I’ve got to the point with drugs in boxing now where I no longer give a f**k,” said Liverpool heavyweight David Price, twice defeated by drug cheats (Tony Thompson in 2013 and Erkan Teper in 2015). “I’ve been on the wrong end more than once and I got s**t on big time. So when I’m seeing things about Canelo and everyone else, it really doesn’t even bother me or register with me. It has become normal now.”
So normal, in fact, Price, a man who 18 months ago told me he’d never box an opponent who had failed a drug test, recently went through with a fight against Alexander Povetkin, a Russian cheat of grandmaster status, who flunked two PED tests in 2016, one for meldonium, the other for ostarine.
“My situation changed,” Price said. “Back then, when you asked me if I’d fight Thompson or Teper again, I had a decent ranking and felt as if I would be giving them the opportunity. But this time I’ve been given an opportunity.
“Not only that, because of Povetkin’s history, if ever there is a time to fight him, and be confident he’s not on something, it’s now. He’s got so much to lose. I may be naïve but I don’t believe he has been on anything for his last couple of fights and that’s one of the reasons I agreed to fight him.
“When I got offered the fight, I didn’t even try and stipulate any drug testing procedures in the contract. I thought, beggars can’t be choosers. This is a lifeline for me.”
Povetkin, we discovered, received no VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Association) testing ahead of his fifth round knockout of Price on March 31. Instead, he endured a token test on the Wednesday of fight week, carried out by UKAD (UK Anti-Doping), and was cleared to compete.
Price, back on the casting couch, could only shrug when told this. Exhausted by it all, the good guy on a bad run has succumbed to the dark magic that powers and pollutes a sport he loves and agreed to partake in a rigged game. He’s prizefighting; doing it for the money; selling his soul to the devil. He won’t deny it, either.
People would have accused Gennady Golovkin of doing something similar if he fought Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas on May 5 in spite of the Mexican’s positive test for clenbuterol. But that was less likely to happen for the simple reason Golovkin has other options and Canelo’s profile ensured his failed tests – two of them, as far as we know – wouldn’t disappear beneath the carpet the way some would have liked.
The mud stuck. It thickened. Then time ran out and Golovkin, Alvarez, and those behind the promotion, were left with no choice but to cancel the May 5 date under the pretence of making a stand and doing the right thing.
In truth, though, the failed tests were an inconvenience to all involved. They cast a shadow over the whole affair and the relevant parties, having originally downplayed the impact of clenbuterol, could only pull the plug, make a fist, and yell, Scooby-Doo-style, “We would have got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling testers and damn cows!”
“What really bothers me is that the test was in February and I have at least three tests in my records where Canelo was negative,” WBA president Gilberto Mendoza revealed to me on March 29. “So why are you going to stop the fight happening? Is it to do with marketing the fight? I don’t understand it.
“I consulted specialists in that field and the percentage of clenbuterol he had gives you reason to doubt. I just don’t see it. I stand by Canelo 100 per cent. This is a fighter who has never had a negative (drug test) in the past.”
Make no mistake, there are countless boxers taking performance-enhancing drugs who have escaped the inconvenience of being caught. They’re proud of the fact, too. They see it as a small victory ahead of what they hope will be a bigger one. And why not? For as long as the punishment for getting caught remains pathetically soft, and for as long as drugs like clenbuterol are considered the lesser of the evils, there will always be an incentive to cheat.
“Clenbuterol was the drug of choice for bodybuilders when it came to burning fat,” said Dominic Ingle, the coach of Kell Brook, Billy Joe Saunders and Kid Galahad (who received a two-year ban – reduced to 18 months – for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, in 2014). “If Canelo has taken it, it could be for that reason.
“It’s a stimulant; an asthma drug. But the reason this asthma drug is banned, in and out of competition, and no other asthma drug is banned, unless it’s over a therapeutic level, is because they say it is anabolic and supposedly has all these fantastic benefits – which hasn’t been proven in human studies.
“There are a whole host of other fat-burning drugs and supplements that are perfectly legal in sport up to a certain level, like salbutamol, which is a prescription drug for asthma. That has a similar effect to clenbuterol but it’s not seen as performance-enhancing.
“I’ve got a guy in my gym, for example, who suffers from asthma and has been on that since he was 14. He’s 24 now and the one thing you notice about him is he’s permanently ripped. But there will be other boxers who are the same age and just as ripped who don’t take salbutamol.”
In 2004, Ingle cornered Damon Hague the night he gained revenge over Roddy Doran in a super-middleweight fight in Nottingham. Doran won the pair’s first encounter, four months earlier, but lost the return, as well as his undefeated record. Worse than that, he later tested positive for clenbuterol.
“I took a drug but not to enhance performance,” Doran said. “I had a chest infection a week and a half before the fight and my doctor said I should have pulled out. But I needed to make a living. I took two tablets. People go to office jobs and do the same if they are feeling unwell.
“As for clenbuterol, they say it’s a performance-enhancing drug but when I fought Damon Hague it was the worst performance of my career. Clenbuterol does nothing. It opens the airways and that’s it. Hand on heart, it’s not a performance-enhancing drug.”
This hardly mattered to the British Boxing Board of Control. They hauled Doran before them in Cardiff, listened to him plead guilty, and then chucked him a six-month ban.
“I held my hands up,” he said. “I could have quite easily said I didn’t take it. But I’m an honest guy. They said I shouldn’t have done it, I should have asked, but I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. They said I couldn’t even take paracetamol before a fight. I was shocked. Worst of all, if I’d denied it and gone to blood tests, they told me I would have got a five-year ban.”
A five-year ban for trying to ease a chest infection seems a tad excessive, even if it strips a little fat along the way. But Victor Conte, the founder and president of the controversial and now-defunct Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), and current chief executive officer of Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC Nutrition), has an altogether different view on the performance-enhancing properties of clenbuterol.
“It’s a very potent and beneficial performance-enhancing drug,” said Conte, “because it burns body fat and helps retain lean muscle mass. So it would obviously enhance speed and power. Also, when you use testosterone or other anabolic agents like clenbuterol, the gains stay with you for months and months and months. That gives any boxer a competitive advantage.”
Alvarez, an Oscar winner, says tainted meat consumed in Mexico is to blame for his failed test. Good enough for some, the excuse was sufficient to stall the due process, scupper a May 5 fight with Golovkin, and result in a mere six-month ban, meaning Canelo will be ready to box again on September 15 (Mexican Independence Day weekend, no less). Essentially, it gives a contaminated cash cow time to get an arthroscopy on his knee, something he has needed for some time.
Come September, all will be forgotten.
“It’s like if something happened to Anthony (Joshua),” said Mendoza. “These guys carry the torch for the sport. They are the reason we exist. Fans, sanctioning bodies and the rest of the fighters owe it to them. If you look at their careers, they have been clean all the time. But sometimes, at some point, I understand, things can happen.”
Rest assured, all the while people in positions of power believe boxers are the reason they exist, things will continue to happen.
“There are probably loads of fights involving drug abusers going on and nobody realises,” said Ingle. “Go back to ‘The Race that Shocked the World’ (at the 1988 Seoul Olympics). It wasn’t just Ben Johnson who cheated; six out of the eight sprinters who raced that day failed drug tests in subsequent years.
“Now, did they just decide to take drugs after that famous race? Or were they taking them undetected all along and that’s how they got to that level?
“Just because Canelo and Golovkin didn’t fail a drug test before their first fight (September 16, 2017) doesn’t mean they weren’t taking drugs. And, by the same measure, just because Canelo has failed a test this time doesn’t mean he took drugs on purpose. In a career of so many fights, why would he suddenly resort to taking drugs? Or, if he was getting away with it for so long, why get it wrong now?”
“I do believe there have been many positive tests for substances like clenbuterol, or the anabolic steroid nandrolone, where there was no intent to cheat and it was the result of contamination,” said Conte. “This is especially true in Mexico.
“Canelo, we should note, has no previous positive drug test, but because he’s not enrolled in an effective 24/7, 365 programme you are always going to have doubts. He could have very easily been using drugs.
“Boxers typically do one- to two-week cycles with clenbuterol. They go off and then they go back on and then they go off again. Since the last fight in September, Canelo could have done two or three cycles of clenbuterol. Maybe he just miscalculated the taper time. That’s certainly a possibility. But contaminated meat is also a possibility.
“It all becomes very polarising. Some people are convinced he’s a cheat and others, who like him, or make money from him, are going to protect him.”
Roddy Doran, an extra in this business, had zero protection. He wasn’t a marketable commodity. He wasn’t generating a lot of money. Alas, he was an ideal victim, one easier to punish and then vilify.
“I was on the front page of my local paper at the centre of a drug scandal,” he said. “It read: ‘Doran’s career is on the ropes for taking a banned substance.’ People must have thought I was on steroids.
“When I got back after the six-month ban, it was horrible (Doran lost his next three fights). I’d had bad publicity and it affected my family. It retired my boxing career really.”
Doran isn’t alone. Mistakes happen. Which is why issuing lifetime bans for first-time offenders – the call of the enraged – remains virtually impossible. If that were the case, Doran, as well as Alvarez, would have been sent to the gallows without a trial, and the same goes for Jon Thaxton, a super-lightweight Dominic Ingle watched protest his innocence following a failed test for nandrolone (the same anabolic steroid that recently tarnished Tyson and Hughie Fury) in 2000.
“Nandrolone breaks down into several metabolites and there was a loophole where these metabolites weren’t classed as a prescription drug and could therefore be legally marketed by manufacturers as a weakened steroid supplement,” explained Ingle, Thaxton’s then-trainer.
“Jon Thaxton, one of the most clean-living men you could meet, was with a company called MaxiMuscle and they did this product. They brought it in from China, bottled it up and sold it. But this left room for cross-contamination. It goes from one barrel to another – used for other products – and there’s no care taken. A speck of dust could carry an unwanted metabolite.”
Thaxton didn’t take the product in question but traces of nandrolone showed up in a test and he was banned for nine months and handed a £3,000 fine. His ban was then later overturned following an appeal.
“It was overturned,” Ingle said, “on the basis that nandrolone can be produced in the body of elite athletes given certain conditions: intense levels of exercise, exertion and reduced calorie intake.
“Jon then went on to have a mostly successful career. He had wins and losses. But let’s assume he was taking drugs. Wouldn’t you have expected him to become an elite-level fighter?”
Ingle uses this theory on others, too. He applies it to Roddy Doran, who ultimately lost to Damon Hague, and he applies it to Larry Olubamiwo, who admitted to using 13 banned substances, including human growth hormone and anabolic steroids, over a six-year period, but was knocked out in a round by John McDermott. He also references Erik Morales, who had been taking clenbuterol before a 2012 bout with Danny Garcia only to find himself beaten up in four rounds. “What does that say about clenbuterol as a drug for performance? It doesn’t work.”
Many boxers, Ingle suggests, have used drugs but not seen their performance enhanced. It’s why he feels David Price was right to grab his opportunity on March 31, despite the obvious risk involved, and why he expects Gennady Golovkin to eventually go through with his money-spinning fight with Canelo Alvarez. “If it was something like testosterone or EPO (erythropoietin), that would be different,” he said. “But Golovkin’s decision will tell us exactly what he thinks of clenbuterol.”
In the end, this all amounts to a what-can-we-do-about-it? shrug rather than a remedy.
“I think it has always been rampant in boxing,” said Conte. “Back in the day, a lot of boxers were using anabolic steroids and growth hormones. A lot of the big names, too; people who won world heavyweight titles.
“I was involved at the very beginning of this anti-doping movement in 2010. Prior to that, other than some testing on fight night, there was no testing. The boxers could do whatever they wanted and just taper off in time and test clean.
“We have testing now but it’s still inept. They can’t abuse drugs like they used to because they’ve got to taper off a couple of months before the fight. But the percentage of boxers on drugs is probably the same as it has always been. I’d say it’s still a majority – probably 60 percent.”
The way forward, according to Conte, is to enforce a 24/7, 365 days a year testing system. Nowhere to run; no cooling-off period. But this will only happen, he believes, if the world’s best boxers initiate it.
“There will be fights cancelled, and pain before it gets better, but you need an independent organisation that can do 24/7, 365 testing, and you need to enrol top fighters who are making millions of dollars to provide leadership,” he said. “They need to step up and say, ‘Regardless of what anybody else does, I’m going to do 24/7, 365 testing. Please join me.’
“Instead, nobody wants to provide leadership. Floyd Mayweather tried to claim he was providing leadership but he was able to determine when the testing started and when it ended. Therefore, during those other times it was open season. You could do whatever you wanted.”
Conte laughed. He clearly finds this exasperating. “Listen,” he said, “you’re never going to completely clean it up because those who receive the majority of the financial gain from boxing have a lack of genuine interest in catching boxers. It’s bad for business if they fail tests.”
For Ingle, however, the phoney war on drugs is a distraction from boxing’s other pertinent problems, of which there are many. If he had it his way, gyms would be better-policed by boxing authorities, the money spent on drug testing in the UK would be doubled and go towards educating license holders, and the issue of death and serious injury would be the focal point.
“I’m not a proponent (of PEDs) by any means, but I want to explore it from every angle and highlight the fact there are many grey areas and each case has to be judged on its evidence,” Ingle concluded.
“Using drugs in sport is cheating, no question, but boxers do more damage to themselves than to each other. If you look at why people have died in the ring, it’s not because an opponent took drugs. It’s more to do with the following: outdated training methods; head sparring; dangerous weight-making protocol; short-notice fights against superior opposition; inexperienced coaches; poor lifestyle choices; recreational drugs.
“Ask yourself this: has a boxer who has killed or injured someone in the ring then failed a drug test?”
Whether the answer – no – reflects the practical power, or lack thereof, of performance-enhancing drugs or (more likely) the inadequacies of doping control is up for debate. But the two issues, drugs and death, are very much now codependent, toxic lovers, even if one has yet to officially cause the other, and in time, as more and more fighters test positive, we will be left with no choice but to confront and accept the reality of drugs in boxing the way we do death in boxing. Regrettably, it will become part of its makeup, an ugly dollop of concealer covering an almighty bruise, and condemnation will last only for as long as we purport to care. It’s awful. How could they? Is this even a sport? What can we do? Enough is enough.
Then, as with tragedy, once our collective conscience is wiped clean, righteous indignation wears thin, and our abusive partner shows renewed signs of affection, we will find it in us to forgive again, forget, move on, and ask: when’s the next fight?
After all, in the same way we love to watch movies and eat meat, we also love to watch fights. Just don’t tell us how they are made.