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Canelo controversy: NAC’s ‘unfair’ policies could hinder comprehensive anti-doping in boxing

Canelo Alvarez has withdrawn from his May 5th bout against Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin after his team were advised he was unlikely to be cleared by the Nevada Athletic Commission to compete. Will Nevada’s decision have unintended consequences?

Boxing: Canelo vs Golovkin-Weigh Ins Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The decision of the NAC (Nevada Athletic Commission) to temporarily suspend Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and likely refuse to clear him for his May 5th fight against Gennady Golovkin could backfire on attempts to improve anti-doping in boxing.

There is no “UFC” of boxing, instead there are a variety of sanctioning bodies who all have their own titles, and their own rules and rankings for getting a title shot. The World Boxing Council (WBC) and the World Boxing Association (WBA) have introduced year-round, out-of-competition testing through the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), but the other half of boxing’s “Big 4” sanctioning bodies - the World Boxing Organization (WBO) and the International Boxing Federation (IBF) don’t have the same deal in place.

What this means is that unlike MMA, where fighters have to compete in the UFC and enroll in their 24/7/365 anti-doping program administered by USADA to fight for the biggest purses, boxers often have the option of competing at the top level without undergoing stringent drug testing.

There has been a push from most quarters to enroll more boxers in the program, even from boxing promoters, but if the result of that will be athletic commissions punishing fighters for results that competent authorities like WADA, USADA or even UKAD wouldn’t, the wise move is to sign up for as little extra testing as possible.

If the results of those test aren’t going to be handled fairly—and WADA itself says punishing athletes from countries with clenbuterol-contaminated meat for drug test results consistent with contaminated meat would be “unfair”—is the risk worth the reward?

“...We maintain that disciplinary proceedings against athletes with low level urinary concentrations, from countries known for significant risk of exposure, would have little to no prospect of success; and, would be very unfair to the athletes concerned.” - WADA

A failed test will impact a fighter’s legacy forever. Canelo, regardless of what evidence his team is able to provide, will always be considered a doper in some fans’ eyes. When a fighter fails a test under the UFC’s anti-doping program with USADA, the UFC announces that positive test as a “potential anti-doping violation” instantly, with some exceptions.

One of these exceptions is where a fighter has a TUE, or applies for a retroactive TUE that they are likely to be granted. Another is when a positive test for clenbuterol is within the range expected from contaminated meat and the athlete in question has been in an area with a verified history of clenbuterol-contaminated meat.

In these instances, a potential violation isn’t announced. Instead, the circumstances are investigated, and results are only announced after USADA has determined whether a TUE is appropriate, or whether an explanation of contaminated meat is likely. Having the anti-doping agency come out and say an athlete was found to have “no fault”—a finding which doesn’t count as a failed anti-doping test and essentially exonerates the athlete—when announcing the failure helps, at the very least, to mitigate any backlash a fighter may receive. As VADA doesn’t handle punishments for athletes, they’re also not in a position to exonerate them, meaning this isn’t an option for boxers.

Commissions also punish UFC fighters who fail USADA tests, but a fighter going into a hearing with an official finding of “no fault” in their back pocket puts pressure on the commission to agree to handle the offence in a similar manner. We saw this when Li Jingliang tested positive for clenbuterol while licensed in Nevada, much like Canelo. USADA had already found Jingliang had “no fault,” and Nevada “declined to pursue” the case, dropping it.

As we saw with Cortney Casey’s false positive debacle in Texas, commissions are not experts at interpreting the results of drug tests, and should defer to said experts to understand what the results actually mean. The knowledge and help of the UFC’s Jeff Novitzky, and USADA providing supporting evidence in that case, is what finally cleared Casey.

It’s not feasible for the vast majority of boxers, Anthony Joshua aside, to avoid fighting in Nevada. What those boxers fighting in Nevada can do instead is simply not compete for a WBC or WBA belt in that state. If boxers and promoters lose confidence that the WBC and WBA’s anti-doping program results will be handled fairly by everyone involved, they can just opt out of the program.

Anti-doping is at a critical juncture in boxing, and a crisis of confidence could be all it takes to stop the proliferation of year-round testing throughout the sport.

Nevada and other commissions might want to consider that when they decide to enact and enforce policies that even WADA—the agency behind the rules the NAC and VADA’s own anti-doping policies are based on—call unfair.