Justified Suspicions

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Barely two months after one of the most shocking endings to a major fight in recent times, the Marquez vs. Pacquiao rivalry continues to stir emotions and generate controversy. Ever since the night of December 8, the rumour mill has been spinning full-steam with nary a pause, and it has run the gamut of potential options for the two stars. At different times it’s been reported both were considering retirement, then there was talk of them staging a double feature in Dubai, and more recently, there was word they wanted to meet up for a fifth time, sooner rather than later.

The latest reports now are that “Dinamita” is suddenly reluctant to grant Manny the chance to avenge the vicious knockout loss. Marquez now believes there is no need to stage match number five, since his KO win settled the score for good. By knocking out the Filipino great, he achieved closure not only for himself, but for the whole world of boxing as far as his rivalry with Pacquiao is concerned.

To most careful observers, however, this is utter nonsense. While it is true that the knockout shot was spectacularly brutal, Pacquiao, except for the knockdown in round three, had been dictating the terms of the fight. Marquez had already been knocked down once, had a broken nose, and a strong case can be made that the end result would have been different had the chance to land his perfect shot been delayed even by just a round or two. Add it all up, and the circumstances surrounding the finale of the fourth fight can hardly be described as conclusive.

But Marquez may be simply paying lip service to this idea anyway. After all, Juan Manuel is a man who for years felt wrongly neglected, even as he actually gained prominence and recognition with every fight. With this in mind, it is easy to imagine him deciding to take full advantage of the upper hand he currently holds while sitting at the VIP table of the professional boxing sweepstakes. He may just be posturing, enjoying the fact he now sits in the driver’s seat, making the Filipino chase him the way Marquez chased Manny for years. But equally likely, this may just be his way of pointing out that Pacquiao needs a fifth confrontation more than he does, and to get it, Manny and Bob Arum will have to show him the money. Big time.

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But there may be another reason for this new position if one is willing to speculate. It involves the possibility that Marquez is keenly aware of the punishment the Pacman meted out in rounds five and six on the night of December 8 and the difficulty he had keeping up with the Filipino dynamo. Maybe he knows better than anyone that his ability to trade with Manny, while the only way to keep the verdict out of the judges’ hands, remains a painful and high risk proposition. And if Marquez is aware of all of this, it’s entirely possible that by refusing to sign up for another battle he’s taking the only safe path to preserve his legacy.

And maybe, just maybe, he also knows that what he accomplished on December 8 is more than just the result of his dedication, determination and skill, and that pundits and fans alike who were taken aback when they saw him strip off his shirt at the weigh-in on December 7 are on to him. Yes, there is justified suspicion that Marquez used illegal substances to build the physique and power necessary to compete at welterweight with one of the stronger punchers in the sport today. This is the product not only of his recent association with PED industry connoisseur Angel Heredia, but also of his newly-sculpted physique, and his previously “underrated” explosive punching power.

Bill Simmons of Grantland succinctly made the point in a recent column dedicated to PEDs in professional sports:

Juan Manuel Marquez couldn’t knock down Manny Pacquiao [in] 36 solid rounds over three of their fights. [But Marquez] arrived in Vegas so ripped that he weighed in four pounds under the 147-pound limit, knocked Pacquiao down early with a vicious power punch, then coldcocked him a few rounds later with one of the single greatest knockout punches ever thrown. … We oohed and aahed, tweeted our disbelief and forwarded the YouTube clip around. And when Marquez passed the bogus post-fight drug test … everyone let the moment go.

The rest of the column (available here) is a worthy read. It’s main point is that in a time when fans of all sports have been burned again and again by cheating athletes, it is not only justified, but imperative, that we suspect extraordinary results achieved under extraordinary circumstances. This is especially true given the lax drug testing regimes that are currently enforced, and particularly true in boxing, which remains the most corrupt of organized sports.

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So what does this have to do with Marquez’s current stand on a fifth fight? Well, if we assume for a moment that the Mexican actually used illegal substances to gain an unfair edge in fight four, he must surely be pondering a) if there is any way he can or should take on a fifth fight without the help of said substances; b) whether another mega-paycheck justifies the risk of getting caught; and c) the moral and/or physiological consequences of continuing to use performance enhancing drugs. These are heavy considerations for anyone to assess, especially if we believe that Marquez was a clean athlete who only engaged in cheating in the home stretch of his boxing run.

Pugilism, like many other professional endeavours, is experiencing a hollowing out of its middle ranks. A global market increases the rewards to success by providing a much larger audience than before. The riches attained by those who make it to the very top are thus grander than ever before, while the bottom-feeders are left with less and less of the spoils to distribute. All the while, the middle of the pack is hollowed out because mass audiences can only pay attention to a limited number of boxers at a time, given that they are provided so many other forms of entertainment. This means a lucky few fighters end up as megastars, while the rest toil in almost total obscurity for most of their careers.

It’s little surprise then that athletes will do almost anything to gain an advantage over competitors. Ironically, the apparently rising number of boxers failing drug tests is probably not even  the main gauge of the situation; drug testing in boxing is so incompetent that it borders on the laughable.

Boxingscene.com recently quoted Dr. Margaret Goodman, the president and board chairwoman of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association as saying:

Number one, all professional sport PED programs are inadequate because there is little or no random unannounced testing. Number two, the testing profiles in place don’t include the methods/substances athletes are using to cheat, such as CIR, EPO, HGH and blood doping methods. Number three, with boxing and MMA, no one is spending time educating fighters in telling them they can compete clean and succeed. Number four, most importantly, fighters are not taught about the devastating side effects of these substances.

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It must be said that Dr. Goodman not only knows drugs, but she also knows boxing, having once served as chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission, so her words carry their share of weight. And what those words are saying is that current drug test protocols are not even designed to test for the substances athletes are using to cheat. The situation is so beyond baffling and absurd, it’s not even funny. Urine tests for detecting drug use is the equivalent of an airport security screening machine that can only detect slingshots and wooden sticks.

And so the ones who are failing drug tests are — no disrespect intended — the stupid ones. In this day and age, boxers have no excuse for getting caught cheating via use of illegal substances. This is thanks both to the absurd testing protocols in place, and to the wonders of pharmaceutical innovation. The truth is that if you get caught using a banned substance in boxing, you either made an innocent mistake, or you are way too cheap to hire a decent PEDs consultant. But you need not worry, since for a meager portion of your future earnings as a knockout artist, you can hire help that will more than pay itself many times over as you move up weight classes and chop down opponents you never would’ve dreamed you would even face. As you sport the physique of a Greek god, you will then draw the admiration of an audience too entranced to pay attention to anything other than your ring exploits and your formerly underrated hard work and dedication.

It is always a sad day when those formerly labeled cynics are demoted to realists. In the world of boxing, that day came a long time ago. But it is only now that we are finding out that what used to be a relatively small circle of bitter detractors has justifiably grown to significant numbers. We have finally woken up to the fact that those we used to call heroes and role models are nothing but illusionists. However, for the illusions to stop, the audience must refuse to keep believing. And the time for boxing fans to stop believing and start demanding action is now.             –Rafael García

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