Boxing, drugs and the complicity of the apathetic

I wonder where it is all going to end don’t you? You, we, I sit and watch from the sidelines as the events of the day unfold, beyond our control, beyond, at times, our understanding. The sense of helplessness, the difficulty of arriving at a balanced opinion without wondering whether you are merely adopting a promotional message from one side of the argument or the other, is hard to elude.

In the shadow of larger issues like Syria, the friction and/or collusion between military super powers and people dying in hospital corridors or in the street, the reporting and regulation of PEDs in boxing can appear a trivial point on which to muse. Nevertheless, the pursuit of justice, sanction and clarity suffers the same distortion of facts and an ensuing disengagement which is as dangerous as the problem itself.The story has emerged in a landscape in which social media exposes and submerges truth with equal and undignified alacrity and the determined and pugnacious journalism required to seek out the facts, or the truth as we used to call it, is becoming an increasingly endangered endeavour. If boxing, the sprawling, complex organism that it is, fails to address this issue definitively, without prejudice to the commercial value of the subject, or be forced to do so by a pointed journalistic intervention, it may steal a return to its age-old trajectory toward demise, despite the commercial buoyancy it currently enjoys.

Surely, in a world where everyone has a platform, we, the collective, can muster more than the a satirical meme or two as a punishment for such fundamental transgressions? For all the resignation engendered about all of the world’s problems, and boxing’s too, it is easy to forget that collectively boxing fans are the demand in the supply and demand equation. However small our individual contribution to the financial pot may be, there is power in your pocket, your purchases and your remote control.

As news broke that Saul Alvarez, the occasional middleweight out of Mexico with the resplendent Mufasa mane, would serve a six-month ban for failing drugs tests due to high levels of Clenbuterol, boxing exposed the facile nature of much of it’s journalism. More widely, it spoke to the apathy of the audience it now attracts. This is an issue, the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs, so fundamental to the integrity of the sport it should generate more vitriol than it has mustered thus far. After all, not only does it place the health of fighters at risk, it punctures the mirage of brotherhood we all assumed fighters had toward each other.

This is supposed to be the noble art after all, the ‘sport to which all others aspire” as George Foreman once remarked. The term and the sentiment behind it may appear antiquated and be nothing more than an aspiration itself, but for all the age-old politics involved in the making and promotion of prize fights, fighters are presumed to be the innocent amid the skulduggery committed toward them, not by them.

In crossroads moments like this, and the most commercially viable fighter in the world’s richest market being caught cheating, as far as a failed test is proof of that, struck me as just a moment, history is often shaped. The era of social media was supposed to offer platform to the masses, to provide a voice to the truth and to ensure the ‘establishment’ could never be permitted to mislead the public. And yet, for all the tweets, articles and interviews relating to this topic, one which has dominated the boxing landscape for most of 2018, the overwhelming sentiment expressed appears to be apathy, nuanced between indifference, ignorance and a more aware cynicism.

There are those who defend Alvarez’s contention that the drug entered his system unwittingly due to contaminated meat, a conclusion drawn from either supportive myopia, a quest for full disclosure and a man’s right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise or, more tellingly, in protection of their own interest. Opposing them, where one may hope to find a more crusading body of people remain only cynics and satirists. Content to provide puns about Mexican steaks, I know because I’ve done it, though rarely, sorry, it’s an affliction, or participate only in the chase for the kudos gleaned from the sharpness of their quips.

The latter participants often point to the futility of pursuing demonstrably tough sanctions from the sport’s regulatory bodies. Their contention being, from a position of curmudgeonly hipsterdom, is that history and the ever present greed of those who make it determines that those bodies, like the WBC, WBA, will always take the short-term pay day irrespective of the long term harm their complicity will inflict on the sport. Alvarez’s case has done little to assuage those who take this view but the ensuing apathy, the sense that they, we, you are powerless to change the trajectory of this narrative is to be as complicit as those we charged with resisting negative forces, ensuring a ‘fair fight’ and for protecting fighters welfare.

If promoters, sanctioning bodies and their presidents are allowed to duck and weave the flack so easily where is the incentive to adopt a more principled position. As Paulie Malignaggi commented yesterday, at what point do fighters begin to succumb to temptation if the environment doesn’t punish those who transgress and how soon do clean athletes begin to believe they’re a disadvantaged minority? It is just such a sentiment that enveloped cycling. A sport with risk, but not the risk of a prizefighting ring where the ‘small gains’ eked in cycling could, and maybe already have, damaged those who enter the ring to oppose the beneficiary.

Thank goodness for Elliot Worsell’s superb summary of the story; where we are at within the confines of Alvarez’s case and, sadly, how it acts as a window to a problem Victor Conte, a voice of distinction on the topic of drugs in sport, believes to be rampant. So widely spread in fact that he suggests a majority of active fighters are probably partaking in some form of PEDs. Suggesting therefore, that the sport has already passed the point of no-return Maglinaggi was speaking of.

It also suggests my view of fighters, as the ‘Good guys’, may be wildly misplaced and if I ever succumb to that conclusion, the sport, for all its habitual frustrations, will, for me at least, lose much of its nobility.

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