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Seven Shameful Days for Boxing

Oscar Valdez

WHERE to start? Do we open with the adverse drugs test and the subsequent failure of the system to act upon it, or should we talk about a whole fight card being moved from one US state to another to allow a 58-year-old man with a long history of absorbing punches to absorb some more? Or is the death of a teenager more pertinent?

Boxing is full of great people, great fighters and feats of extraordinary bravery. There are selfless heroes in every club in every corner of the world. Those saviours of lost souls who give so much of themselves to offer fighting chances to youngsters who would otherwise have none. Unfortunately, such good deeds infrequently make the news. Only those who have spent time inside boxing know they exist.

Elsewhere, in certain places and in certain situations, the lack of care, morals and rules suck that goodness out. It’s replaced with grim headlines which are spewed to the outside world, should it dare (or care) to read them. That Óscar Valdez essentially failed a drug test and was then cleared to fight, on the same day that Evander Holyfield was presented with a licence to fight in Florida after California denied him one, is bad enough. That those two flagrant rule-bending incidents occurred in the same week that an 18-year-old girl writhed and convulsed in a boxing ring before losing her life is depressing in the extreme.

Several times I have written editorials in defence of boxing in the aftermath of a death. I’m not convinced I can do that this week. So look away now if you’re expecting another rallying cry. Yes, we absolutely must remember why we love boxing and all the good it does, but to ignore its shortcomings – the kind that will one day see the sport marginalised to the point of extinction if they’re allowed to continue – would be doing a disservice to those people who give boxing everything; sometimes to the point where they cease to exist.

The death of Jeanette Zacarias Zapata following a stoppage loss to Marie Pier Houle in Montreal was a horrible accident. The kind that will inevitably occur in boxing, albeit very rarely. Her cruel demise is of course nothing to do with Valdez getting caught taking phentermine, a central nervous stimulant known to increase endurance. Holyfield being granted permission to fight Vitor Belfort following the withdrawal of Oscar De La Hoya had no bearing on her fate, either. But surely the family of Zapata have every right to feel aggrieved with a highly-dangerous sport that appears to show so little care, even when worst case scenarios are there for all to see.

Some of you might read this and say it is unfair to focus on three separate incidents taking place in North America and use them, in a British magazine, as evidence that the sport is deeply flawed. To that I’d say you’re missing the point.

The warning signs are there. Yet we keep ignoring them. Should boxing be in the dock, and it is not a stretch to imagine the sport facing some kind of legal action in the not too distant future, the latest evidence against us – a sport that continues to act so lawlessly, even in the wake of death – is damning.   

Some will argue that Valdez has done no wrong. The results of the tests carried out by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA) are to be ignored by both the World Boxing Council (WBC) and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Athletic Commission (the governing body in Tucson, Arizona where Valdez will fight Robson Concaição) because according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), phentermine is only banned ‘in-competition’, which is defined as from 11.59pm the day before the bout. It is the classic case of rules in one place count for nothing in another.

VADA does not have rules, per se. They simply test athletes and disclose their findings to the relevant parties. The rules, for what they’re worth, are provided by the governing bodies (commissions) and sanctioning bodies. The problem lies with a complete lack of uniformity across those governing and sanctioning bodies. Even more problematic is that the sanctioning bodies, in this case the World Boxing Council, appear to pick and choose what rules suits them on a particular day. Even though they holler from the rooftops about their VADA Clean Boxing Programme, they have opted to ignore an adverse finding that was discovered as a consequence of that programme. As boxing writer Mark Ortega pointed out on Twitter, the same organisation stripped David Benavidez for taking cocaine while not in training for a fight, but sees no problem with Valdez getting caught with a performance-enhancer in his system while preparing for a contest.

The extent of how much phentermine would ‘enhance’ Valdez’s performance is not the issue here. The issue is the mixed messages and, back to the start, the woeful image of a sport in disarray those mixed messages present to the outside world. In short, a PED is not more or less dangerous depending on where in the world it is taken so, surely, a definitive list of illegal substances can be created for the entire sport to adhere to. In the meantime, even if only common sense was applied, any kind of finding that the assigned drug-testing agency highlighted as adverse should result in a fight being called off.

The case of Holyfield taking the place of De La Hoya might not be deemed as sinister. Yet it again speaks of the myriad chiefs, all playing by their own bendable rules, who only answer to themselves. It is no secret that Holyfield has been back in training after his ears were pricked by the new-fangled Triller platform that recognises the value in feeding the egos of faded legends and inviting them back into a boxing ring. Faded legends who long ago concluded they cannot fight anymore.

De La Hoya-Belfort had been approved as a legitimate bout by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). That alone was questionable. Then, last week, De La Hoya contracted Covid-19 and Holyfield was drafted in to replace him. That was where the CSAC drew the line. So the entire September 11 card, which also features David Haye-Joe Fournier, has been moved to Hollywood after the Florida Athletic Commission (FAC) deemed it appropriate sporting fare.

This is the same Holyfield who is nearly 60, who has engaged in thousands of rounds (in and out of competition) and, as anyone who studies boxing history will tell you, is already a prime candidate to suffer from brain damage at some point in the future. It may indeed be quite the spectacle to see him fighting again. I don’t doubt he will be paid handsomely. But I do doubt those who are so quick to throw him into combat today won’t rush to his aid when he needs it the most tomorrow.

You can read an interview with Triller’s Ryan Kavanaugh – conducted prior to De La Hoya’s withdrawal – in this week’s issue. He admits he knows little about the sport. He was one who used to look from the outside in. What he recognised was a sport that was ripe for exploitation. One can draw their own conclusions from that.

On Friday, as I walked through the streets of London, I stopped outside the majestic building that occupies 92 Fleet Street. Many years ago, it was where the Boxing News offices were stationed. Let’s not kid ourselves, boxing has always been a sport that has invited criticism and welcomed the shady and the suspect. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the old BN reporters would have made of recent events. Unquestionably, they would have continued to fight the good fight. Just like we try to do today, and will continue to do, simply because we still recognise what a wonderful sport it can be.

But the feeling that we’re fighting a losing battle has perhaps never been more pronounced than it was in the last seven days.

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