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October 5, 2017

Wilder vs. Ortiz & Boxing’s PED Problem

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on website on October 5th, 2017:

Last month boxing fans were treated to the news that WBC heavyweight champion, “The Bronze Bomber” Deontay Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs), would defend his title against one of the most feared contenders in the division, Luis “King Kong” Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs). In what has already been a stellar year for the sport of boxing, this promised to be yet another excellent contest, with sharply contrasting perceptions of champion and challenger providing the backdrop for an intriguing clash of styles.

Wilder has had the World Boxing Council’s shiny green and gold belt wrapped around his waste since defeating Bermane Stiverne in January 2015 and owns an awesome 97% KO ratio. And yet, the American has struggled to gain the wider respect commensurate with such a record from the hardcore boxing community. Many have been heavily critical of the lack of top-notch opposition on his CV as well as the apparent lack of finesse in his punching technique. There’s a common perception that Wilder’s powerful yet novice-like “windmill swings” will be exposed once he meets an experienced, world-class boxer with a decent chin and solid fundamentals.

Meanwhile, Ortiz sits as an honoree member of the “Who Needs Him?” club: a 6’4”, 240lb southpaw, he also happens to be a well-schooled Cuban with top amateur pedigree and, not surprisingly, has struggled to entice the division’s biggest names into the ring. Possessing an awkward, technically sound style and heavy hands, Ortiz hasn’t always set the world alight with his performances, but the combination of his size and skillset has seen him recognized as one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the world for several years.

At a press conference held in New York on September 20th, Wilder had a blunt warning for the Cuban: “Luis Ortiz, don’t fuck it up! Stay clean, because we’ll be checking. Stay clean. Don’t fuck this up for me, nor you, because I’m gonna prove to the world that I am the best.”

The WBC champion’s fears were not unfounded. In September 2014 Ortiz scored a first-round knockout over Lateef Kayode to collect the WBA’s interim heavyweight championship. On the cusp of competing for big bucks against the division’s elite, Ortiz was stripped of his belt and the result declared a “no contest” when a pre-fight urine sample returned a positive result for the steroid Nandralone. He was fined a meager 10% of his fight purse and banned from boxing for eight months.

Ortiz’s history of PED problems was not Wilder’s only cause for concern, though. On two previous occasions the American was scheduled to face opponents who failed pre-fight drug tests. In May 2016 he was set to make a mandatory defence in Moscow against Alexander Povetkin – a challenger widely considered to be by far his toughest assignment. Less than two weeks before the bout, the Russian tested positive for a banned substance, the bout was scrapped and Wilder was forced to seek recourse in the courts over the lost multi-million dollar pay-day.

Then in January of this year, Polish heavyweight Andrzej Wawrzyk also failed a test five weeks prior to a title fight with Wilder. This time, the defending champ was able to arrange a replacement to step in at short notice, with a fifth-round stoppage of Gerald Washington helping to quell the disappointment of yet another cancelled bout due to his opponent’s flagrant disregard for the rules.

Given his prior experiences and the warning personally issued to Ortiz about ruining the fight, Deontay was understandably furious when news emerged last week that his opponent had again failed a pre-fight VADA test, with his samples returning a positive result for two banned diuretics. In a video posted following news of the adverse test result, a visibly distraught Wilder lambasted the Cuban for scuppering the bout:

“I don’t understand, bro. I don’t understand why these fighters don’t want to fucking fight me fair! …They do all this fucking talking. But you supposed to be the ‘boogeyman’ of the motherfucking division – you a bitch. That’s what you is. A straight bitch.”

The American also indicated that his team had an inkling that this could occur, and that he believed the diuretics detected were best explained by Ortiz attempting to mask other performance enhancing substances in his system:

“Let’s keep it real. Keep it real to all the people – you’re not on blood pressure medicine, you was just at the hospital putting IV’s in your system trying to flush that shit. That’s why you didn’t make it to the press conference. We was on it.”

The story did not end there though. In the ensuing days, Ortiz’s team fired back with their own explanation for the failed test, insisting their fighter was taking prescription medication for a legitimate blood condition that they had simply neglected to declare on the VADA forms. If you were of a mind to view such an explanation with extreme cynicism, you would not be alone. But then support for Ortiz’s position came from a respected and, in many ways, unlikely source.

Victor Conte is one of the most highly regarded experts in the world of sports nutrition and performance enhancing substances. Previously embroiled in the notorious BALCO scandal and found guilty of aiding numerous athletes to evade doping regulations, he has since become one of the most respected voices in the battle to combat drug cheats. Rather than taking Ortiz’s VADA violation at face value, Conte dug into the specifics of the case and began tweeting his analyses, writing on Sunday:

  • Important 4 boxing 2 understand that Luis Ortiz had a valid prescription 4 the two BP meds & should have declared 2 @vada_testing @wbcboxing
  • Also important 4 boxing 2 understand that if Luis Ortiz HAD declared he was taking the two blood pressure meds, then THERE WOULD BE NO CASE!

Asked whether or not the blood pressure medication could in fact be used as a masking agent to shield detection of other PEDS, Conte replied:

  • Caffeine is a diuretic. Yes, there’s lots of diuretics could possibly push out water and PED metabolites

In a video later posted online, Conte explained his position more thoroughly, pointing out that the letter from VADA containing the test findings showed that according to every other parameter (such as carbon isotope ratio testing and T/E ratio) Ortiz’s results were all “perfectly normal”. He went on to explain that of four athletes in other fields who had previously been found to be taking the same combination of medication as Luis Ortiz, one athlete received a public warning, one received a three month suspension, and in two of the cases the athletes were ruled to be at “no fault”.

Conte’s conclusion was that it would be, “an absolute disaster for anti-doping in boxing as well as for all boxing fans” to cancel the fight simply because of a mistake in filling out the VADA testing form. “Do I have any indication from all this evidence that’s been submitted that there was any intent to cheat? The answer is ‘no’”.

But while I bow to the superior knowledge of Conte, I disagree with his assessment that cancelling the fight over the form-filling violation is analogous to “a murder charge for jaywalking”. It would be more comparable to Ortiz getting banned from driving for a DUI, then later getting caught for speeding and simply claiming he “didn’t see the road signs”. Another ban from driving, while harsh, would not seem entirely unreasonable in that case.

For his part, Wilder insisted that he still wanted the fight to go ahead, regardless of the test results. “I’ve already put in the request [with the WBC] that I still wanna fight him no matter what. Because, y’know, these motherfuckers gonna do these PEDS, they just gonna do it. So, if you need some help with me fine, let’s make this shit happen”.

The problem the WBC faced was that even supposing Ortiz had not intended to cheat and had gained no unfair advantage, the cloud hanging over the contest would be impossible to shake. In a scenario where Ortiz won by knockout and Wilder or his team complained afterwards about the test issue, the mainstream media would have a field day with the controversy. It was no surprise then that WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman announced in Azerbaijan on Wednesday that his organisation were withdrawing their sanction of the contest due to Ortiz’s test result. Instead, mandatory contender Bermane Stiverne would step in to rematch Wilder on the November 4th card.

It goes without saying that the cancellation of such an intriguing contest is a serious disappointment to boxing fans. However, even accepting Conte’s argument that there was no evidence of intent to cheat on the part of Team Ortiz, the fact is that they were preparing to fight for the biggest prize in the sport, they had previously been found guilty of doping offences, and yet they still broke the rules. If boxing regulatory bodies want to maintain the integrity of the sport, fighters must be penalized for that kind of neglect. The onus, quite rightly, should be on competitors to disclose any relevant medical information when asked – not for the regulatory bodies to decide whether the use of those medications can be retrospectively justified only after they have been detected.

In that sense, the WBC should be applauded for their ruling. Perhaps it will encourage boxers, and their teams, to be far less “forgetful” in declaring their prescribed medications in future – and that can only contribute to a cleaner sport in the long run.

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