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What about when a fist hits a head?

It was set to be the most anticipated fight in the past decade, perhaps ever. With estimates of between $200m and $250m gross takings for the event, expectations were high for the contest between the two men vying for the title of the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. In one corner is Manny Pacquiao. He is a national hero in his homeland of the Philippines, where he is running to become a congressman. Indeed, during his fights, crime in the Philippines reportedly drops to zero. In the other, ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd Mayweather – the flash, arrogant American; he is known to regularly blow six figures sums of cash on professional sports, and is not afraid to shy away from the spotlight. However, on the 6th January, 2010, the fight was called off over a dispute about the manner of drugs testing ahead of the fight.

In boxing, more than any other sport, the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is a critical safety issue. Former World Heavyweight champion, John Ruiz puts it well. “The only sport in which steroids can kill someone other than the person using them is boxing. You’re stronger when you use steroids. You’re quicker and faster. If a baseball player uses steroids, he hits more home runs. So what? I’m not saying that it’s right, but you’re not putting anyone else at risk. When a fighter is juiced, it’s dangerous. People go crazy about the effect that steroids have when a bat hits a ball. What about when a fist hits a head?”

Cheating in any sport is frowned upon. A recent scandal in boxing revolved around Antonio Margarito, who was banned for 12 months, following controversy over tampered handwraps. Ahead of his fight with Shane Mosley, Mosley’s trainer observed that Margarito had a pasty white substance in his handwraps prior to the fight. This was later shown to be a substance similar to plaster. This outcome has shed doubt over Margarito’s prior victory over Miguel Cotto, whose face was left a bloody mess toward the end of the fight. The effect of the plaster in his handwraps would have made it feel like you were being hit with bricks. Miguel Cotto has not been the same fighter since the battering he took at the hands of Margarito.

However, currently the tests for PEDs in boxing are relatively lax. No state athletic commission or world sanctioning organisation tests adequately for PEDs and only a handful of states test for steroids. Indeed, under the current system, fighters know in advance when they will be tested, allowing sophisticated users to test ‘clean’. Furthermore, no state athletic commission tests for human growth hormone, and chemical traces of synthetic EPO can be eliminated in a well-educated user in less than 24 hours. This is where the disagreement that caused the cancellation of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight came about.

As part of the negotiations for the fight, Team Mayweather was demanding that both fighters submit to the Olympic style drugs testing. This is the style of drugs testing promoted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and which all Olympic athletes must submit to prior to competing in the competition. Under this regime, the participants must submit to unlimited random urine and blood testing without any advanced notice from the start of training, right through until the day of the fight. While this has not been adopted in boxing before, it does not seem unreasonable for Team Mayweather to request this, simply to prove to the watching world that both fighters are clean.

Indeed, this was originally accepted by Team Pacquiao, who claimed that they had no problem with submitting to this. However, in return, they had several demands of their own. Firstly, they wanted the fight to go ahead with 8oz gloves, rather than the standard 10oz gloves. So long as both parties agree to this, these are allowed. Despite the fact that Mayweather usually fights with the traditional 10oz gloves, he accepted the request the following day. After this, Team Pacquiao then demanded a $10m penalty on Mayweather if he came in over the 147lbs limit, which Mayweather again agreed to.

Then suddenly, reports came out that Pacquiao was afraid of needles, despite having multiple tattoos, and had superstitions against blood testing. He demanded a 30-day cutoff ahead of the fight, claiming that having these tests within 30 days of the fight weakened him and would put him at risk in the fight. However, Team Mayweather countered with the evidence that he had undergone blood tests only 24 days before his previous fight against Ricky Hatton. In response, Team Pacquiao demanded a 24-day cutoff point ahead of the fight. Team Mayweather offered to meet in the middle and offered a 14-day cutoff. However, Team Pacquiao refused this and declared that the fight was cancelled.

This whole event has raised questions over Manny Pacquiao’s meteoric rise through the weight divisions over the previous couple of years. Despite failing to win on five separate occasions in the lower weight categories, he has risen up through the divisions to become the pound-for-pound king, fighting in the welterweight division. Whilst this stunning rise raises the possibility of external help, it is not proof of anything. Indeed, Floyd Mayweather has made a similar rise up through the divisions, from super featherweight to welterweight. However, he made the move over a longer, more sustained time period.

It is the rapid rise of Pacquiao that has raised the questions. Over the space of only 9 months, Manny Pacquiao managed to pack on an additional 15lbs of pure muscle onto his 5`6½ frame. This is a remarkable increase in lean muscle mass for any fighter, let alone one that is into his thirties. As Pacquiao’s strength and conditioning coach reveals, “not only is he getting stronger; he’s actually getting faster as he moves up in weight.” However, he does reveal his frustration that Manny will not allow him to do all of the tests that he would like to do, resisting those that involve invasive methods. This could be taken as an argument for either side – either that he has something to hide, or that he does have an aversion to these invasive methods.

As much as its supporters may deny, drugs are present in the sport. Shane Mosley has admitted using steroids back in 2003 ahead of his victory over Oscar de la Hoya; former World Heavyweight champion, James Toney, has failed two drugs tests; and Evander Holyfield has been implicated in the fallout of the Balco scandal. The recent tragedy involving former Lightweight Champion, Edwin Valero, has highlighted the fact that drugs are being used by boxers and not detected in tests. He was a cocaine addict, but never failed a test before or after any of his fights. Tragically, last month, he was arrested for the murder of his wife, and committed suicide in his prison cell the following morning.

On Saturday night, Floyd Mayweather came through his fight with Shane Mosley, reigniting the expectations of a meeting with Manny Pacquiao. The Mosley fight was performed under the Olympic style drugs testing, and Mayweather has claimed that he is attempting to clean up the sport. Whether the two camps will be able to come to an agreement over the drugs testing is debatable – although noises from the Pacquiao camp suggest that he is open to the 14-day cutoff proposed as a compromise by Team Mayweather.

Boxing needs this fight to happen – it has the potential to reinvigorate the flagging sport. However, the issues raised over PEDs in the sport are potentially more important than the fight itself. Nobody likes a cheat in any walk of life, and the use of these PEDs is a clear and blatant form of cheating. However, in boxing more than in any other sport, their use has the potential to cause serious harm to people other than the user. Surely it is in the best interests of the governing bodies and state athletic commission to implement the Olympic style of drugs testing. It is good enough for Usain Bolt; it is good enough for Sir Chris Hoy; it is good enough for all the current Olympic athletes. In that case, why is excessive for Manny Pacquiao, and boxers in general?

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