steroids in boxing article

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

In my column for 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 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.?

Copyright 2005 ConanSports LLC

Interesting article.

double post.

Great article

Good article. I agree that the Rocky movies have
affected the way the public expects a fighter to look.
They forget, that is Hollywood muscle, not real
functioning muscle. I wish the author would have
named names, but I understand he does not want
to get sued. Guys like Dempsey, Louis, and
Marciano did not have buff bodies but were lean,
hard, and very hard punchers. They would break
the backs of most of today's pretty boys.

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.

Wladimir, Vitali?

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.

Evander Holyfield.

This article is right on the money.

Here's the physique of the greatest heavyweight champion of all:

The Great Dempsey, the year he won the title:

The best pound-for-pound fighter of all-time?

Jim Jeffries, considered the perfect physical specimen:

Heh, check out Marciano's and Jack Johnson's physiques too.

The picture of Johnson on the cover of his book makes him look like he's 170lbs.

There was nothing cut about Marciano either.

Dempsey's physique was totally underwhelming.

But all these guys could hit like a jackhammer.

Jack Johnson:

Rocky Marciano:

Jess Willard, discovered tossing 500lb bales of cotton on to a wagon:

And today...

"Dempsey's physique was totally underwhelming."

I wouldn't say "totally":

GREAT posts UWE!

Funny that you chose to post that last one of Dempsey. I used to have exact pic (from Corbis too) on my hardrive, and it always astounded me how a guy who usually looked thin/lean looked very powerful and muscular in that pic.

Quality over quantity I guess.

Other good examples of physiques are Joe Frazier who was blubbery but had supernatural strength and stamina and Bob Foster - beanpole physique, devastating puncher.

Thanks U4EA!

You can't talk about boxing physiques without mentioning Bob Fitzsimmons, the first man to hold titles at three different weight classes and who won the heavyweight championship in 1897. Fitz trained as a blacksmith as a boy and developed a physique that was the subject of both amazement and ridicule. All those years swinging a hammer and moving his anvil gave him the upper-body of a natural heavyweight, but his lower half was a spindly as a lightweight's!

Even Jim Jeffries, perhaps the strongest and best-conditioned fighter to ever step in to a ring, was impressed with Fitzsimmon's strength and punching power. They later became fast friends and shared mutual hobbies like digging ditches and chopping wood.

RJJ sure put on a lot of muscle as well;)

The breakdown part mentioned earlier is funny because it could really be several heavyweights. I was actually thinking of Golota, but it very well could be Wladimir and Vitali. Lewis put on a LOT of muscle, and of course we all knew about Holyfield, even if some of his fans want to stay delusional and believe he is all natural.

Of the top ten heavyweights in recent years, I think it would be harder to find fighters who are not on steroids than those who are. All of that extra muscle is also why most of them will start breathing hard a couple rounds into a fight, unlike the natural greats like Louis, Marciano, Dempsey, etc.

IIRC, Holyfield trained with Lee Haney.

Interesting this about RJJ is, assuming for now that he was using 'Vitamin S' or at least bulking up naturally from the start of his career, can you imagine if he hadn't? His weight is recorded on as being low as 153lb in 1991, when he was 22 years old and (I assume) completely physically mature.

Can you imagine how devastatingly fast, strong and powerful he would have been if he could have fought seriously as a welter or jnr MW? Even at 168, it was those attributes that seperated him from the rest of the field.

UWE - it's on record that Jack Johnson stated Fitz was the hardest puncher he faced. Not sure of the exact quote, but I think he stated that he had to get rid of him soon as he knew one punch would have finshed him. Maybe martin has the full quote.

I don't know how much Jones had used. I doubt that much. I saw a picture of him at 14 jumping rope and he was just as defined and shredded then as he was in his exact photocopy of his older build, just about two-thirds size.

Jones was implicated in the BALCO scandal, wasn't he?

I don't know..i know he got a lot of heat for some nasal spray he allegedly used around the Richard Hall fight in Indianapolis...I don't have any knowledge of whether he did them or not...but I doubt the guy needed them. He was boxing hard core practically out of the womb and Roy Sr. ran and worked him out silly his entire childhood.

I wish I'd stolen that picture of Jones skipping rope at age 14. My boss had it and whipped it out for me about 12 years ago. He was about 130 lbs and looked EXACTLY like he does in the face and build now. You know how some people look different as they go from a kid to an adult? Jones looked the exact same...and he's skipping rope with this dead-eyed gaze that says, "I'm going to beat every mother they put in front of me."

Much like RJJ, Holyfield was very ripped up at a young age as well, yet managed to put on a lot of muscle while staying just as ripped. They also both moved up substantially in weight classes, except RJJ moved up much, much more than Holyfield did. RJJ eventually ended up complaining that he was in the high 190s and making the cut to LHW was too hard, yet stayed just as ripped as when he was in the 150s. That is a lot like Holyfield fighting at 175 and then looking at least as ripped up at 215.

Jaseprobst, do you think Holyfield is steroid free? He is every bit as steroid free as RJJ is.

I am also glad other people are coming around on Holyfield juicing, I can't even count how many people used to argue with me over this subject the last few years.

Also, just off the top of my head, I remember RJJ testing positive for Andro, Botha tested positive for steroids and had to give up his belt --and if Botha tested positive for roids, that alone proves you can't tell if someone is juicing based on looks alone-- Golota tested positive once, Vitali tested positive in his amateur days, Toney just tested positive, and Vargas tested positive against Oscar. Now these are just the people who got caught, it is very easy to pass steroid tests and drugs are made just for this specific purpose. Imagine how many people are actually using?

"Also, just off the top of my head, I remember RJJ testing positive for Andro"

Nanandrolone, IIRC. Sugar Shane was also fingered in the BALCO scandal, FWIW.