by David P. Greisman
Each new name is no longer a surprise, but rather just another disappointment.
We know that athletes cheat, that so many will do so much to get ahead, to get their bodies to perform at an even higher level, to get more wins and to get more money. We know that seeking shortcuts is too common even outside of the world of sports, that high school and college students will plagiarize and share answers, all because the end result in so many facets of life can become more important than the means by which one arrives there.
But we still expect better. We don’t like cheaters, and we particularly don’t like it when cheaters prosper. It doesn’t matter how common it has become, or how aware we are that the practice is widespread and that the problem will probably always be greater than what we know for certain.
And so the allegations that Yuriorkis Gamboa received performance-enhancing drugs from what was purportedly an anti-aging clinic in Florida did not necessarily surprise us — not because of the fighter in question, but more due to the fact that the veil has long since been lifted on this less than savory aspect of our often otherwise Sweet Science.
We can recall that heavyweights Evander Holyfield and Jameel McCline were implicated nearly six years ago as being two of several athletes allegedly receiving performance-enhancing drugs from a pharmacy in Florida.
We can recall the positive drug tests that have surfaced with increasingly regularity.
And yet we can recognize that the testing being done for nearly every fight is far from ideal, that boxers and those providing them with performance enhancing drugs are able to exploit large loopholes to beat the tests.
Gamboa’s name surfaced in a handwritten entry in a notebook purportedly, and allegedly, written by Anthony Bosch, who is accused of distributing performance enhancing drugs through his now-closed Biogenesis clinic in Miami.
“Bosch outlines an extensive program he was shipping to Gamboa,” wrote reporter Tim Elfrink last week for the Miami New Times. “In addition to protein powders and calcium/magnesium/zinc compounds, he included a six-day-a-week HGH regime, IGF-1, and a cream with 20 percent testosterone.”
HGH is human growth hormone. IGF-1, according to the article, “stimulates insulin production and muscle growth.” It has been banned in sports such as baseball.
The article initially cited the Gamboa entry as being in a notebook from 2009, but went on to put forth a confusing timeline: The notebook entry included a mention of Gamboa’s upcoming fight with Brandon Rios, which had been set for early 2012 but would later be canceled.
This past Friday, the Miami New Times uploaded a scan of the entry, but this time said it came from an “undated file.” Follow-up reports by other news outlets have brought forth anonymous voices that poke holes in some of the other accused athletes’ vehement denials.
Gamboa has not spoken publicly about the allegations against him. An article in El Nuevo Herald — the Spanish-language compatriot to the Miami Herald newspaper — quoted an anonymous source “close to the boxer” that claimed that Gamboa went to the clinic for nutritional reasons but not for steroids.
Nearly every athlete that has been accused of taking banned substances has gone on to deny doing so. Two of the most famous cases — Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong — ultimately dropped their charades and admitted their transgressions with some semblance of shame.
Gamboa, should the allegations against him be true, might never have to come clean about being dirty. Ours is a sport that finds a way to forgive the past, even if we never forget it. Boxers who run afoul of the law are still allowed to enter the ring. Fighters that have tested positive have served their suspensions and then returned for more rewards.
We should continue to question Gamboa, though — as well as everyone else who has been caught. We should not allow him to argue that he is clean just because he has never failed a drug test.
Since 2009, all but one of Gamboa’s bouts have taken place in the United States: one in Florida, two in New York, two in New Jersey and four in Nevada.
“The problem is that state commissions may say something is banned — say they follow the World Anti-Doping Agency list — but don’t include these items in their profiles when testing athletes,” said Dr. Margaret Goodman, once the chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission, now the president and board chairwoman of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association.
“It’s a contradiction,” she said.
Florida bans any performance-enhancing drug but does not currently test for human growth hormone, testosterone or insulin-like growth factor, according to Sandi Copes Poreda, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
“Our rules and statutes permit us to test for these substances, but at this time the tests used do not detect them,” Poreda told BoxingScene.com. “We are in the process of updating our testing procedures to identify these substances.”
Melvina Lathan, the chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission, did not return an email seeking comment. Aaron Davis, commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, said via email that his state tests for all three substances “via random blood and urine [tests] at random time periods.”
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said the state regularly tests for testosterone, but not for human growth hormone or insulin-like growth factor. However, he said, the commission has the option to decide to do additional testing on fighters on a case-by-case basis, including for those latter two substances.
“They have very little detection time, so you have to not just be good, but be lucky to catch the person,” Kizer said of HGH and IGF-1. “Secondly, it’s very rare that, if they are cheating, that the person would have it in their system on fight night. It’d be something that’d have to be [caught] out of competition, which is an additional barrier, though not an insurmountable one.
“And third, with HGH until fairly recently, there’s still some argument nowadays that the test does not have a very high percentage of catching people because of the low detection time frame, and also the fact that the approval process from the scientific community hasn’t gone full yet, so that if it goes to court — which our decisions are all reviewable by court — such evidence may not be admissible because the test itself has not been scrutinized to the level necessary for it to be admissible in court.”
Kizer said that HGH testing has since improved, and that he expects it to be included in some form in the future.
Nevada will continue to look at going from allowing up to a 6:1 testosterone ratio to a lower, 4:1 ratio, he said. Other states, he noted, also allow 6:1, which used to be the ratio allowed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which switched to 4:1 several years ago. He continues to be concerned by what he said are rare instances in which people can have a natural testosterone to epitestosterone ratio above 4:1.
“There’s pros and cons to both” a 6:1 ratio and a 4:1 ratio, he said. “You don’t want false positives, but you also don’t want false negatives. If it looks like the amount of false positives can be reduced, I’d be all for it today to go to 4:1 or maybe even less than 4:1 if the likelihood of false positives can be even further reduced.”
One way of avoiding false positives would be to institute carbon isotope ratio testing to check whether the testosterone in an athlete’s body comes from natural or synthetic means, particularly in an era in which athletes can “microdose” in order to keep from being caught by the testosterone-epitestosterone baseline ratio. Kizer said the cost of using CIR testing for every single boxer and mixed martial artist that fights in Nevada is currently still too high.
“I hope one day it’s part of the normal panel,” he said.
Testing in every state, and in every sports league, can be better. It can be done for more substances, with stricter guidelines, and much, much more often. In our sport, it’s telling that only one fighter — Nonito Donaire — is subject to being tested at any time on any day of the year. Donaire’s testing is done by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, paid for through donations to the nonprofit agency.
As for the Miami New Times report about Gamboa, Goodman stressed that “these are allegations, and we hope they are unfounded.
“With that said, what this does allude to is, No. 1, all professional sport PED programs are inadequate because there is little or no random unannounced testing,” she said. “No. 2, the testing profiles in place don't include the methods/substances athletes are using to cheat, such as CIR, EPO, hGH and blood doping methods. No. 3, with boxing and MMA, no one is spending time educating fighters that they can compete clean and succeed. And No. 4, most importantly, fighters are not taught about the devastating side effects of these substances.
“Athletic commissions need to reassess their antiquated role in how they can deter PED use,” Goodman said. “This is not tough. It is not complicated. They need help from experts instead of pretending they can fix this problem themselves.”
This problem probably will continue to be much greater than what we know for certain. For the moment, every fighter who tests positive or who is implicated through other means will be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Gamboa wasn’t the first. He won’t be the last either. We should prepare to be disappointed again and again. And we won’t be surprised when that happens.
The 10 Count
1. Todd Grisham is serviceable in his role as studio host of ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” — he carries the studio segments with the poise of experience. He’s not sensational, though, and the reason for that was summarized by Grisham himself on last week’s episode, when he was referring to the prior weekend’s fight involving Lucas Matthysse.
“Personally, I’d never seen him fight before until last week.”
It’s not that Matthysse is famous — he isn’t well-known when compared to the other notable names in the junior welterweight division. But he’s still one of the top fighters and has appeared on HBO twice and Showtime three times now. Matthysse’s been a known entity among regular boxing fans for a bit now.
When Brian Kenny hosted “Friday Night Fights,” he brought the presence of someone who at least followed the sport more than casually. He was able to speak as an observer, not just as someone put in front of a teleprompter.
Kenny has since gone on to working for the MLB Network and hosting Showtime’s major boxing broadcasts. The man who first replaced him, Bernardo Osuna, has since been moved into an on-site roving reporter role.
Grisham can learn more — we all were fresh-faced fans at some point — but it says something that ESPN figured it was more important to get a warm body who could hold down the studio rather than a wise voice who has a firm grip on the sport.
2. Let us move on to some praise for ESPN, thanking the decision-makers for airing the heavyweight bout between Artur Szpilka and Mike Mollo on ESPN3 immediately after the end of the “Friday Night Fights” broadcast.
For those who questioned why Szpilka-Mollo wasn’t put on the ESPN2 show, this was actually the wiser choice. Sometimes there’s a difference between a televised main event and the venue’s main event.
In this case, the slugfest between Szpilka and Mollo belonged in the last slot at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. With a sizable contingent of people of Polish heritage in the area, they came out in vocal support of Szpilka. Mollo, meanwhile, is from a suburb of that city. Had their bout been put on the televised undercard, many of those fans likely would have left afterward, leaving the arena even quieter than it sounded during the Antwone Smith-Jose Luis Castillo undercard bout and the Carlos Molina-Cory Spinks main event.
Szpilka-Mollo wasn’t television main event material either, even if it turned out to be the most entertaining bout of the night by far. Molina and Spinks and Castillo and Smith carry more name recognition and brought more viewers to their couches.
And for those who missed Szpilka-Mollo but have access to ESPN3, that bout remains available online on-demand.
3. One more reason why boxing fans should break from the habit of writing off fighters they feel are “overhyped” or “bums” or “B-level” or “lower-tier” came via the fact that one of the more entertaining bouts last week featured heavyweights that never will come anywhere close to competing at the higher echelons.
They don’t have to be good fighters to be in a good fight.
4. Unless you’re a hardcore fight fan who is a denizen of Twitter and the various boxing message boards, you might not have known who Omar Henry was. But many of us did, and that’s why the death of the 25-year-old junior middleweight prospect from gall bladder cancer hit so many so hard, even though he’d never fought on HBO, Showtime or even ESPN2.
Some in boxing were drawn by the promise he had shown. Others were brought in by his sometimes shameless brand of self-promotion, which rubbed more than a few the wrong way. In a sport where there are so many prospects vying for attention, Henry had more who knew him than otherwise would have been for a 12-0-1 fighter yet to get the spotlight.
He was to have been spotlighted on the Nov. 16 episode of “ShoBox: The New Generation,” but had to pull out over health concerns that sadly soon revealed their terminal nature.
He died a week before his 26th birthday. He died far too young. He died far too quick. He died far too soon.
5. For more on Henry, please read this touching tribute by my colleague Jake Donovan:
6. There’s no company health insurance for boxers. I hope that someone in the sport finds a way to help Henry’s family so that they need not have to worry about finances when they are struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one.
7. On the surface, we can be disappointed that Timothy Bradley’s first bout back since his victory (cough, cough) over Manny Pacquiao is a March 16 bout Ruslan Provodnikov, who is an entertaining fighter but not at all an elite combatant.
But then again, we should just want Bradley back first — the Pacquiao fight was in June 2012, and Bradley never fought again last year — and hope that he returns to the ring soon afterward for another major match-up.
At this point, I’m wondering whether we’ll see Bradley-Pacquiao 2 if a fifth bout between Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez cannot come to fruition.
8. Who cares about whether we’ll have winter for six more weeks? The real important question is whether we’ll have another war between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado in about eight weeks.
The answer is yes, according to Punxsutawney Phil — or at least the version of the famed groundhog quoted nearly every year by creative boxing publicist Fred Sternburg.
From the press release sent out this past weekend:
“Will Alvarado get sent up the Rios without a paddle? Will Rios become a Rocky Mountain Highlight for Alvarado? Who knows? But I do predict, without a shadow of a doubt, that Rios-Alvarado II will be the early winner for being the 2013 Fight of the Year,” said the world’s No. 1 pound-for-pound quadruped as he shadowboxed (wearing a Tecate headband and a Top Rank warmup) during his annual news conference. “Temperatures are already rising. Forget an early spring, there is a heat wave heading boxing’s way!”
9. Let’s hope Sternburg’s groundhog is as accurate prognosticator as he has been in years past.
In 2009, Punxsutawney Phil correctly predicted that Vic Darchinyan would beat Jorge Arce.
In 2010, he correctly predicted that Manny Pacquiao would beat Joshua Clottey.
In 2011, he correctly predicted that Miguel Cotto would beat Ricardo Mayorga.
Last year, he predicted that Nonito Donaire would beat Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., and then said Donaire would be champion for six more years. The latter portion of that prediction still needs some more time.
This has been a much better run for the groundhog than seven years ago. Here’s a headline from 2006 that the groundhog likely would want back:
“Punxsutawney Phil Predicts Lacy Victory”
That was ahead of the Joe Calzaghe fight.
10. The only shadow that the groundhog saw for years after that was the shadow that Jeff Lacy became of his former self…
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at [email protected]