Boxing must test rigorously for drugs – and stop bobbing and weaving
After the dissection was over Rocky Fielding dropped to one knee, nodded and then smiled at his pathologist. It was an acknowledgement of a job expertly done. For three rounds Canelo Álvarez had swiftly worked him over, starting with the soft layer of flesh below his ribs, which was pounded until it became tenderised and meek. Soon Fielding’s nose was bloodied and his cheeks scuffed too. In truth, it was a mercy when a numbing body shot, which ripped the wind from his lungs and put him down for a fourth time, ended the night.
It all made for a script so pitch-perfect it could have been penned by William Goldman. Fielding had given it a go, taken his licks, made a fight of it. Álvarez, meanwhile, had given the 20,000 crowd at Madison Square Garden the stoppage they wanted and started his new $365m 11-fight deal with the streaming service DAZN – said to be the richest contract in sports history – with a bang, becoming a three-weight world champion.
You can see DAZN’s logic in tying up Álvarez. The company is betting that the Mexican’s immense popularity will drive subscriptions to its US$9.99‑a‑month streaming service, which aims to revolutionise the way people watch sport. Given his fight with Gennady Golovkin in September cost $84.99 on pay-per-view, it may yet turn out to be a win-win for all sides.
Yet I can’t have been alone feeling a little queasy watching the muscular Álvarez, who landed 67 of 103 power shots, go about his business. It was only earlier this year, after all, that he served a six-month ban following two positive tests for clenbuterol. Can you imagine another sport where someone who had broken the rules was welcomed back so quickly – or rewarded for his misdemeanours so lavishly?
It is not just Álvarez, of course. This month when Tyson Fury fought for the WBC heavyweight championship against Deontay Wilder there was far more emphasis on his comeback from serious mental health problems than the fact he had accepted a backdated two-year ban after testing positive for nandrolone in February 2015, which he blamed on eating uncastrated wild boar.
Álvarez has also blamed his positive test on contaminated meat – and in fairness it is a long-standing problem in Mexico, where farmers often use clenbuterol in cattle feed because it reduces fat and increases lean muscle mass in livestock, as it does in humans. Another problem, as the World Anti-Doping Agency has admitted, is that there is as yet no “magic solution” to show whether clenbuterol positives are due to genuine doping or contaminated meat. Therefore it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some athletes who test positive are innocent.
But contamination concerns are not new. As far back as 2011 Wada warned athletes competing in Mexico and China to be aware of the dangers. A year later, when I ghosted Nicola Adams’ diary before the London Olympics, she told me all British fighters were told to avoid meat when they boxed in the world championships in China. Álvarez is rich enough, surely, to buy better meat.
And that is assuming he is telling the truth. For contaminated meat seems to the excuse-du-jour. The two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador used it as a defence when he was busted, as did the Australian heavyweight Lucas Browne, while more recently the British 400m athlete Nigel Levine used a variation on a theme by insisting he had unwittingly taken a contaminated supplement.
The fact is, as Levine was reminded by the head of UK Anti-Doping, Nicole Sapstead, after being handed a four-year ban last month: “All athletes must adhere to the principle of strict liability, and are solely responsible for any substances found in their system.”
The other issue concerns boxing itself. It is not athletics or cycling. Taking performance-enhancing drugs not only alters the balance of competition by making someone stronger, and faster and potentially compete for longer, it also increases the chances of serious harm to an opponent’s health.
Boxing is dangerous enough without the risk of fighters using steroids, human growth hormone, EPO or banned weight-loss drugs. Yet there is no widespread and persistent outrage about cheating save for the odd voice – such as the former light-welterweight and welterweight world champion Paulie Malignaggi – who say that doping is much worse than many assume.
At the very least boxing should have a universal policy when it comes to drug suspensions. As it is, an offence carrying a four-year ban in the UK might get six months in the US. Another problem is that at the lower levels of the sport most boxers are tested only after a fight, if at all. Even elite fighters will often only have their blood and urine taken after they have signed up for a fight – giving them ample opportunity to quietly load up on banned drugs.
Admittedly testing by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, which is reckoned to be the gold standard, is not cheap. Before Anthony Joshua fought Alexander Povetkin, for instance, he revealed that he paid £30,000 to Vada for each fight in addition to being on the UK Anti-Doping Agency’s whereabouts list.
Yet without rigorous testing boxing is in danger of giving the impression that the show, and the dough, matters more than safety – and that the sweet science can all too easily be tainted by chemistry and pharmacology.