Editor’s Letter: Shields vs. Marshall was a fine starting point, but boxing’s vicious cycle must be broken and soon

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Claressa Shields stands toe to toe with Savannah Marshall at London’s O2 Arena on October 15, 2022 (James Chance/Getty Images)

Shields-Marshall is only the first step in rebuilding the sport’s reputation

IT WILL take more than a thrilling encounter between Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall to fix the problems that are piling up like sacks of rubbish during a refuse collectors’ strike. Shields and Marshall briefly freshened the air on Saturday night. They reminded us how appealing the sport is when it’s managed correctly. But the stench remains.

If I can smell it, and you can smell it, too many people from the outside world can smell it. Just ask the International Olympic Committee, who are on the brink of washing themselves free from boxing, once and for all. They’re not the only ones plotting their escape after observing what goes on in here.

In the build-up to Shields-Marshall, while boxing tried to carry on regardless, influential sportswriters focused more on what had happened the week before when Conor Benn failed a drug test. The papers were full of bad publicity. It can be frustrating when those writers swoop with a scandal and then fly away to leave the rest of us to deal with the mess. The reasons for that are arguable. The failings they uncover indefensible. And they’ll be back soon enough.

Chris Algieri was at it, too. He spoke about the rumours he heard before and after his loss to Benn last year. Eddie Hearn, Conor’s promoter, implied there was no VADA testing for Shields-Marshall only to take it back when corrected by Shields herself. The American later reacted with alarm to a clip of Kerry Kayes, post-fight, sportingly rubbing her back with a towel. The suggestion that Kayes, part of Marshall’s team and one of the sport’s finest men, was polluting Shields with a mysterious substance is of course utter nonsense. Nonetheless, the suspicion and uncertainty from a foreign fighter was understood.

The sport has long needed to clean up its act. Yet after each scandal comes brief outrage, then a period of ‘as you were’ before another scandal comes along that feels even dirtier than the last. That failure to learn from mistakes is beyond maddening. Those who are sane-minded enough to recognise the faults lack the influence – and finances – to really make a difference.

The powerbrokers get their own way. Rules are bent out of shape. The British Boxing Board of Control, a small organisation when compared financially to the biggest promoters and fighters it’s perceived to govern, are too often backed into a corner from which they cannot escape.

When we’re told from insiders that boxing is flying high it is usually propaganda. Rarely do we hear it from outsiders. When boxing is on the back pages it’s nearly always a cause for concern, not celebration.

Let’s break the vicious cycle. Shields-Marshall, reportedly seen by 2m (a figure no doubt boosted by the clever decision to broadcast on the non-subscription Sky Showcase), is the perfect starting point.

We have to stop resisting change just because this is the way it’s always been. We need blue sky thinking. Mustering such positivity is admittedly a little tricky when we keep slipping on that ever-expanding pile of muck that’s all over the floor. Quite how (or why) we keep getting up after landing face-first in the stuff is a great mystery, yet, to believe there is no hope would also be admitting we have wasted far too much of our precious lives on boxing.

We must remember why we’re here. For those beams of light. Those glorious, unforgettable nights. Those incomparable moments of excitement. Those genuine heroes inside the ring, their eternal bravery and astonishing self-sacrifice. Those acts of goodwill much further down the food chain at backstreet gyms where lives are saved and purpose is instilled. There is nothing like boxing when it gets things right, we cannot forget that.

Nor can we allow the sins of the past and present to be forgotten, or worse, keep acting like they don’t exist.

One could write a book about the measures that need to be taken to Save Our Sport. For now, though, let’s take it one step at a time. We start with the most topical and arguably the most important. 

We get rid of drug cheats. Or, at the absolute least, we show that we’re doing everything we possibly can.

Given that those who design and administer the drugs are always one-step ahead of the testers, the likelihood is they can never be stopped, not entirely. Even in sports where there are effective systems in place – like athletics, for example – drug cheats remain. The undetectable nature of new and revolutionary substances, coupled with the need to only micro-dose to feel the benefits, may lead some to suggest that testing is a waste of time. We must not surrender yet, however. We’re a long way from saying we gave it our best shot.

The implementation of regular and random testing is a necessity. And it must be both regular and random, whether an athlete is preparing for a fight or not. What we know, or should know, is that athletes who strive to cheat are always in preparation.

VADA have proven themselves to be the best at what they do. Yet they are at the mercy of fighters, promoters and commissions to then act on their findings. Punishments must follow. A dirty test is a dirty test. It shouldn’t take months to ascertain how the dirt got there.

Every world-level fighter should face, at the very least, two random tests per month. When they are in camp, they should be tested far more frequently. That seems like an awful lot on the surface. But in today’s culture, it is surely a necessity if we are to promote a clean sport. Ideally, every licensed boxer would also be subject to random testing. Now, of course, plenty will say that’s unrealistic due to the costs and labour involved. So too the cost of increasing testing at elite level. They’d be right, too. But it’s worth considering this: If we don’t have the resources and infrastructure to clean ourselves up, should the sport even exist at all? There is money there, lots of it in high places. How it is distributed and spent is another matter entirely.

Deaths still occur in boxing, the majority at a lower level. Now I’m not saying those accidents can or should be blamed on drug cheats but it’s true that the vast majority of professional contests occur with zero testing in place.

As an aside, too many turn professional without enough amateur experience or the skills/fitness/time required to succeed. Only in boxing, and this is a worldwide issue, do we have professional ‘athletes’ who have done little to prove they are capable. It’s a fact that elite amateurs are better than the vast majority of professionals. That’s absurd. Sterner barriers for entry are surely required. It would immediately reduce the amount of mismatches and pointless fights. I digress, but food for thought nonetheless.

Once a failed test is registered, the punishment has to be harsh. In some cases it may appear too harsh but that’s the only way to deter others from trying their luck. However the prohibited substance got in a system has to be irrelevant. We live in an era where it’s not difficult to keep track of exactly what goes into your body. Particularly if you’re a professional athlete. If you can’t keep track, well, perhaps being a professional athlete is not for you. Weekly diaries of what is eaten/drank/taken would be submitted for the point of cross referencing should a dirty test occur.

So, with a diary of everything consumed in place, if a boxer is caught it should immediately be clear why. If they have made a mistake, failed to declare a treatment, misunderstood what is and what is not prohibited, swallowed the wrong pill, eaten in an obscure restaurant where they didn’t take the time to find out the origins of their food, they must come out and say so immediately. Do not wait until the world thinks you’re a cheat before attempting to clear your name. Do not believe the advisors who tell you not to worry. Take the initiative yourself.

Then make a guilty plea. Explain how you came to have a prohibited substance in your system so others are not so careless. You should receive a two-year ban, regardless.

‘Not guilty, I am clean, ask anyone, I have no idea’: A four-year ban.

Caught again after your suspension? Bye-bye, close the door on your way out.

Another area of drug use that must be explored is perhaps even more crucial than testing and punishment. And that’s removing those who hand out the drugs in the first place. Operation Remove Drug Pushing Weasels should have started many years ago.

Every single member of a boxer’s team should have a licence and be declared by a boxer. The moment a test is failed the boxer must identify the member of their team who assisted them to cheat. If they fail to, that first four-year ban becomes an immediate bye-bye. Whomever is outed as the drug expert loses their licence and they’re not welcome to reapply ever again. The scumbag gets a lifetime ban on their first offence.

One last thing for the promoters to consider. Why not make it your policy to never work with a fighter who has failed a test in the past? Admittedly, that could make life difficult for a while because there are so many caught who have been welcomed back.

But, in time, operating with a clear conscience will bear fruit.

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