The Beltline: How should we treat fights involving boxers who have failed a drug test?

No guarantee of a clean, fair fight makes an already dangerous sport sometimes difficult to watch, writes Elliot Worsell

SOME will say that if you agree to take back a cheating spouse you can’t then remind them at every opportunity of their past transgression, at least not if you maintain any hope of moving forward.

Often, in fact, this unwritten rule is precisely what allows the cheat to manipulate their way back into the relationship in the first place. They regain power through forgiveness and the need to “move on” and therefore, as a consequence, nobody gets upset because nothing is said.

Interestingly, a similar thing happens in boxing, too. For it is shortly after the sport agrees to forgive someone who has failed a performance-enhancing drug test – thus allowing them to compete once more – that a silent agreement is made, the basis of which is that the transgression is never discussed again. It will not be discussed by promoters, those looking to monetize the redemption arc of this fighter, and it will rarely be discussed by television commentators or journalists, either, the majority of whom require boxers being active (and liking them) to make a living .

Right or wrong, this sad reality will ring true again this weekend when, in Nottingham, Sheffield’s talented featherweight-turned-lightweight Kid Galahad fights Maxi Hughes with an emphasis very much on the present rather than the past. Again, right or wrong, it will be this way because if looking back too far in the past the commentators, and everyone else covering the fight, would have no option but to acknowledge Galahad’s absence from the ring between 2014 and 2016, the result of a failed PED test for stanozolol (a banned anabolic steroid), for which he served a two-year ban. (Galahad maintains his innocence, of course, having claimed his brother spiked his protein shake.)

That, for obvious reasons, is too awkward a proposition to face for those not directly affected by it. Yet one man seemingly more than happy to delve into Galahad’s past and enlarge this asterisk is his next opponent, Maxi Hughes. It was Hughes, in fact, as opposed to any desire to expose Galahad in 2022, that inspired this piece, with him saying to Boxing News weeks ago, “I told my missus, ‘This will be good karma vs bad karma. Good vs evil.’ He takes steroids and cheats and karma got him with Kiko (Martinez, who brutally knocked Galahad out in his last fight). I’m a good person and karma will be on my side again. It would be nice to ‘Kiko’ him, like.”

Rest assured, as compelling as Hughes’ words appear as a pre-fight soundbite, they will not be repeated by the commentators on fight night, nor by the promoter at any press conference. That’s because, in the end, nobody cares about a failed performance-enhancing drug test quite like the boxer who has to one day prepare to fight someone with that kind of history. For them, unlike the promoter and the TV people, it is not something to brush under the carpet for the sake of either making money or saving face going forward. Nor, for that matter, is it quite so easy to give a fighter with that sort of reputation a second chance or the benefit of considerable doubt.

For them, this fighter participating in an uncertain sport now made even more uncertain, it seems entirely appropriate to bring up the past and keep it fresh in people’s minds. More would do it, too, if they didn’t find themselves blinded by the size of the payday they stand to secure from boxing this reformed “cheat”.

You see that a lot at heavyweight, a division in which life-changing money is made and therefore opponents are less inclined to make public the checkered history of the miscreant they are about to face. Up there, where personalities and paydays distort and disguise, all the other stuff – you know, the important stuff – is secondary to whatever ultimately sells the fight. Bans subsequently become “retirements”. Excuses are both creative and inspiring (and somehow believable).

Some opponents, including Caleb Plant, have dared to bring up the failed drug test “Canelo” Álvarez posted in 2018 (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Then again, it’s not always like that at the elite level. One might even suggest Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez’s recent display of animosity towards Gennady Golovkin, settled last weekend in Las Vegas, stemmed from Golovkin having the audacity to bring up Alvarez’s 2018 positive performance-enhancing drug test (for clenbuterol) at every possible turn. That was also a tactic used by the American Caleb Plant, remember, and he too endured the wrath of the embittered Mexican last year, so eager was he to punish Plant for ushering into the public domain something he had worked so hard to bury.

The establishment helped Álvarez with that, the burying of bad news, in much the same way they help others who are deemed worth protecting. In these cases, let’s call them “special cases”, promoters won’t mention past mistakes, sanctioning bodies won’t mention past mistakes, and commentators and reporters will, for the most part, be too afraid to mention them as well. Yet, similar to Hughes goading Galahad, Álvarez’s opponents have far less of a problem being honest and going to uncomfortable places, aware it’s a strategy that could potentially work on two fronts: one, it could serve to annoy him, and, two, it will remind him and anyone else that mud sticks.

Or at least it should stick. It should, in an ideal world, be a detail front and center, something as important to the fight night MC introducing the two boxers as the amount of nonsense titles they hold, all of which he will rattle off with unwarranted gusto ahead of the first bell. Mumble it if you want, Mr. Microphone, but just say it anyway; say the reason for their ban, say the length of it, and work on pronouncing the name of the relevant PED the way you would, say, the name of a boxer from Kazakhstan.

Because without such transparency and public shaming, and without the context this provides, boxing becomes an even more dishonest sport, its tales of triumph all the more untrustworthy. They become tough to praise, these triumphs, and, furthermore, it becomes tougher to lose yourself in the romance and fantasy of it all. Like Mexican beef, you don’t know what you are looking at or where it comes from these days. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Indeed, to watch a so-called superfight when questioning the “purity” of the fighters involved is to nowadays watch a beloved film and see in the title credits “a Weinstein Production”, or, worse, “directed by Roman Polanski”. As in those instances, such details should take nothing away from the quality of the product, but, alas, know enough about what it is you are seeing in a ring and it can’t help but do just that.

Sometimes, because of this, I long for the lost ignorance of my teenage years; a time when I knew little about boxing and even less about life; a time when I trusted people and, just as important to me, trusted the feats of boxers I both watched and admired. It was easier that way and undoubtedly more fun that way.

Now, though, quite the opposite is true. No longer easy, and no longer fun, now, as a result of what I have seen and heard over the years, it becomes increasingly difficult to trust any boxer I watch in a ring on fight night, particularly when there is big money involved, and just as hard to accept that there are countless revered former boxers who no longer compete and have therefore got away with it, their drug habits largely unknown due to either the shoddy nature of testing, sheer dumb luck, or some deal they made with the devil.

Kid Galahad ahead of his November 2021 fight against Kiko Martinez in Sheffield (Matthew Poor Matchroom Boxing)

Sadly, so prevalent are PEDs in sport today, generally speaking, it’s easy to not care about positive tests and for boxers to excuse any wrongdoing by throwing up their hands and saying, “Well, everyone else does it, so why not me?” But the problem with this can’t-beat-them-so-may-as-well-join-them attitude is that not everyone else does it – it’s true, there are still some boxers whose word I trust – and, moreover, these particular cheats are not sprinters or jumpers or men and women hitting balls with bats. They are instead fighters who engage in fights, the aim of which, whether they want to admit it or not, is to render an opponent unconscious by repeatedly punching them in the head.

That’s an act dubious enough when done right, but when drug-taking is then introduced, a decision that can only be based on a desire to increase the potential for damage, what does that say about the characters involved? It says, to me, that if indeed guilty they are more than simply cheats; their crime is greater than cheating in a competitive sense. It says that they are malicious, cruel individuals, with zero compassion and empathy. It says they care little about their sport and even less about the health and future of the person they are opposing on fight night. It says everything.

And yet, despite this knowledge, those who can do something about it will choose to say nothing. Or, worse, they might say this: “Well, all right, but just make sure you don’t do it again. Okay?” Or perhaps this: “Be more careful next time.”

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