After the shenanigans of last week, Elliot Worsell tracks down boxers who have fought opponents who had failed performance-enhancing drug tests and investigates why it’s a risk so many are willing to take
IN relationships it is known as a “body count” and it is, along with a woman’s age, the one thing you are not supposed to ask someone of the opposite of sex with whom you are intimate. Bring it up, they say, whether motivated by suspicion or trust issues, and you are not only disrespecting the person being asked the question, but you are also leaving yourself susceptible to being hurt, disappointed, or simply hearing a number you would rather not hear (one pertaining to the number of previous partners).
In boxing, there is no room for such decorum. In boxing, where knowledge is power (the only power a boxer will possess other than what they carry in their fists), it is imperative for a fighter to know everything they can about a potential opponent. They need to, on a basic level, know their stance, and their style, and their record, as well as who they have previously beaten and any common opponents they might have. Beyond that, though, they must also know what sort of track record they have, if any, regarding performance-enhancing drugs and decide, upon learning this, whether the risk of fighting them, thus giving them the benefit of considerable doubt, is worth the eventual reward.
Whereas it might be the case in other walks of life, ignorance is anything but bliss in boxing. In fact, rather than leading to a spotless mind, ignorance happens to be the very thing that allows people in power to exploit those who are perhaps ignorant, subservient or simply apathetic to certain aspects of their profession. It is what allows the men in suits to manipulate situations to suit their own needs and it is what allows certain boxers, the ones considered clued-up as opposed to simply dishonest, to tip the playing field in their favour.
Keep us in the dark, as we discovered last week, and two separate realities can play out: one, the actual reality of a situation, and, two, the reality presented to us like sweets pulled from a paedophile’s pocket by promoters and other adults who should know better.
To be duped as a fan is one thing, of course, yet to be duped as a fighter, someone whose life is on the line whenever they go to work, is another thing entirely. Still it happens, though, and far too frequently. It happens without them knowing it and it happens, too, with them knowing exactly what it is they have signed up for – aware, that is, of the fact their opponent has either failed a drug test ahead of their fight (as was the case with Chris Eubank Jnr and Conor Benn and, before that, Óscar Valdez and Robson Conceição), or, if not that dramatic, aware of their opponent’s history in relation to failing a prior test.
Either way, so pervasive is the issue of PEDs, the boxer in question is left with a choice: seek a level playing field in a sport now permanently off-balance or make money from it regardless, ignoring the fact their courage could be viewed as complicity.
Most, by the nature of their profession, will choose the latter. It is, after all, a sport in which money and opportunities are fair-weather friends and, moreover, fighters are driven by pride and machismo and a need to believe they can beat any opponent, enhanced or otherwise. It was for this reason, one suspects, Chris Eubank Jnr gave the answer two promoters so badly wanted to hear last week. It was also for this reason David Price, a heavyweight knocked out by drug cheats not once but twice, had to accept his powerlessness in 2018, when agreeing to fight Alexander Povetkin in Cardiff, Wales.
“My situation changed,” Price told me that March. “Back then, when you asked me if I’d fight (Tony) Thompson or (Erkan) 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.”
Listening to Price that week in Cardiff, his words almost apologetic in tone, my heart sank. It did so because I could remember a conversation I had with the Liverpool heavyweight in 2016, two years earlier, when he had said, “I would never dream of doing anything like that (taking performance-enhancing drugs). One, it’s completely wrong on an ethical level, and two, I’d be f*****g terrified of getting caught. It’s my livelihood. If I get caught and banned, it’s over.
“In my naïve mind, nobody else was risking it for the same reasons. But the truth is, they f*****g are. There’s a lot of unscrupulous people out there who will do anything to get the upper hand. (Erkan) Teper, for example, had been caught before (in June 2014). If I’d known that, I would have probably refused to fight him (in July 2015). Knowledge is important. You need to know about an opponent’s past. Going forward, it has definitely made me paranoid.”
It had made him paranoid enough that year for Price to refuse to entertain talk of boxing Antonio Tarver, a former world champion with whom he had been linked in the press. “By taking a fight with Tarver (who failed a PED test in 2012 for drostanolone, an anabolic steroid),” Price said, “I’d almost be condoning his actions.”
And yet, by March 2018, such was his desperation, Price was trading in his moral compass for a payday against Povetkin, later to be knocked out by the Russian, who was tested just once during fight week by UKAD (UK Anti-Doping), in the fifth round.
There are scarier stories where Povetkin is concerned, mind. In 2016, for example, Johann Duhaupas, a Frenchman best-known for losing against Deontay Wilder, agreed to fight “Sasha” on less than a day’s notice following the withdrawal of original opponent Bermane Stiverne, despite knowing the reason for Stiverne’s withdrawal and knowing it had everything to do with Povetkin failing a pre-fight performance-enhancing drug test. (Earlier that year, by the way, Povetkin had flunked a different drug test ahead of a WBC title fight with Deontay Wilder, a misstep that cost him a $4 million windfall.)
Given the choice, Stiverne, to his credit, said no. He didn’t like the idea of boxing a potentially enhanced Povetkin and therefore promptly boarded the first flight back to America. Duhaupas, meanwhile, a fringe contender in need of a break, was offered the hand-me-down opportunity and could fathom no reason why he’d reject the fight with Povetkin at the eleventh hour. When interviewed about it, he even appeared to make light of the situation, calling it a “crazy decision”, but said he had weighed it up and concluded that the considerable risk was worth the potential reward. “If I beat Povetkin,” he said, “I want that rematch with (Deontay) Wilder.”
If that was the dream, however, the reality was quite different: Duhaupas, looking tentative and overmatched from the outset, was eventually put out of his misery by a vicious knockout blow in round six.
Looking back, some will say he not only saw it coming but had it coming. Others will say he only had himself to blame. Whatever your view, though, the real grey area in all this emerges not in situations like Duhaupas’ but instead when a boxer is about to box an opponent who has not necessarily failed a drug test for their upcoming fight but whose past is checkered and perhaps sullied by one or two transgressions easier for them to forget than it is for anyone else.
That was something lightweight Maxi Hughes experienced last month when fighting Barry Awad, otherwise known as Kid Galahad, in Sheffield.
“I managed to block it out and get the blinkers on,” Hughes said of Galahad’s two-year ban for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, in 2015. “I presume he’s learnt his lesson. He got a two-year ban and he’d be absolutely stupid to do the same again.
“But one thing that did concern me was this: in every championship fight I’ve had, where there’s been testing from UKAD, what happens is that as soon as you get to the venue you have the UKAD inspector who is dedicated to you greet you and he’s on you then. Every time you go to the toilet, he’s watching you. You also fill the paperwork out. But with the Galahad fight he wasn’t there when I arrived. Obviously, I’m not concerned for myself, but I thought, I’m against a convicted drug user here, where is the ‘drugs man’? I hope they’re going to be testing us. As it happened, he collared me after the fight. I can only assume he did the same with Barry.”
Assumption, much like ignorance, is a deadly weapon in a sport like boxing, though one hopes Hughes’ willingness to give the benefit of the doubt, once again, is justified in this case.
No longer ignorant, nor assuming anything, is Doncaster heavyweight Dave Allen. Ask him about testing in British boxing and you’ll quickly turn Hughes’ aforementioned “concern” into something far more serious. For Allen, after all, a man of 27 professional fights, has had his fair share of encounters with opponents who previously popped for performance-enhancing drugs and, worse than that, has rarely ever felt protected despite the knowledge other people had of certain situations.
“The first one I boxed was probably Larry Olubamiwo (who, in 2013, admitted to using 13 illegal substances),” Allen said, “but at that point (in 2014) I was only 21 or 22 and didn’t have a clue what performance-enhancing drugs were. All I knew was that people smoked weed and put stuff up their nose. I didn’t know anything about growth hormone and all this other stuff. I didn’t even give it a thought.
“The first time I saw him (Olubamiwo) in the flesh I was with the referee in the middle of the ring. I thought, He’s a big fella but he doesn’t look in the best shape. It was pretty clear to me at the time, based on this, he was not on the gear.
“As my career went on, Luis Ortiz (whom Allen boxed in 2016) had been done (in 2014) and Dillian Whyte (whom Allen boxed in 2016) served a ban (2012 to 2014), but even against those two I wasn’t really aware of anything in terms of performance-enhancing drugs. At the time of boxing them both, I’m not even sure I knew any of the details of what they had done or what their punishment had been. So, again, I kind of went in blind. I didn’t really care, to be honest.”
Allen continued: “It was only after I boxed Tony Yoka (in June 2018) that I started to think more about it. I remember returning to my corner after the first round and saying, ‘This man is superhuman.’
“I’d sparred Joe Joyce and many others and was never out of my depth strength-wise. But then I boxed Tony Yoka and it was like nothing I’d ever felt in the ring.
“I’m not accusing him of anything. I know he got a one-year ban (in 2018) but it wasn’t for a banned substance (the French Anti-Doping Agency punished Yoka for missing three anti-doping tests in less than a year).
“Anyway, it took me ages to get home on the Eurostar – the tunnel was shut, both my eyes were swollen shut, I was concussed – and the next morning I’d seen he had received a year ban. After that I started to read into these things a bit more and then people would say to me, ‘Oh, didn’t you know about Ortiz and Whyte?’”
In what was a perverse sort of transaction, one only boxing could offer, Dave Allen would effectively have to get beaten up in order for him to get clued up. His punishment for his ignorance was to be entirely physical, whereas his reward for his eventual acquiring of knowledge was merely regret and unwelcome thoughts of what might have been.
“The Lucas Browne fight (in April 2019) was the only fight I went into where I was aware of performance-enhancing drugs and aware of the percentage of fighters on them,” Allen said. “By then I was 27 years old and had been around the block a bit. I’d spoken to other fighters; I’d been in numerous gyms. I knew performance-enhancing drugs were a real thing and I knew a lot of people were taking them.
“With Lucas Browne, because he failed a test previously (a six-month ban for clenbuterol in 2016), it was the first time I went into a fight thinking, I wonder if he’s back on the gear because it’s a big fight. I’d seen him box Dillian Whyte and he was shocking.
“I remember at the weigh-in (for the Allen vs. Browne fight) he got down to the weight he used to be when he was winning – when he beat (Ruslan) Chagaev – so that played on my mind again. It shouldn’t be like that really. It should be a level playing field. We shouldn’t have to think these things.
“I don’t accuse any of my opponents of anything, and I’m not saying any of them were on anything when I boxed them, but at one point in my career I was number 15 in the world and I do sit and wonder sometimes where I would have been if the playing field was always level. Where would I have been then? Would I have boxed for titles? Would I have been a multi-millionaire? Maybe. I don’t know.”
If we agree that the past is the past, and should be left where it is, all we can hope for in the present is that those who once failed performance-enhancing drug tests are now reformed and clean and that those tasked with ensuring this do so with added intensity and focus. That should be fundamental today, in 2022, and it should have been fundamental throughout Dave Allen’s professional boxing career, particularly given the murky waters through which he had to swim.
“The worst thing is that I wasn’t even tested for the Whyte, Ortiz or Yoka fights,” he revealed. “I was never tested during the lead up or post-fight; not a thing for three fights against two world-class heavyweights and an Olympic gold medallist. When I boxed Dillian Whyte at Leeds Arena, I just turned up at seven o’clock, got ready, boxed, and went home.
“I’ve been drug-tested for fights against Lucas Browne and Lenroy Thomas (in 2017), but that’s it. I’ve also been drug-tested twice out of competition: once during camp for the (2018) fight against Samir Nebo – a couple of weeks before the fight they came to my bed-and-breakfast – and once when making a comeback last year. I was in good shape and someone must have phoned the (British Boxing) Board and said I was on the gear because they came and visited me at ten o’clock at night. So that’s four tests, two after fights and two in training, in a 10-year professional career of 27 fights. It’s mad – and now I know it is as well. Before, back then, I didn’t.”
Former IBF cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham got wise a little earlier than Allen, which allowed him to also get prepared. In fact, of Cunningham’s nine championship fights, six of them, he reckons, involved an opponent using performance-enhancing drugs. When asked how he could be so sure, he explained: “Fighters talk and coaches talk. When we go to training camp, it’s boring, there’s downtime. Boxing is a very small community and a lot of people know who is using.
“Also, my trips to Europe showed me a lot; just fighting at a level where titles are at stake has shown me a lot. When there’s big money involved, people do crazy things to get and retain power.”
Asked then how he went about winning those fights, Cunningham said, “Chris Byrd (the former IBF heavyweight champion) told me he fought guys on the juice – a lot of them – and reassured me by saying you can still beat them. So that was my mindset going into fights where I knew someone was on drugs. You weigh it up. In my position, I’m going abroad a lot. I’m up against it. You go to some guy’s hometown and you’re fighting the star of that country. It’s bigger than just a fight. Things get overlooked when there’s that much riding on a guy getting a win.”
While it’s not a thought any professional boxer wants to or should have to entertain, the mere threat of being caught or punished is not enough of a deterrent for most boxers who try to cheat the system. Scarier than that, however, if last week is any indication, the issue of a failed drug test – or “adverse analytical finding” as it prefers to be called – is somehow not enough of a deterrent to cancel a big-money fight, either.
“It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, but with what’s come to light recently, it probably will become something I think about,” said Maxi Hughes, the former British lightweight champion on a run of seven straight wins. “That’s a bit sad really, isn’t it?”
It is sad. But as well as sad, it’s concerning, and it’s off-putting, and it has fighters like Dave Allen, someone who has received more punches than most, having to think twice about getting punched again.
“I just want the sport to bring in more stringent testing because I don’t feel safe boxing at a good level without proper testing,” he said. “That’s how I feel these days. I genuinely feel unsafe.
“I know I’ll look back on my career in 20 years and ask, ‘Was I cheated at some point?’ I was never in the greatest shape, and never trained the hardest, but what annoys me the most is that I gave it 100 per cent. Everybody these days worships these top fighters, even though half of them have failed drug tests and it’s public knowledge. Yet we’re the ones who get stick because we play by rules and do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
To hear a boxer express concern for their safety is something one should only ever hear in the context of them discussing an upcoming fight against a dangerous opponent. Never, given all that’s at stake, should a boxer’s concern for their safety come as a result of the behaviour of those who govern the sport itself; the ones looking out for them; the ones who make the rules; the supposed caretakers.