WBC super featherweight champion Oscar Valdez has tested positive for the banned substance phentermine ahead of his fight with unbeaten Robson Conceicao on Friday. So surely that means the fight is off? A lengthy suspension for the champion? The WBC stripping him of the title? If you answered “don’t be silly” to all three then congratulations, you are a true boxing fan. The fight remains on, the title remains on the line and the champion remains free to fight.
It is impossible to imagine any other mainstream sport where this would be the case. While drug use is prevalent in other sports, it is usually dealt with when the matter becomes public. A failed test will get you a ban, and in many cases even a failure to make yourself available to test will incur similar. Just ask Rio Ferdinand.
Boxing does have form in this area. Manuel Charr was set to defend his minor WBA title against Fres Oquendo in 2018 when the fight was cancelled due to the champion failing a drug test. While the fight did not take place, Charr was allowed to keep hold of his championship, and was only stripped of it in January of this year. The official reason given was inactivity, after a Don King-promoted title defence fell through due to visa issues. The dethroned champion is pursuing legal action against the infamous old promoter, but it is hard to buy into his sense of injustice after being allowed to remain as a belt-holder despite a positive drug test.
Valdez will be fighting under the jurisdiction of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Athletic Commission, who subscribe to the rule of the World Anti-Doping Association. The WADA rule that phentermine is permissible in the system up to 11:59pm on the day before a fight. By the letter of WADA law, the fight should go ahead. However, the fight contract stipulates that the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association would carry out the testing for the fight, and their ruling is more black and white. You either have banned substances in your system, or you do not.
The complication here comes from the concept of adjudication. While the VADA carries out the actual testing, it is up to the WADA to decide how the results are interpreted. In this case, they have chosen to essentially ignore them. As with the proliferation of conflicting alphabet championships, it appears boxing has a problem with multiple organisations disagreeing with each other on the matter of drug testing.
While it is scant consolation, at least in this case the nature of the substance used will have no impact on Valdez vs Conceicao on the night. Phentermine leaves the system after 48 hours, and Valdez has posted negative results in subsequent tests. However, the issue here is surely a moral one. Boxing should not turn a blind eye to those who use performance enhancers. More than any other sport, the implications could be severe. While all cheating is unscrupulous, in boxing it can result in real and lasting physical damage.
Rather than hiding behind loopholes and discrepancies between WADA and VADA rulings, boxing should take a zero-tolerance approach. Unfortunately, in a woefully under-regulated sport where fights get made based on potential revenue over sporting merit, exceptions will continue to be made. Valdez is a 29-0 two-weight world champion, and a marketable name. Therefore every care has been taken to get this fight into the ring. One fears that he will not be the last boxer whose commerciality is cherished over his scruples.