T Nation

Steroids in Boxing

An interesting article…

Open Your Eyes: Steroids In Boxing by Charles Farrell (May 17, 2005)

In my column for Boxingranks.com of April 3rd, I twice alluded to potential problems that James Toney might encounter in his April 30 WBA title challenge against champion John Ruiz. Referring to how Ruiz might defeat Toney in their fight, I wrote:

“He will test Toney’s damaged areas, most notably his biceps, to determine whether James is sound. If Toney’s body—recently suspiciously enhanced looking—is subject to meltdown, it could determine the outcome of the fight.”

Later in the piece, I mention that “Toney has never been close to being stopped in his long career, and it’s unlikely that Ruiz will be able to accomplish the trick unless Toney’s body betrays him—if his Achilles tendon gives, his bicep tears in some way, or an unforeseen malady resulting from weight-training related activity confound him.”

I was hesitant to come right out and say what I knew to be true because I wasn’t interested in being sued for libel.

But if people who are intimately connected to the day to day business of running boxing—the commissions, promoters, various television network executives, managers, and trainers—don’t yet know that steroids aren’t confined to James Toney, that the heavyweight division in particular is rampant with steroid-enhanced physiques, then they’re not only incompetent, they’re also imbeciles.

But, as I say, I don’t want to be sued. Nor do I want Boxingranks.com to be sued. So I won’t mention names. The article will make reference to recent events that have occurred in boxing. Astute readers will be left to connect the dots themselves.

There are currently at least six top heavyweights—if one is to include Toney—who are or have been steroid users. One fought recently. Three others have significant bouts coming up in the near future.

Steroid use has caused two of them to lose strange meltdown losses, one a total discombobulation, the other a peculiar injury-induced decision to quit during a fight in which he had merely to hang on for a few more minutes in order to win.

Two of the others behave in decidedly peculiar ways that make them among the least reliable fighters in decades.

Finally, there is a legendary boxing figure, known as one of the great overachievers in boxing history, whose misperceived horrible conditioning is a product of steroid enhancement. The cosmetic sleight of hand that has buffaloed boxing writers and commentators for the last twenty years—he is perceived to be a well-conditioned fighter—is one of the prime examples of why people in the business need to learn their trades. This fighter looks spectacular, but has always had serious stamina problems.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether a fighter uses steroids. It’s a foolish thing to do, and it doesn’t help the fighter using them in any way. It reduces their stamina and makes their bodies susceptible to tears, rips, and assorted body breakdowns. It bulks up their muscles in ways that detract from their punching power.

Part of the problem has to do with contemporary images of what constitutes both a good body and its corresponding association with how this relates to good conditioning. This image notion is cultural and class-based. Americans in particular are ardent admirers of Body Beautiful types, but there’s a brain versus brawn dichotomy that always attends class consideration.

It’s instructive that some of the greatest fighters ever—and many who’ve emerged just prior to this marketing fueled obsession with a type of cosmetic fitness—were foreign fighters with great boxing bodies, but who by today’s image standards wouldn’t be considered well-built. Carlos Monzon, Salvador Sanchez, and even Roberto Duran didn’t have big muscles, ripped abs, or well chiseled builds. But they easily pushed around guys who were built like powerhouses.

One of the reasons for their being able to do this has to do with the specificity of boxing workouts and exercises. Good boxing training entails far less cross-training than many other sports. In spite of high-tech developments that have shown up over the past quarter century, boxing’s tried and true, old-school training methods far surpass any in current use.

Harry Greb, arguably one of the two or three greatest fighters ever, is a persuasive example of how wayward some of our thinking about what constitutes a “good” boxing physique has become. There is little film footage of Greb, but some of what exists is instructive.

There’s a clip of Harry shot from medium range. He’s on the roof of a building, standing in what may be a handball court. He’s wearing his boxing trunks. Greb is a small man with a slightly sunken chest and small, although well-defined, biceps. He, at middle distance, does not appear to have visible abdominal muscles.

Then the camera tracks in to close-up, moving over the range of his body. At this distance, it becomes evident that he’s a perfectly constructed vehicle made to fight. There’s nothing about his body that has given way to useless display. His musculature is, when viewed through the closer camera distance, actually well developed, but it isn’t bunched; although there is no excess whatsoever, the muscle is loose muscle, developed solely to throw lots of punches easily and to be flexible when in motion. You can see that it’s a physique that’s structure has been formed for intense activity and for going long distances in fights. It’s a body that won’t break down.

The problem is that, fighting skills aside, Greb would have a hard time convincing the folks at HBO and SHOWTIME that he was worth taking a risk on. He didn’t have the “right look.”

Until we are able to successfully change the concept of what a fighter’s body is supposed to look like, or until we can convince fighters that high-tech steroid enhanced methods of muscle development are detrimental to their ability to punch, withstand a punch, and fight over main event length distances, we’ll remain in the sorry position of seeing our boxers mistaking Mr. Olympia physiques—in Toney’s case, merely huge biceps and augmented yet flabby pecs—for good conditioning.

In most ways, boxing ultimately takes care of itself in a kind of Darwinian winnowing. Boxers who can’t box get exposed by those who can. Juiced up heavyweights get embarrassingly knocked out or are forced to quit in fights while facing journeymen.

You can’t market a fighter who goes into a steroid meltdown and winds up falling flat on his face while fighting a novice, no matter how bulked up he’s become, no matter how impressive his body looks when viewed through a mass mediated concept of what a fighter’s body should be.

If America sees Sylvester Stallone as its image for the representative body type for boxers, then it would be more effective to begin laughing at Sylvester Stallone than it would to punish James Toney, who won the WBA heavyweight championship in spite of not because of steroid use.

One of the most dramatic changes in boxing over the past twenty-five years has been the cosmetic alteration of how fighters look, especially in the heavyweight division. I won’t even bother suggesting that we view further back than 1970 or so. Watch ESPN Classic. See how Ali, Leonard, Pryor, Arguello, Hearns, Duran, and even George Foreman looked as compared to Shane Mosley, Roy Jones, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, Evander Holyfield, or Mike Tyson.

Put aside qualitative differences in the fighters for a moment. There?s currently a clear premium placed on looking more like a would-be bodybuilding contestant than like a prizefighter. Maintaining that look requires weight training, naturally, but it also puts pressure on some fighters to add a little something to their routines.

Seldom has this been as evident as with Fernando Vargas, whose chemically altered physiology was so startling that I was amazed it wasn?t immediately tagged for what it was. Instead, we heard him praised for ‘being in fantastic condition’ or ‘being really ripped.’ Ironically, Vargas himself noted, ‘Mexicans aren?t supposed to be built like this.’

Neither is anyone else in boxing.

Regulating steroid use is far less important and will be, ultimately, far less effective than getting those invested in the building of images in boxing to knock off the garbage. It’s disingenuous to promote fighters whose appeal is largely based on their appearance, and then to take umbrage when those fighters’ tests come up dirty. Again, this has to be a case where the people responsible for bringing these fighters to the public are either complicit with what’s happening within the business or they’re too stupid and out of touch to recognize the signs that there’s more going on in the gyms than rope skipping.

I would suggest that they may be both.

Rocky isn’t boxing. Sylvester Stallone is an old man with big muscles. He’s not a fighter. It does not help our industry when it is co-opted by another industry. Boxing is real. Movies are not. When boxing is promoted as a glamour profession, thrown into the same pool as film, pro wrestling, UFC, and K-1, it will suffer as a result. The public?s notion of what a fighter should look like will have a substantial effect on who will be chosen to be marketed and how they will be chosen. This is an insidious process, moving from PR brainchild through to the viewer, then processed back to the various promoters of boxing as the decreed choice of the masses. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead of calling for more governmental interference and regulation? boxing is incapable of being policed by outsiders and will only fall into further chaos as a result, we should demand of those marketing boxing to give us real fighters fighting real fights.

Since it’s unlikely that they will do that, the next best thing is to watch another juiced up heavyweight falling heavily foolishly onto his face or wandering helplessly around the ring after being called by a network shill moments earlier, ‘the future of the division.’