Boxing reached a new low this week, and for once it wasn’t Roy Jones, Jr. or Floyd Mayweather leading the charge. It may seem incredible, but in a week which saw Jones offer to fight a fan for a $100,000 prize, Mayweather tour the U.K. and charge £70 for a photo and Manny Pacquiao compare homosexuals with animals, Antonio Tarver somehow managed to outdo them all. His transgression wasn’t widely reported in the sports media, and it certainly didn’t make the gossip sections of national newspapers, as the ill-judged words of Pacquiao and the naked greed of Mayweather have done. Tarver’s actions may seem a mere sideshow by comparison, but on closer inspection they hint at something profoundly sinister.
Tarver, for those who may have forgotten, is the former light heavyweight champion of the world, and the man responsible for giving the aforementioned Jones his first conclusive career loss, thanks to one of the best lefts you’ll ever see. Reigning at or near the top of the division from 2003 to 2006, Tarver was a tricky, awkward counter puncher with an excellent boxing brain, as exemplified by the astute commentary he provided for Showtime following his decline from the upper echelons of the sport.
Alongside all this, he’s a convicted drug cheat — one who has now tested positive for banned substances on two occasions, most recently after his fight with Steve Cunningham in August, 2015. Reporting back on the results of testing for the bout, the commission ruled that Tarver’s samples were “consistent with the exogenous origin of testosterone” – meaning testosterone that was produced externally to Tarver’s body, and yet somehow found its way in. Fairly open and shut, you’d think, especially given that samples taken immediately before and after the fight gave identical results.
And yet Tarver is now demanding due process, which in this case dictates that his samples be DNA tested in order to prove their origin. Yes, you read that right. Antonio Tarver wants the samples he provided to be genetically tested in order establish whether or not he provided them. If this sounds like nonsense, that’s because it is. But Tarver is not pulling it out of thin air. He is merely the latest in a long line of athletes happy to play “hide the ball” when it comes to performance enhancing drugs and shift the threshold of proof further and further into obscurity, knowing that, more often than not, boxing fans are perfectly happy to be fooled.
Take any failed test for example. How often do we hear that fighters were unaware of the ingredients in their supplements, as if this responsibility lies with anyone but themselves? How often are we faced with calls to re-test the samples, as if some nefarious lab assistant had arrived to work that day intent on ruining an innocent boxer’s career? The obfuscation on display when it comes to doping would make a Washington lobbyist blush. It serves no purpose other than to slide the burden of proof offstage, to subtly attribute it to factors beyond the control of the fighter, and to expect us all to shut up.
Missed tests, too, yield similar levels of obscurantist waffle, as exemplified by the reluctance of fans and media to condemn Shawn Porter following three consecutive fights across 2013 and 2014 in which he was supposed to be randomly tested, but somehow failed to be. The odds of testing falling through circumstantially on three successive occasions are astronomically slim, and yet we are happy to accept this as an explanation, content to provide wiggle room for an athlete producing the best three performances of his career without a shred of evidence that he was clean.
It is precisely on occasions like this when fans and media should be demanding answers. Yet we seem happy to delude ourselves and remain sheltered in the knowledge that the subject has not technically failed a test, as if one could avoid an F on a school exam by simply not showing up that day. Once more the burden of proof shifts away from the fighter, who is no longer expected to even take part in the process of establishing his innocence, but can continue onwards with his reputation intact despite failing to cooperate on any level.
Why do we as fans put up with this appalling double standard? Is it the masochistic tendencies inherent in all members of the boxing world? Or is it a case of out-of-sight-out-of-mind, given the relatively hidden effects of substance use, particularly when set aside far more visceral sporting crimes such as loading one’s gloves or taking a dive? Perhaps it is a combination of the two, allied to a gross lack of awareness when it comes to the potentially devastating effects of PEDs in a combat sport.
The solution, as is usually the case in boxing, requires changing a set of deeply entrenched minds. In this instance, however, it is not the promoters or managers who must adapt, but rather the fans, who can truly effect change if they are prepared to face some uncomfortable truths.
If we assume fighters are not going to submit to year round testing – which is a logistical and financial impossibility at all but the highest levels of the sport – then the boxing public have no choice but to oversee an inversion of the current dynamic, and withdraw the benefit of the doubt. We must move away from this out-dated notion that testers are responsible for tracking down and proving an individual’s guilt, with any evidence below the threshold of a positive sample insufficient cause to condemn. In the post-Lance Armstrong world, when it’s clear top athletes are lightyears ahead of authorities in terms of the wealth of chemicals at their disposal, it is incumbent upon them to prove their innocence.
To this end, I have long called for a zero tolerance approach in boxing. Strange as it may sound, we must adopt a position of “guilty until proven innocent” when it comes to PEDs if we truly wish to change the culture. As in other sports, a missed test must equate to a failed test, and any funny business surrounding testing windows or errors leading to samples going missing without adequate explanation should receive no sympathy.
Too often I hear from fans that they are unable to judge a fighter before incontrovertible proof is made public, but I maintain we can no longer afford such idealism. Despite their overwhelming bravery in the ring, boxers risking everything at the highest level have proven consistently willing to mislead and lie to the fans if it means gaining a competitive advantage. In this day and age, it can no longer be acceptable to divorce smoke from fire.
(Photo: Antonio Tarver [left] and Steve Cunningham exchange punches during the “Premier Boxing Champions” heavyweight bout at the Prudential Center on Aug. 14 2015 in Newark, New Jersey; Elsa/Getty Images)