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Mosley said afterward he could have gone another 12 rounds, and he probably was only half kidding. There was another, telling statistic associated with the bout that didn't emerge publicly until years later: Mosley's hematocrit levels.
Hematocrit is the proportion of a person's blood volume filled with red blood cells that are so vital in transporting oxygen to muscles. Court documents say Mosley's hematocrit when Conte had it a measured on July 26, 2003, was 44, within the normal range for a healthy male. On Aug. 8 Conte advised Mosley to have his blood drawn and tested by a clinic in Big Bear, Calif., where the fighter's training camp was based.
The reported hematocrit from that test was 52.2, nearly a 20-percent increase in a mere 13 days. Training at altitude, experts will tell you, can elevate a person's concentration of red blood cells. But not that much. Not that fast.
"(Conte) told me that, you know, the hematocrit level was supposed to be at a certain level," Mosley told the federal grand jury on Dec. 11, 2003. "And, like, cyclists and a lot of long distance runners and stuff like that use it ... he explained that to me. And I said, 'OK, that's something I can do to get my endurance as high as it can possibly be.'"
How high is 52.2?
Beginning in 1997, professional cyclists were regularly subjected to blood screens before major races. Anyone with a hematocrit above 50 is banned from competing for 15 days.
Presumably, it's for health reasons because an increased concentration of red blood cells thickens the blood and anyone with a hematocrit that high is essentially pumping Jello through his veins, risking a major heart seizure. In reality, anti-doping authorities figure that anyone with a hematocrit over 50 is doing something illicit that they otherwise can't prove.
EPO became popular among elite cyclists, distance runners, cross-country skiers and other endurance athletes in the mid-1990s. It was a quick and relatively inexpensive way to ****e red blood cell concentrations and significantly increase stamina – far easier and far safer than blood doping, where an athlete draws his own blood, stores it and re-injects it before competition.
A urine test for EPO was first used at the 2000 Olympics. However, it has been only mildly effective when you consider, as Conte and others have suggested, that the body can erase any chemical fingerprint of synthetic EPO in as little as 17 hours. Riders also figured out ways to lower their hematocrit values in the pre-race screens by taking substances such as human albumen and glucose.
But Conte, the doping guru, noticed something else about EPO. The urine test is time-consuming and expensive (it takes three days and costs up to $500 for a single sample), and anti-doping authorities were using it only on endurance athletes. And EPO, Conte determined, could be beneficial to athletes in power sports.
To sprinters (Marion Jones allegedly used it while winning a record five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics).
To NFL players who, Conte says, swear by it because it keeps them fresh in the fourth quarter late in the season.
Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, says his organization first discussed the possibility of EPO use in boxing six years ago. And promptly dismissed it.
"The myth back then was that EPO really wasn't a drug fighters would use," Kizer says. "Most fights were four to six rounds. Even in a 12-round fight, you're only fighting 36 minutes and you get 11 minutes of rest. The days of the 15-round fights outdoors in the heat were over. ... We figured it wouldn't really help."
Conte laughs at the thought. Almost all his athletes were quietly using it, and almost all his clients were in sports where it wasn't supposed to help. Conte has even said that if he could use only one banned substance, in many cases he'd choose EPO.
There are the obvious endurance benefits during competition. There's the ability to train harder and longer. There's also, at least anecdotally, what appears to be anabolic (or muscle building) properties, especially when combined with known anabolic substances such as testosterone. Athletes have privately talked about it for years, that some illicit substances seem to make others work better, that one plus one sometimes equals three.
And in boxing, you have a sport that requires a unique mix of strength and stamina ...
"In certain respects, I think EPO is the perfect drug for boxing," says Dr. Margaret Goodman, the former chief ringside physician for Nevada. "And it's much easier to use than some of the other things out there. It's the ideal thing to use, especially if you’re fighting 12 rounds.
"It's going to get you the most bang for your buck."
* * *
Two years ago, the Nevada State Athletic Commission adopted the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of prohibited substances, the most comprehensive in all of sports and the one used by Olympic athletes. And last May the Nevada commission issued an addendum to its drug testing policy that outlined "pre-fight night" urine tests.
Here's how it works:
The commission contacts a licensed fighter, notifies him he has been selected for an out-of-competition test and provides instructions about locating the nearest accredited laboratory. The lab is also contacted, and the fighter has two days to show up, present photo identification and submit a urine test.
Here's the problem:
Two days is ample time for someone to flush their system of many banned substances, EPO included. Or say the fighter is training in Ohio. What guarantee is there that a member his entourage who looks like him won't take the test for him?
But let's say a fighter is using EPO and it hasn't cleared his system and he shows up at the lab himself and urinates into the cup. He still won't get caught, because Nevada currently doesn't order EPO testing as part of its anti-doping policy. It doesn't because of the cost (in most cases, it is footing the bill) and because, the commission's executive director says, it doesn't consider the EPO test "reliable" enough.
"It's still a work in progress," Kizer says of its drug testing program.
But at least Nevada has out-of-competition testing. Many other state commissions do not, essentially allowing a doping free-for-all in the lead-up to a fight. Another problem is that boxing is regulated much like horseracing, with an alphabet soup of state, national and international federations – and not under the jurisdiction of a single, comprehensive anti-doping program or agency.
"We're just one state," Kizer says. "We don't have the ability or even the authority to send someone across state lines and knock on a door and demand a test. You just do as much as you can. There are a lot of critics out there saying, 'What about this, what about that?' It's a tough thing."
The World Boxing Council, which requires only a post-fight urine test, has six pages of anti-doping regulations in its by-laws. It begins with an admonition that boxers "shall not be under the influence of any drug during the contest that will in any manner affect their performance in the ring." But the wording is vague and says nothing about substances taken in the preceding weeks and months before the fight. Nor does it draw a distinction between legal supplements and hard-core drugs, both of which, presumably, would affect their performance.
And nowhere in the six pages do the words, erythropoietin or EPO, appear. The WBC regulations specifically ban "infusions of blood, red cells or plasma expanders," but EPO, a hormone, technically does not fall under any of those definitions.
Goodman suggests implementing a cycling-style blood screen for boxing, assuming you could establish a fair threshold for hematocrit. Boxers cutting weight tend to be dehydrated, and dehydration often results in a temporary increase in a person's hematocrit.
But physicians such as Goodman say something has be done, and soon.
"How prevalent are performance-enhancing drugs in boxing?" Goodman asks. "I don't think anyone knows the answer. But I would say that among individuals using performance-enhancing drugs, EPO is right up there. When you look at its availability and its effectiveness, it's got to be something that's fairly prevalent.
"People used to say that boxers would never use these substances. Boxers are no different from anybody else. They’re not naďve. And if they don't know about it themselves, they have people around them who can educate them. And everyone is looking for an edge.
"No one imagines that (EPO) is this major problem in boxing. But of course it is. It has to be. It makes total sense."
* * *
In his grand jury testimony, Mosley admits to paying Conte $1,850 for his services, $500 in cash on the day of their meeting and the rest by a personal check later. Court documents show a handwritten tally by Conte breaking down the charges:
$900 for EPO. $600 for The Clear and The Cream. $150 for blood work.
And the remaining $200?
It was for Gateway Limo, to and from the Oakland airport.