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Mosley’s problem might be boxing’s problem

Fighters Network

Shane Mosley admitted he took performance-enhancing drugs before his 2003 fight against Oscar De La Hoya but didn't know it at the time. Photo / Tom

Note: This story was originally posted in January.

The former headquarters for Victor Conte's BALCO empire was in Burlingame, under the final approach for planes landing at San Francisco International Airport. From the airport, it was a short ride. Five minutes. Maybe less.

But on July 26, 2003, Shane Mosley and strength coach Derryl Hudson flew into Oakland airport on the other side of San Francisco Bay. Conte had to send a limousine to pick them up and cart them over the San Mateo Bridge. It was an aberration on a day with an overarching theme of efficiency.

Conte quickly had Mosley, then 32, taken to a nearby clinic to have his blood drawn and tested. Then the four of them – Conte, BALCO VP Jim Valente, Mosley and Hudson – gathered in BALCO's offices and got down to business.

“Mosley,” Conte later stated in a court declaration, “acknowledged that he wanted to increase his strength and endurance for his world championship boxing match against Oscar De La Hoya.”

The fight was in Las Vegas on Sept. 13. They had seven weeks.

Conte, according to his account of the meeting, wrote up a doping calendar with the initials “S.M.” at the top and handwritten notations for what to take on which days. Then he began putting various pills and substances on his desk. Some were legal vitamins and nutritional substances. Three were not.

There was The Clear, a liquid that later became known as THG, an undetectable anabolic steroid that he had been giving to his track athletes and that one track coach referred to as “rocket fuel.” There was The Cream, a lotion Conte used as a masking agent; it tricked even the most advanced drug testers by keeping the body's levels of testosterone at normal levels. Then there was the bottle Conte says was labeled “Procrit.”

Conte produced a syringe and showed Mosley how to use it, flicking it and pushing up the plunger to remove air bubbles. You didn't inject the entire dose in one place but half into each side of your stomach – the double injection technique.

“I understand from reviewing studies,” Conte said in a court declaration, “that splitting the dosage and using two injection sites can increase saturation and the effectiveness of the drug compared to a single 1 cc injection.”

Then, Conte says, he handed the syringe to Mosley and watched him inject his first dose.

The liquid in the bottle allegedly was erythropoietin, or EPO. Originally developed and manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Amgen, it is a synthetic version of the hormone made by the kidneys that stimulates the body's production of red blood cells. Cancer patients use it after chemotherapy. People suffering from anemia use it. People with malfunctioning kidneys use it. So do professional cyclists and distance runners to illicitly boost endurance by increasing their concentration of red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles.

The game changer.

* * *

Mosley's doping calendar called for injections of E, the code for EPO, every other day for the first two weeks of the regimen, then once a week after that. His final injection was scheduled for Sept. 8, five days before the fight and plenty of time to clear his system for a post-fight drug test.

And indeed, Mosley's urine test did not come back positive after he scored a 12-round unanimous decision over De La Hoya to win two world title belts and become the only person to beat boxing's “Golden Boy” twice. He was free and clear.

Except for one slight problem.

On Sept. 3, 10 days before the fight, federal agents raided BALCO headquarters, seizing files from Conte's office that included doping calendars and shipping receipts. The feds also got emails, letters, canceled checks and results of laboratory tests conducted on the stable of elite athletes – baseball players, football players, Olympic track stars and one famous boxer – whom Conte allegedly serviced.

Three months later Mosley was back in the Bay Area, sitting in the witness box of a San Francisco court house and testifying before a federal grand jury. Answering questions about The Clear and The Cream. Answering questions about the bottle labeled “Procrit” and the injections into each side of his stomach.

Asked about it last week on a media teleconference ahead of the Jan. 24 fight against Antonio Margarito in Los Angeles, Mosley said: “I've put this stuff aside since 2004. People want to bring it up. I don't even listen. … My whole thing is Margarito. I don't even care about all that.”

Mosley has filed defamation suits against Conte, claiming he was “misled” by Conte and that he “unknowingly” used what he later learned were performance-enhancing substances banned by most international anti-doping agencies. One of the defamation suits is still pending.

Hudson in turn sued Mosley, saying in a court declaration that Mosley “admitted to me that he knew the drugs provided to him by Mr. Conte were illegal performance-enhancing drugs.”

De La Hoya has not pressed the issue, telling Newsday that “Shane is such a good guy” and noting that “he's a partner in my (Golden Boy Promotions) company.” But the World Boxing Council has launched an investigation, and the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission admits his organization explored ways – ultimately unsuccessful – to strip Mosley of his victory over De La Hoya.

The big issue for boxing, though, isn't Mosley and his protracted legal battles with Conte and Hudson; or whether he knew what he was doing when, as he admitted to the federal grand jury, he injected EPO in the weeks before the 2003 De La Hoya fight; or what the WBC investigation might determine; or whether De La Hoya should file some sort of grievance; or whether an acclaimed “good guy” would ever knowingly do something so deceitful.

The big issue for boxing might be EPO itself.

Mosley was trailing on all three judges' cards as the 2003 fight entered the eighth round – 68-65 on two cards, 67-66 on the third.

But De La Hoya, then 30, started to tire while the 32-year-old Mosley seemed to catch his second wind. Two of the three judges gave Mosley the eighth round. All three gave him the ninth. All three gave him the 10th. All three gave him the 11th. All three gave him the 12th.

The decision: 115-113, Mosley, on all three cards.

Mosley said afterward he could have gone another 12 rounds, and he probably was only half kidding. There was another, telling statistic associated with the bout that didn't emerge publicly until years later: Mosley's hematocrit levels.

Hematocrit is the proportion of a person's blood volume filled with red blood cells that are so vital in transporting oxygen to muscles. Court documents say Mosley's hematocrit when Conte had it a measured on July 26, 2003, was 44, within the normal range for a healthy male. On Aug. 8 Conte advised Mosley to have his blood drawn and tested by a clinic in Big Bear, Calif., where the fighter's training camp was based.

The reported hematocrit from that test was 52.2, nearly a 20-percent increase in a mere 13 days. Training at altitude, experts will tell you, can elevate a person's concentration of red blood cells. But not that much. Not that fast.

“(Conte) told me that, you know, the hematocrit level was supposed to be at a certain level,” Mosley told the federal grand jury on Dec. 11, 2003. “And, like, cyclists and a lot of long distance runners and stuff like that use it … he explained that to me. And I said, 'OK, that's something I can do to get my endurance as high as it can possibly be.'”

How high is 52.2?

Beginning in 1997, professional cyclists were regularly subjected to blood screens before major races. Anyone with a hematocrit above 50 is banned from competing for 15 days.

Presumably, it's for health reasons because an increased concentration of red blood cells thickens the blood and anyone with a hematocrit that high is essentially pumping Jello through his veins, risking a major heart seizure. In reality, anti-doping authorities figure that anyone with a hematocrit over 50 is doing something illicit that they otherwise can't prove.

EPO became popular among elite cyclists, distance runners, cross-country skiers and other endurance athletes in the mid-1990s. It was a quick and relatively inexpensive way to spike red blood cell concentrations and significantly increase stamina – far easier and far safer than blood doping, where an athlete draws his own blood, stores it and re-injects it before competition.

A urine test for EPO was first used at the 2000 Olympics. However, it has been only mildly effective when you consider, as Conte and others have suggested, that the body can erase any chemical fingerprint of synthetic EPO in as little as 17 hours. Riders also figured out ways to lower their hematocrit values in the pre-race screens by taking substances such as human albumen and glucose.

But Conte, the doping guru, noticed something else about EPO. The urine test is time-consuming and expensive (it takes three days and costs up to $500 for a single sample), and anti-doping authorities were using it only on endurance athletes. And EPO, Conte determined, could be beneficial to athletes in power sports.

To sprinters (Marion Jones allegedly used it while winning a record five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics).

To NFL players who, Conte says, swear by it because it keeps them fresh in the fourth quarter late in the season.

To boxers.

Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, says his organization first discussed the possibility of EPO use in boxing six years ago. And promptly dismissed it.

“The myth back then was that EPO really wasn't a drug fighters would use,” Kizer says. “Most fights were four to six rounds. Even in a 12-round fight, you're only fighting 36 minutes and you get 11 minutes of rest. The days of the 15-round fights outdoors in the heat were over. … We figured it wouldn't really help.”

Conte laughs at the thought. Almost all his athletes were quietly using it, and almost all his clients were in sports where it wasn't supposed to help. Conte has even said that if he could use only one banned substance, in many cases he'd choose EPO.

There are the obvious endurance benefits during competition. There's the ability to train harder and longer. There's also, at least anecdotally, what appears to be anabolic (or muscle building) properties, especially when combined with known anabolic substances such as testosterone. Athletes have privately talked about it for years, that some illicit substances seem to make others work better, that one plus one sometimes equals three.

And in boxing, you have a sport that requires a unique mix of strength and stamina …

“In certain respects, I think EPO is the perfect drug for boxing,” says Dr. Margaret Goodman, the former chief ringside physician for Nevada. “And it's much easier to use than some of the other things out there. It's the ideal thing to use, especially if you’re fighting 12 rounds.

“It's going to get you the most bang for your buck.”

* * *

Two years ago, the Nevada State Athletic Commission adopted the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of prohibited substances, the most comprehensive in all of sports and the one used by Olympic athletes. And last May the Nevada commission issued an addendum to its drug testing policy that outlined “pre-fight night” urine tests.

Here's how it works:

The commission contacts a licensed fighter, notifies him he has been selected for an out-of-competition test and provides instructions about locating the nearest accredited laboratory. The lab is also contacted, and the fighter has two days to show up, present photo identification and submit a urine test.

Here's the problem:

Two days is ample time for someone to flush their system of many banned substances, EPO included. Or say the fighter is training in Ohio. What guarantee is there that a member his entourage who looks like him won't take the test for him?

But let's say a fighter is using EPO and it hasn't cleared his system and he shows up at the lab himself and urinates into the cup. He still won't get caught, because Nevada currently doesn't order EPO testing as part of its anti-doping policy. It doesn't because of the cost (in most cases, it is footing the bill) and because, the commission's executive director says, it doesn't consider the EPO test “reliable” enough.

“It's still a work in progress,” Kizer says of its drug testing program.

But at least Nevada has out-of-competition testing. Many other state commissions do not, essentially allowing a doping free-for-all in the lead-up to a fight. Another problem is that boxing is regulated much like horseracing, with an alphabet soup of state, national and international federations – and not under the jurisdiction of a single, comprehensive anti-doping program or agency.

“We're just one state,” Kizer says. “We don't have the ability or even the authority to send someone across state lines and knock on a door and demand a test. You just do as much as you can. There are a lot of critics out there saying, 'What about this, what about that?' It's a tough thing.”

The World Boxing Council, which requires only a post-fight urine test, has six pages of anti-doping regulations in its by-laws. It begins with an admonition that boxers “shall not be under the influence of any drug during the contest that will in any manner affect their performance in the ring.” But the wording is vague and says nothing about substances taken in the preceding weeks and months before the fight. Nor does it draw a distinction between legal supplements and hard-core drugs, both of which, presumably, would affect their performance.

And nowhere in the six pages do the words, erythropoietin or EPO, appear. The WBC regulations specifically ban “infusions of blood, red cells or plasma expanders,” but EPO, a hormone, technically does not fall under any of those definitions.

Goodman suggests implementing a cycling-style blood screen for boxing, assuming you could establish a fair threshold for hematocrit. Boxers cutting weight tend to be dehydrated, and dehydration often results in a temporary increase in a person's hematocrit.

But physicians such as Goodman say something has be done, and soon.

“How prevalent are performance-enhancing drugs in boxing?” Goodman asks. “I don't think anyone knows the answer. But I would say that among individuals using performance-enhancing drugs, EPO is right up there. When you look at its availability and its effectiveness, it's got to be something that's fairly prevalent.

“People used to say that boxers would never use these substances. Boxers are no different from anybody else. They’re not na├»ve. And if they don't know about it themselves, they have people around them who can educate them. And everyone is looking for an edge.

“No one imagines that (EPO) is this major problem in boxing. But of course it is. It has to be. It makes total sense.”

* * *

In his grand jury testimony, Mosley admits to paying Conte $1,850 for his services, $500 in cash on the day of their meeting and the rest by a personal check later. Court documents show a handwritten tally by Conte breaking down the charges:

$900 for EPO. $600 for The Clear and The Cream. $150 for blood work.

And the remaining $200?

It was for Gateway Limo, to and from the Oakland airport.

Mark Zeigler covers sports for the San Diego Union-Tribune