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Oscar Valdez's positive drug test exposes boxing's problematic anti-doping system

·Combat columnist
·9 min read
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If Oscar Valdez were in the UFC, despite his positive test for the medication phentermine, he’d be able to fight on Sept. 10 as planned against Robson Conceicao without issue.

That’s because phentermine is banned only in-competition by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited list. In-competition as defined as from 11:59 p.m. the day before a bout through the completion of testing after the bout.

But that’s not to suggest that Valdez, or any boxer, would have an easier time using performance-enhancing drugs in the UFC. The truth is quite the contrary.

There is a major gap in the anti-doping system employed in boxing that makes it far easier for a boxer to use a banned substance, cycle off and yet still reap the benefits from it than there is for a UFC fighter.

No drug testing system is 100 percent foolproof, but UFC fighters are subjected to drug tests 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That’s not the case with boxers, and that’s where the gap exists.

Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s senior vice president of athlete health and performance, was the lead investigator for the IRS in the BALCO case, which caught numerous baseball and football players as well as track stars and boxers, in a PED scandal.

Victor Conte, then the head of BALCO, had created substances that were undetectable via drug tests at the time. Among those involved was Marion Jones, who had won three gold medals and five medals overall for the U.S. in track in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Conte spent time in prison in 2005 for his role in the affair and now speaks out against the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He’s also available to the media to explain why athletes use certain PEDs.

There is no consistent drug-testing in boxing. Some state athletic commissions test on their own. The WBC has its “Clean Boxer Program,” but many of the fighters in it say they have never been tested. Many boxers sign up to be tested by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA). There are a few, like bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire, who are tested 24/7/365 by VADA, but the vast majority are tested only during training camp.

The samples of blood and/or urine taken in testing done for the UFC on its fighters by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the testing by VADA done on boxers who sign up for its program are sent to the same labs.

There are only two main differences: VADA tests for 70 substances that WADA bans only in-competition and USADA does not. And USADA testing is 24/7/365, while VADA testing is only for a contracted period of time.

“That’s a huge loophole,” Conte admitted of the lack of all-the-time testing by VADA.

But Conte praises VADA for testing for the approximately 70 stimulants, including phentermine, that are only banned in competition by WADA.

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 20: Oscar Valdez is victorious as he defeats Miguel Berchelt for the WBC super featherweight title at the MGM Grand Conference Center on February 20, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)
Oscar Valdez celebrates his win over Miguel Berchelt for the WBC super featherweight title at the MGM Grand Conference Center on Feb. 20, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)

Novitzky said he doesn’t believe there is a need to test for those substances out of competition because WADA scientists have looked into that.

“WADA has some of the best scientists in the world who look very closely at this,” Novitzky said. “My criticism of WADA is that they maybe put too many things on the prohibited list. They act with an abundance of caution. I haven’t found things that should be prohibited that aren’t, but I have found in many cases there are things that are on that make you wonder if they should be on there.”

Conte insists that phentermine and substances like it are performance-enhancing, both in their weight-cutting capabilities and in boosting performance itself.

“Novitzky, he tries to hide behind the so-called WADA scientists, and that their committee has determined that stimulants don’t enhance performance,” said Conte, who has little love for Novitzky. “It’s all bulls***. Ask him for one [expletive] study that shows that stimulants do not enhance performance. All central nervous system stimulants, including caffeine, have been proven to enhance performance.”

Conte was asked what benefits phentermine would have for a boxer other than for help in cutting weight.

He said there were many.

“It accelerates your heart rate, which means your blood pumps more oxygen to your muscles,” he said. “It’s the number of repetitions you can do. Let’s call it speed endurance. What happens is, if you’re running 40 yards, let’s say as a football player, the question is not about the second, the third, the fourth or the fifth rep. Without this, when you get to the later reps, your times get slower. With it, you can repeat the high-level performance more times so you get what we call the speed endurance.”

And he said that would benefit a boxer who could flurry punches later in a fight as much as he did early.

The gold standard of anti-doping programs?

The problem with the current boxing drug testing is this: Between fights, a boxer could begin using an anabolic steroid or other banned substances. Then, by knowing the time it takes for a substance to fully leave the body, can cycle off. Then, he or she signs to be tested by VADA and will have had the benefit of the use of the PEDs while not testing positive for them.

UFC fighters don’t have that. Former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones hasn’t fought since a win over Dominick Reyes on Feb. 8, 2020. But according to the athlete test history at the UFC’s anti-doping page, Jones was tested once in the second quarter of 2020, seven times in the third quarter of last year and eight times in the fourth quarter.

So far in 2021, Jones has been tested 10 times.

That means Jones has been tested at least 26 times since he last fought and that is a far better deterrent than only testing boxers six or eight weeks before they have a fight.

“To say that VADA has the gold standard program because of their ‘gimmick’ to throw stimulants into prohibited at-all-times status is laughable,” Novitzky said. “Gold standard is 365/24/7 testing, [a] robust education program, [a] world-class science department to analyze results, [a] biological passport and maybe, most importantly, an investigative department.

“Ask Victor Conte about the last one, what the investigative factor did to him back in the day! USADA has a full investigative department that goes out and conducts interviews, liaisons with law enforcement, recommends target testing based on intel, [and] has an anonymous tip line.”

VADA does not have that.

'Some testing is better than none'

Mike Mazzulli, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and the director of the Mohegan Tribe’s athletic regulation, said drug-testing is an extraordinary expense that most boxing promoters can’t afford.

He said he routinely tests fighters out-of-competition on behalf of the Mohegan Tribe and said during the COVID pandemic, he's had three positive tests out of nearly 40 shows he’s done.

“I would love to be able to do what the UFC is doing in regard to the testing program,” Mazzulli said. “But economically speaking, it’s very expensive and boxing is different than the UFC with all the different promoters. I think what the UFC is doing with its program and the 24/7/365 is the benchmark, but having said that, I think some testing is better than none.”

Top Rank president Todd duBoef said the nature of boxing promotion makes it difficult to have the type of testing the UFC employs. DuBoef is Valdez’s promoter.

He said there are many obstacles in the way of implementing such a plan. Some boxers, such as Donaire, enroll in VADA 24/7/365 themselves at their own expense. But for those who don’t have the means to pay for such testing or who don’t want to, duBoef said he’s not sure what the answer is.

“It’s an interesting topic that has to be addressed,” duBoef said. “But you have to remember, there is a massive global pool of fighters in boxing and there is no barrier of entry in this sport. There are events done every day all over the world. Is there a way to get all of that into one centralized, controlling system? I don’t know. It’s tough.”

VADA and USADA hire the same collectors to get the samples from the fighters, and they send them to the same laboratories for analysis. They work off the same prohibited list.

USADA did a few Floyd Mayweather fights the way that VADA does it, generally six to nine weeks before a bout. But it no longer does that and only operates a program if a deal is done for 24/7/365 testing.

Novitzky used an example from track and field during his days as an investigator to explain why the 24/7/365 model is best. Under that system, the athletes never know when they might be tested but then know they assume a huge risk if they take PEDs, particularly since the testing has gotten so much better at detecting even minute levels of banned substances.

“I’m going to go back to when I was doing these investigations in track and field almost 20 years ago,” Novitzky said. “I think track and field has a lot of similarities to boxing in that they’re training for one event. You have a camp and it’s all focused on getting prepared for this one event.

“Many of those athletes told me they felt their performances peaked weeks after discontinuing their use of the drugs. There’s some research out there to support this. … So the thought that you have to be on something and it has to be in your system to be getting the benefit is not the case. If you know with any reasonable certainty when drug testing is starting, it’s pretty simple these days to figure the clearance times of drugs.”

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