Steroids in boxing

It didn’t take long for the message boards on multiple forums to mention Mexican legend Juan Manuel Marquez’s physical appearance following his impressive win over “Mile High” Mike Alvarado. Many people mentioned the spots/acne on the 40-year-old Marquez’s upper body as an indication of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) but in the same post mentioned he put in a great performance and expressed their desire for a Pacquiao rematch (fight number five).

It got me thinking: As much as we want a good fight, do the paying fans really care if there is a suspicion of PED use? We all want great performances from our athletes no matter what the sport is, but to what lengths and at what costs? A world record or amazing acts are performed rarely, as to do something no-one or only a handful of people on the planet can do should be nearly impossible, but we seem to be getting acts of greatness more and more in sports overall.

Anyone who watches Boxtalk knows I strongly disagree with performance-enhancing drugs. However I’m not blind to the fact that steroids in sports have been around long before most of us were born. The first commonly acknowledged use of steroids in sport is the Ben Johnson incident from the Seoul Olympics back in 1988, but governments and sports have been using steroids for medical and sports improvements from the 1930s and 1950s respectively. The drug of choice used today is synthetic testosterone and only a handful of governing or sanctioning bodies, commissions or boards even test for it, and in boxing it’s tested for but rarely.

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What many people don’t know is that synthetic testosterone as a performance enhancer has been used in sports since the early 1980s – after the East German doping scandal of the 1970s. In fact the international effects of these two cases (Johnson and East Germany) on sports were huge; harming sport worldwide and bringing a dark cloud over the whole of athletics. However, no combined action was taken and tests were still done in-house, making it easy for individual countries to cover up positive results of their top athletes. It took over 10 years from the Johnson case and nearly 20 years since the East German incident for the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) to be created in 1999. To this day many experts ask for Olympic records from the Eighties and Nineties to be declared void as some records held then are basically unbeatable without help from a needle.

However, mainstream Boxing and the press have only acknowledged synthetic testosterone use within the sport in the past three or four years; I don’t want to say it’s a cover-up but it’s certainly suspicious. That’s what makes me think about what effect PED have had on performances in Boxing for the past 30+ years in a sport that even now is not governed like other worldwide sports.

In recent years multiple high-ranking and former world-champion fighters have been associated with steroids; too many to mention and I won’t dare to after seeing the threatening law suits aimed at Gabriel Montoya at Maxboxing who is the authority on PED in boxing. And that begs more questions:

With the proven cases, shouldn’t fighters be banned for life – full stop – as they are making a dangerous sport much more risky?

Is there any point in banning a fighter for six months or a year when most only fight two or three times a year?

Should suspected cases be tested by an independent WADA-verified lab immediately?

Why threaten and blacklist reporters who ask questions about PED? Don’t we want them to do their job?

To me it feels like the same old story: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Why spend money cleaning a sport when all other sports have the same problem? Why clean it when it has been this way forever? If fighter A makes us £££££££, why ban or test him when we will lose £££££££? Might as well spend ££££ to make it go away and still have £££££££.” With boxers being caught at a high level, imagine the up and comers who have even less testing done, what can possibly be in their bodies come fight time. And let’s be honest; trainers, fitness gurus (sorry “strength and conditioning coaches”), nutritionists, cornermen and guys in the gym all know what’s going on with fighter A and they stay quiet as well. That list most probably includes managers and promoters, as the top three promoters in the world have already shown their lack of commitment to the movement which can only be described as weak.

Something tells me that in this era of sport, science and chemistry the culture won’t stop and whatever drug they ban will be replaced with a new one. On the other side of the coin, promoters, managers, TV companies and fighters themselves don’t want or don’t see the need to stop it for their own reasons, most probably related to money.

How many of the great fighters that we have supported have used PED to achieve their goal? We’ll never know and do we really want to know? The list of athletes in all sports caught using PED is amazing in itself and contains some of the greatest athletes of our era. And the lengths they go to are huge; just look at the mobile blood banks in cycling. Is Boxing lucky that the walls of silence have not be been broken and calls for it to be banned have not graced the sport pages, or do those walls need to come down to take the sport into the future with clean slate?

With Boxing we are looking for acts of high intensity, endurance, stamina, will and desire. We want Hagler-Hearns in every fight; we want greatness and acts of skill that defy our mind. With suspicion there’s little proof; we don’t investigate suspicion we sweep it away and talk on Twitter or forums like conspiracy theorists. Half of us cry “clean the sport” while the other half says “Why bother? Everyone is doing it.” With keeping Boxing the way it is, you can’t taint an already tainted sport, so in theory no damage done. Open the doors to scrutiny and we might lose the great history and respect our favourite fighters and sport have earned from the common sporting public, in turn opening the doors to the naysayers that say boxing is dead.

Do we really want to open such a can of worms? “They’re all steroid users, I could have been a champion if I used steroids”?

I am against PED in sport, but as much as I hate to say it, I have to be honest, Boxing will be Boxing and nothing is going to change. The sport as a whole is not ready for reform and neither are the fans.

Thirty years from now there will be a documentary and we all will say “I told you so.”

Writer’s Note

To see the effect steroids have on sports, here are two documentaries I recommend:

Doping Scandal of East Germany in the 1970s

The Race that Shocked the World

And my take on it  – Ryan Rayson, Boxtalk

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of

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