"Who plays sports for fun any more?" — John Bosley Ziegler, the man who developed Methandrostenolone, the West's first orally-effective anabolic steroid.
Disclaimer: I am old. And feeling curmudgeonly. I write these words not to offend, but merely to get something off my chest. And in the interests of full disclosure, this column was written under the influence of the following performance enhancers: paracetamol, ibuprofen, caffeine, nicotine, pseudo-ephedrine, menthol, eucalyptus and something mysteriously referred to as “a soothing liquid centre”. I'm not clean, man, is what I'm trying to get at. With the exciting news that Lamont Peterson is the latest top-flight combat athlete to allegedly fail their pre-fight drug test, I think it's time for Boxrec News to consider the true implications of rewiring your endocrine system until you can break cars on your abdomen and stomp across the world like some all-conquering Kongzilla trapped in a man's body.
Fame, fortune, glory and a possible future starring role in The Expendables IV are on offer to those willing to play dice with their health and pay the exorbitant amounts this stuff goes for.
In the world of MMA (what should, in reality, be boxing's sister sport), Alistair Overeem was recently discovered to have sixteen times the normal amount of testosterone surging through his body in a random drug test before the UFC's May 26 fight card. Overeem has of course claimed that this is because he was given a sore rib cream by his doctor, and not at all because he has spent years pumping himself full of chemicals to turn him into the Black Dutch Incredible Hulk.
That wasn't what made me laugh, originally, about the whole affair: No. It was my discovery that the Nevada State Athletic Commission said that having six times the normal human amount of testosterone in you is perfectly fine and legal. It was merely the brain-buggering amount of times that Overeem was over the limit that was wrong, not the cheating itself. We're in murky waters here, even as we wait with bated breath for the Boxing Gods to pass judgement on Peterson and whether or not the presence of synthetic testosterone in his two drug test samples will scupper his projected fight with Amir Khan, scheduled for later this month.
So, in the interests of muddying those waters further, let me make a few suggestions.
It seems that boxing fans have had nothing else but needles, creams and synthetic hormones to talk about ever since the mangled diction of Floyd Mayweather Sr. (himself a paragon of clean living, apart from that time his boxes of detergent happened to be filled to the brim with cocaine) first cast aspersions on Manny Pacquiao, following the Filipino star's crushing second-round KO of Ricky Hatton back in 2009. Little Floyd followed his father's lead, Paulie Malignaggi chimed in and ever since that sage, level-headed trio first spoke of the issue then the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs has cast a grim shadow over boxing. Accusations and rumours now buzz about the game like flies over a rotting corpse; boxing's pundits shake their heads and intone gravely for the cameras, and lots of trainers and managers give strained, earnest interviews where they pontificate about the likelihood that rival fighters are jacked into a post-human state while trying to look all wide-eyed and innocent about whatever wonder-chemicals their charge is currently being pumped full of.
Full page adverts for "supplements" scream out from the pages of boxing magazines, full of adjectives like "ripped" and "shredded", promising mind-boggling physical gains. Though the inclusion of the word “shredded” makes me think instantly of barbecues, so I think I might not be the target market for these potions.
It's great. I mean, really. If you can remember this far back, back beyond the hilarious 2007 linkage of Evander Holyfield, All-American warrior and Man of God, with "Evan Fields", an individual who allegedly shared the same address and phone number with the former champ and had a bit of a predilection for Human Growth Hormone, back beyond even Shane Mosley admitting, then denying, then admitting then denying again that he was on a cocktail of designer steroids, masking agents and blood-doping serums from BALCO for his rematch versus Oscar De La Hoya in 2003... Then we have the 2002 case of Fernando Vargas, who was caught for the some-time racehorse steroid Winstrol after being defeated by De La Hoya.
A lot of sage heads in the game and in the media will tell you that the issues are complex, unless like Vargas and (allegedly) Peterson you are caught with a needle sticking out of your arse with "100 % racehorse rocket fuel" written on the side of it: basically, everyone wants to amp up their speed, power and endurance. Testosterone is the chemical which does this, and the basic letter of the law is that as long as you aren't using a substance on the "Banned" list to do this, you can inject, rub in, eat or shove up your arse anything you like. The potential for fuck-ups is obvious: today's supplemental nutrient might be tomorrow's witch-hunted evil potion. In a sport so intrinsically riddled with the influence of money that the word "prize" accounts for half its real name, is it any wonder the lengths athletes are willing to go to get an edge over the competition?
Making things worse is that you need a bloody post-doctorate chemistry degree to even get your tiny brain around this shit. No, honestly. Peterson has apparently tested positive for synthetic testosterone in a carbon isotope ratio test. Twenty minutes on Wikipedia left me no more enlightened as to what that actually entails, but I did come up this equation:
Which, as someone who scraped GCSE Maths, fills me with nought but fear. If someone can explain, in words of one syllable or less, what that means, in a format I can understand, please contact BoxRec News. A classy BoxRec lapel awaits the winner.
Further clouding the issue as to what constitutes “cheating”, let us bring up Nonito Donaire, the former bantamweight champ, and Andre Ward, the current super-middle boss. Both are clients of Victor Conte, a man who is a convicted steroid peddler and the bloke at the centre of the whole BALCO thing mentioned earlier. But both Donaire and Ward have given interviews singing the praises of his new wonder-supplement ZMA (Zinc monomethionine aspartate and Magnesium Aspartate, if you're interested), which is completely legal and free of any taint of suspicion. But as I said earlier, as a layman one gets a creeping suspicion: next month, will that shit still be legal? Many things which are now banned were once promoted as healthful, and when the stroke of a pen decides legal and extra-legal...
A modern boxing trainer, yesterday...
To be a boxing fan, you have to make several cognitive leaps. When Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., a fighter with previous with the gear (caught a couple of years back using the diuretic furosemide, a substance used on racehorses, which cannot only help with weight loss but might be used as a masking agent for other performance enhancing drugs), put on 21 lbs overnight for his championship fight in February versus Marco Antonio Rubio, the Texas commission "forgot" to enforce the mandatory post-fight drug tests. People don't really bat an eyelid. Boxing fans and those inside the game have told me with straight faces that it's okay, because... I have to admit, I can't tell you why. I'm sure they told me something, possibly involving a lot of solemnity, but it didn't really stick in my mind. Probably I was too busy gaping at them open-mouthed to listen.
This is of course the kind of thing we as boxing fans accept, after a fashion: people keep paying their hard-earned (or deftly-stolen) money to see Chavez. Talking of Chavez, boxing fans like to moan about the proliferation of titles in boxing, the fragmentary nature of world championships, the illegitimacy of titlists. Chavez is of course the poster-boy for this, as the WBC's middleweight champ. The bloke who beat the last man to legitimately take the world middleweight title in the ring, Sergio Gabriel Martinez, earns a lot less money than Julio, and is something called the WBC Diamond Champion.
And again, boxing fans accept this, after a fashion.
Boxing fans accept a lot, just to see two blokes beat the shit out of one another. As we like to classify this endeavour as a "sport", we impose rather arbitrary rules governing this activity. Yet for all the apologists' arguments, and despite the imposition of these strictures (gloves, gumshields, one-minute rests), guys still die in the ring. Fighters end up penniless, unable to string sentences together.
And still we cling to these arbitrary strictures we impose, as if explaining it away is anything other than a bit of hand-waving, a desperate excuse to salve consciences or to continue to line wallets.
Or rather, in plainer English, it's bullshit.
No, it is. It's bullshit. Hitting people in the head fucks them up. It just does. We've added niceties here and there to stem the flow of casualties, but there's no getting away from it. In the words of ring philosopher Christopher Livingstone Eubank: "Boxing was made for man, but man was not made for boxing".
You know what? Despite Chris dressing like something from a P. G. Wodehouse novel via a bad acid trip, he was right. But we have to hide this (though: from whom?), to pretend it's somehow all right. Then the next tragedy happens, and we shake our heads and wring our hands and mope for a bit. Until the next great fight.
To circle circuitously around to what I'm getting at, let me return to the statement released by Peterson's attorney on the morning the story of his alleged wrong-doing broke. I quote it here because it was both hilarious, and telling: “We are working expeditiously with a team of pathologists and other medical specialists. Lamont has never had a positive test either before or after this isolated occurrence and we plan to submit medical findings by close of Tuesday reflecting the actual facts in support of Lamont’s good faith intentions and the requirements of the commission.”
Okay. "Lamont has never had a positive test either before or after this isolated occurrence". "Lamont's good faith intentions". "The requirements of the commission". Carefully tortured legalese, crafted ersatz bullshit extruded from somewhere sticky down in the depths of what passes for a soul amongst lawyers and PR people. That this vile piece of weaselly wormery echoes so perfectly the mental, moral and ethical hoops you have to jump through to be a boxing fan should come as no surprise, really, to anyone even half awake at this point.
Glass houses, throwing stones: I'm not setting myself up as a paragon of virtue here. Far from it. I howled in amazement the night the aforementioned Mr Eubank came back from the dead to render Michael Watson an invalid; I jumped up and down and hugged my old man when Gerald McClellan went down for the last time against Nigel Benn. I watched Pedro Alcazar get pasted by Fernando Montiel back in 2002, rhapsodised about the Mexican's performance to my mate, then spent a whole afternoon staring blankly, reading and re-reading the Ceefax report (gods I'm old) of Alcazar's death a few days later.
I'm as bad as anyone.
But I'm trying to be good. As in, not some meedja-judged carefully considered airtight you-can't-sue-me version of good, the pale soundbite-friendly shadow that passes for same in this world. But good. As in, please let me sleep at night good. I still want to watch boxing. I love it. The buzz of watching a live fight, the electricity generated by the danger, the poetry of perfectly-applied technique. I've tried to describe it to non-boxing friends before, by saying: "Look, you watch David Attenborough, right? Wildlife programmes on TV? When the fluffy bunny eats a lettuce, that's okay, yeah? We all go "Aaaah". But you recoil when we see the wolf take the bunny, right? And I just... don't."
I've got a conscience that nags me, don't get me wrong. I can appreciate the damage that suffering causes. But I also have a dislike of double standards, of lying both to myself and to others. Recoiling and condemning the wolf means it's okay when its cute little cubs starve to death, their button eyes gone dull with famine, their pointy white teeth loose in their shrivelled gums. Of course, holding that opinion that doesn't stop me lying. But at least I feel bad about it and am prepared to admit it when I've done it.
So. Now I've said all that, here's a little thought experiment. Bear with me here, it's not going to be the most popular opinion ever evinced. Here we go.
Fighters are fighting at the top level longer than they ever have. Juan Manuel Marquez, the former lightweight champ, is 39 this year. Bernard Hopkins is pushing fifty. Mayweather has the reflexes of a cat, the speed of a squirrel, and the potential for domestic violence of a pissed-up Millwall FC fan, at age 35. Sergio Gabriel Martinez is 37, and fights like a twenty-five year old. It's because of nutrition, right? Well, yeah. As far as "nutrition" means "The process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth," then it's down to nutrition. Which is why oestrogen is pumped into cheap meat and Gawd-knows what is pumped into wheat, corn and soya. Ah. But no, it's "modern training techniques", which I'd also agree with, inasmuch as that's so vague it could possibly cover Nonito Donaire training in a Hypoxic Chamber (no, I have no idea either) and also Ivan Drago from Rocky IV being injected with concrete and amphetamines.
It's all bullshit. Fighters are going into the ring looking like action figures, pumped and preening. They're gaining vast percentages of bodyweight between weigh-ins and the actual fights, changing the very definition of weight classes (i.e. it used to mean "what these dudes actually weigh", and now means "the lowest possible weight these dudes can make, without dying, for as long as it takes to step on and off a scale the day before").
Now, it might be because I'm riddled with the flu, and I'm jacked up on so much over-the-counter cold medication, throat lozenges, decongestants, ginger tea and vitamin C that I'd fail current Olympic-style dope testing, but fuck it: why are we even bothering to police this shit any more?
Wouldn't it be simpler and more honest to just wash our hands of all the bullshit and say: "Go on then. As I am tacitly acknowledging your right as a human being to take part in an activity that could kill or maim you or your opponent, why don't you inject, ingest and snort whatever you can lay your hands on in the pursuit of this goal?"
It seems wrong, to my disease-addled brain, to proscribe one thing but ban another, only to turn around a few years later and go: "Nah, sorry, you know that 'supplement' that used to be legal? Well, we banned it. It's now a performance-enhancing drug". Particularly when some of the shit that is "legal" would make your eyes bleed, if it didn't have a half-life in oxygen of about three nanoseconds and had to be transported everywhere in a special pressurised container lest it gets on your hands and turns you into the Incredible Hulk.
What I'm saying is: step away from your precious ideas about nobility (imparted by an 18th Century hack named Pierce Egan and basically a gleeful reinforcement of the class system [your social betters would like to gamble on boxing. This somehow makes it noble. Tug your forelock and go about your day] and peddled by morons everywhere ever since), from outmoded notions of "fair play" (hilarious when you consider the extent of the shit you can get away with) and all poisonous nostalgia about prelapsarian Golden Ages when fighters trained only on steak (at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, the very same year that a young Cassius Clay claimed Gold at lightheavyweight, Dutch cycling co-ordinator Piet van Dijk is on record as commenting: "Ah! Rome 1960! Dope - whole cartloads -[were] used in such royal quantities.") and imagine, if you will, just for a moment: Manny Pacquiao on speed.
Think about it. He's like greased lightning now. Imagine what he'd be like after a few lines of Charlie in the corner! They'd need to have a slow-motion replay of the entire round, not just the highlights! He'd be a moustachioed blur! It'd be great.
Consider, if you will, the likes of our own iron-chinned Carl Froch, shot full of super-duper Novocaine so he couldn't feel what Lucian Bute's going to do to him at the end of this month! Just think how much punishment he could absorb if Robert McCracken injected PCP into his eyeballs between rounds! Bute would break his hands on Froch's liver before those uppercuts to the body affected Carl one iota! Though you'd probably need a few spare gumshields, to replace those that Carl'd bite clean through in his eagerness to get to the Canadian-Romanian.
All I want, whether Peterson turns out to be “guilty” or not, is to drop the pretence, stop fucking about pontificating over matters of abstract morality extrapolated from childhood notions. After all, think of the shitload of money we could save on testing. And just imagine: all the gear we could buy with that dosh...
What a cutman's between-rounds bag could one day look like...