WHEN they tell you they should be considered innocent until proven guilty despite evidence of a positive performance-enhancing drug test, it sounds a lot like when they tell you Fighter A beat Fighter B despite everyone in attendance thinking otherwise. They talk then of a case being put forward, and use terms like “due process” and “hearing”, hoping that over a period of time, much like incorrect scorecards delivered to an unfortunate away fighter, the initial sting of the offence will subside and all will be forgotten.
He is, after all, in spite of the evidence of a failed test, a good man. An honest man. A fighting man. This is something he would never do; something he himself struggles to either explain or understand.
All that could be true as well; true in a way most things aren’t. Yet, even if it is true, there is surely too much at stake where PEDs in boxing are concerned to give a fighter in this position that kind of leeway and that kind of benefit of the doubt. For if willing to go as far as that, if we truly believe a positive test is not a sign of guilt in the traditional sense, we run the risk of drug-testing in boxing becoming merely a performative act, one that can be brushed away with the back of a hand (or “hearing”) whenever it suits.
We are in danger, too, of the process becoming something like this: fighter fails a drug test, fighter pleads their innocence, fighter then launches his case and lawyers up to such a degree those responsible for administering the punishment are effectively Luca Brasied into submission and silence. The process becomes, in essence, therefore not an attempt to crack down on drug cheats but to instead catch them out and then for some reason give them an opportunity to both clear their name and prove the inadequacy of testing along the way.
In the case of Conor Benn, the one that refreshed this topic, we all hope to be proved wrong. But, alas, for now, whether he likes it or not, he is deemed a guilty fighter; guilty, that is, of failing a VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency) drug test on September 1, 2022, and apparently another one (as reported yesterday) on July 25.
This, rather than an attempt to denigrate him, tarnish his reputation, or hinder his future earning opportunities, is merely the truth and you are not, in simply stating this truth, accusing Benn of cheating. In fact, those two things, being caught with a PED in your system and deliberately cheating are, due to the intricacies and level of dishonesty involved, quite different. To prove someone has cheated is significantly harder than proving someone has taken a performance-enhancing drug. The only test for that, the only judge of that, is the fighter himself. Forget experts. Forget testing procedures. Only he or she knows if they have cheated in pursuit of an advantage. Only he or she knows if they are guilty of the one crime to which no fighter, caught or not, would ever admit.
As for being guilty of traces of PEDs, Conor Benn fits that bill. He fits that bill irrespective of how many Malcolm X quotes he reads and repeats on Instagram, and he fits that bill irrespective of what happens beyond this point, when, naturally, there will be an attempted fight back, an effort to clear his name, and then a rallying cry for – what is it? – the “apology to be as loud as the disrespect” or something equally basic and banal.
To be cleared of being a cheat is, at this stage, the best Benn can hope for. It is the best we can hope for, too – those of us, that is, who respect Benn, and want to trust Benn, and want to believe his improvements inside the ring owe only to him knuckling down, listening, and growing in both confidence and maturity.
His case will be concluded one day and, I’ve no doubt, be a success. Yet ultimately, even if he is cleared of being a cheat, Benn still needs to experience some sort of consequence for failing that VADA test on September 1 (as well as the one on July 25), something his promoter, Eddie Hearn, appears to accept.
“I believe he’s innocent,” he said to Boxing News on Wednesday, “but, at the same time, you have to take responsibility, whether you’ve been unlucky or not, if something has been found in your system. With what I know and believe, the purpose of any ban is more to suppress the public feeling and media around the situation. I don’t think you guys and the public would be happy if he can’t nail a specific contamination issue or whatever it is. I think the response would be, ‘He’s just got off it.’ But at the same time I don’t believe he should be serving a lengthy ban for this. If I don’t believe he has taken a drug for the benefit or enhancing his performance, which is how I feel, I don’t feel he should have his career ultimately punished in his prime.”
Asked if this view was based on the facts currently available – which, admittedly, are sketchy to say the least – or his fondness for Benn, the person, Hearn said, “It’s based on the scientific evidence, but also my belief in him as a character. I can’t take that away. He’s a God-fearing man. He had it in him to say, ‘I have to find a way to be honest in this situation and find out what happened,’ rather than say, ‘Yeah, this happened. Get me three months.’”
Therein lies the greater problem, of course. For, unfortunately, as long as these boxers inconvenienced by a positive PED test are allowed to explore the possibility of arguing their case, weighing up their options, and consulting “experts”, we leave the door open to “innocence” becoming almost an inevitability, not something earned or justified. It is, as we witnessed in the case of Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez in 2018, then only a matter of time before the weakest of punishments – in the Mexican’s case, a six-month ban – is handed out almost for show, just to pacify the killjoys who keep mentioning the issue.
Which is why, as harsh as it sounds, I’m not opposed to the idea of guilty until proven innocent in boxing. Take that approach, after all, and the worst-case scenario is this: an “innocent” boxer serves a ban he perhaps didn’t deserve, thus losing money in the process. That’s still a regrettable outcome, no doubt about it, yet the sympathy I have for a millionaire boxer having to sit out one or two paydays as a result of something found in their system – taken deliberately or not – is not something over which I will lose much sleep.
Moreover, the alternative to that worst-case scenario is this: we give every “guilty” boxer the opportunity to be recast as innocent and, in turn, countless drug-aided fighters are performing in rings up and down the country causing untold damage to genuinely innocent opponents.
Now what’s the worst-case scenario?
If, in the end, the threat of banning so-called “innocents” winds up being a deterrent, so be it. It might even work. We are not talking about somebody potentially on death row here, either (a scenario in which guilty until proven innocent is a dangerous game to play). In fact, this is only a life and death matter if, indeed, we start veering into the territory of believing everyone is innocent until proven guilty (twice). It’s then and only then it could become a matter of life and death.
Rarely, you have to remind yourself, will a boxer ever own up to any wrongdoing if it happens to involve drugs. It’s the easiest thing in the world to deny, drug-taking, because the world, for the most part, is oblivious to what drug-taking in sport actually entails and looks like. This is not a case of a cheating partner being found out and coming clean, with text messages or an actual gotcha! moment as evidence. Here, instead, all we have are words, either written or spoken. We have the words, usually in an email, of the drug agency involved, and we have the words, usually spoken, of the fighter, their promoter, and any other key players. They tell us what has happened and we have no choice but to believe it. They then tell us how they feel about what has happened and what they intend to do about what has happened. Again, we have no choice but to go with it (if perhaps not believe it).
A statement on Wednesday, released by someone writing on behalf of Conor Benn, concluded with the telling line: “In the meantime, he reiterates, in no uncertain terms, he is a clean athlete.” And yet, by the very definition, he is not, is he?
It could of course be argued, if feeling generous, that he’s not a “cheat” at this point, the implication being that he didn’t deliberately take a performance-enhancing drug, but what you can’t do is make the argument that Conor Benn is a “clean athlete”. Because he isn’t. Or at least wasn’t. The truth is, on July 25 and September 1, when VADA conducted their tests, he wasn’t, for whatever reason, a clean athlete and the sooner we establish and accept that, not just in Benn’s case but others like his, the better off we’ll probably be.
“Someone had a good line: in this situation, you’re not innocent until proven guilty, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” Hearn said on Wednesday. “Ultimately, that’s the testing world. You fail a test; you fail a test.”
I could be wrong, but, when saying these words, it sounded to me like Hearn had almost come around to the idea of guilty until proven innocent. He will accept it with reluctance, as we all do, but he knows as well as anyone that stripping the element of “guilt” from every positive performance-enhancing drug test gives fighters far too much wiggle room, undermines the testing process as a whole, and leaves us all wondering exactly what it means in be deemed guilty of anything in boxing.
Which is to say, are we at the point now, given all that has happened in the sport, where everything, even guilt, is relative to the crimes of the past (Yeah, b-b-b-but did you hear what Jarrell Miller had in his body)? Are we at the point now where the fight between guilt and innocence is one that can also be decided by inept officials and dodgy scorecards? Can even innocence be bought in the whorish world of professional boxing?
If I’m honest, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is pretty much impossible these days to watch boxing with anything other than the mindset of guilty until proven innocent. Its innocence, if such a thing actually existed, is now lost entirely and likely has been for some time. What’s worse, though, is this: whereas before we feared only what the boxers were getting up to behind closed doors, today we have been forced to cast the net of doubt wider and, sadly, question everybody involved.
Nowadays, when I watch a great fight, I wonder if it’s a fair one. And when I watch a great performance, I wonder if what I’m seeing is even real. When I write about boxers who have failed tests, meanwhile, previewing with enthusiasm their upcoming fight, celebrating their latest victory, or praising their recent improvement, I often feel as complicit – or guilty – as all those I criticise.