Boxing tempting sad fate with lack of drug testing
On the same day Major League Baseball issued stiff suspensions for links to performance enhancing drugs supplied by the Miami-based Biogenensis clinic -- including a whopping 211-game ban for three-time MVP Alex Rodriguez -- another athlete connected to the clinic, lightweight titleholder Yuri Gamboa, was probably in the gym, working out. In January, Gamboa's name was published in a Miami New Times report as one of the athletes who had been supplied PEDs by clinic chief Tony Bosch. In a notebook obtained by the New Times, Bosch outlined an extensive program for Gamboa, including a six-day-a-week HGH regime, IGF-1 -- a human growth hormone-like substance believed to boost strength and endurance -- and a cream with 20 percent testosterone.
In a country where there is a presumption of innocence, Gamboa is certainly entitled due process. But the fact that 12 baseball players accepted 50-game suspensions -- issued absent of a positive test, no less -- certainly speaks to the credibility of the report and the evidence Bosch had on each. Yet five months after the report came out, Gamboa was back in the ring, winning a unanimous decision, live on HBO, in front of a full house at the Bell Centre in Canada.
There was no investigation into Gamboa, no formal interviews done about what he did and when he did it. Only during fighter meetings, when quizzed by HBO's broadcast team, did Gamboa have to acknowledge that he took substances from the Biogenesis clinic, that he didn't know what they were and that he was no longer using them.
Gamboa could get away with such vague, unverifiable statements because boxing has no means of investigating him. There is no collective bargaining agreement in boxing. There is no union, no commissioner, no strong governing body of any kind. Drug testing is performed on a state by state basis and usually only involves pre- and post-fight urine testing, which, with an ever-changing landscape of designer drugs, is akin to trying to catch a fish in a net with a three-foot hole in it.
It's a terrifying fact: Perhaps the world's most dangerous sport is the easiest to cheat in.
"PEDs in boxing are an endemic problem," said promoter Lou DiBella. "It's bad enough if you're hitting a baseball or a hockey puck, but when you are punching someone in the head, steroids become a life-altering way of cheating."
In a sport that has already taken the lives of Benny Paret, Duk Koo Kim and Leavander Johnson, among others, it would behoove athletes to ensure a level playing field. But there is virtually no sense of urgency to create a uniform testing system. Several fighters, most notably Nonito Donaire and Floyd Mayweather, have taken stands against PED use, often asking (and in the case of Mayweather, requiring) opponents to undergo random blood and urine testing before a fight. But far more often than not, matches take place with ineffective testing.
The reason: Money. While major sports leagues foot the bill for their extensive testing procedures, states operate with much smaller budgets. According to Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Keith Kizer, Nevada, site of most of boxing's biggest fights, only has $10,000 per year to test its fighters. Agencies that conduct comprehensive drug testing -- like the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA) -- can cost $10,000 or more per fight. The blood and urine testing for Tim Bradley's welterweight title defense against Juan Manuel Marquez in October, a procedure that will be performed at the WADA-accredited Sports Medicine Research & Testing Laboratory in Utah and overseen by the Nevada commission, will cost in the neighborhood of $35,000, which is money the promoter, Top Rank, has agreed to pay.
"We think this testing process is going to be a good thing," Kizer said. "We hope other promoters will take advantage of it."
Will they? It's doubtful. Top Rank can afford to foot the bill because it is one of the biggest promoters in boxing, just like Donaire and Mayweather can afford testing because of their respective financial success. But a lesser fighter making $15,000 or $20,000 on HBO's Boxing After Dark, ShoBox show or an NBC Sports Network show? It's likely he would rather run the risk of facing a juiced up opponent than take money out of his pocket.
The simple, scary bottom line is this: PED use in boxing won't become a front burner issue until someone is killed in the ring because of it, until a fighter who caves in someone's skull tests positive for a substance that gave him the strength to do it. It's not a matter of if that will happen, but when. Then you will hear fighters refusing to fight. Then you will hear promoters rant and rave about the need for stricter testing. Then you will hear elected officials call for a federal system to oversee all of it.
Then, though, it will be too late.