By: Hector Franco
As Oscar Valdez (29-0, 23 KOs) prepares to make the first defense of his WBC super featherweight title against former amateur rival and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Robson Conceicao (16-0, 8 KOs), the focus hasn’t been on the match itself, but what took place a few weeks beforehand.
Valdez, who was tested for this bout by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) within the WBC’s clean boxing program, tested positive in both his A and B samples for the banned substance phentermine. Notably, VADA has phentermine listed on their banned list for in and out of competition. In contrast, WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, doesn’t prohibit the substance until the in-competition period of 11:59 pm the day before the fight.
After some deliberation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Athletic Commission who is overseeing the fight-taking place in Tucson, Arizona, decided to allow the fight to move forward.
In a statement from the WBC, they would allow Valdez to defend his title against Conceicao. The WBC decided to put Valdez on probation status for 12 months. Valdez would have to participate in some mandatory programs, including participating in the WBC’s clean boxing program. If he fails any other tests during this period, he will face an indefinite suspension.
The discussion with phentermine centers not just on the substance itself, but if it can be used as a masking agent for more threatening performance-enhancing drugs such as EPO (Erythropoietin) and HGH (Human Growth Hormone).
“First of all, phentermine reduces your feelings of hunger, and that has obvious applications in cutting weight,” stated Dr. Justin Seltzer, a Medical Toxicology Fellow at the UC San Diego Department of Emergency Medicine, in an interview with Bad Left Hook. “So, in a sport where that is important, maintaining or cutting weight, it has potential value.
“But, for example, compared to an anabolic steroid, phentermine doesn’t have the same direct effect. You may or may not ultimately benefit from it. But, it certainly could confer some theoretical advantage in terms of weight loss, fatigue resistance, and physical intensity.”
Seltzer continued regarding phentermine’s potential as a masking agent.
“You also asked if it could function as a masking agent specifically. The answer to that would be no unless you’re taking other amphetamines. Routine urine drug screening would come back positive for amphetamines, so the only masking it could do in that context is covering for other amphetamines. As a result, its value as a making agent would be very low.”
Boxing is already one of the most difficult and dangerous sports one can participate in, with deaths taking place every year. Most recently, female boxer Jeanette Zacarias Zapata died due to injuries suffered in a boxing match in Canada, where she was stopped in the fourth round.
With the dangers associated with the sport for many, there is little room for context or nuance regarding performance-enhancing drugs and the testing involved. Some feel there is no gray area when it comes to drug testing, and it is a black and white issue.
Valdez has faced criticism from his fellow pugilists, such as the now-retired Timothy Bradley Jr. and super featherweight contender Shakur Stevenson.
“I hope Robson Conceicao knocks him the hell out,” Bradley said in an interview with ESPN. “And I’m a fan of Valdez; I’m really hurt by this. Whether this is a tea or whatever, nobody cares, you tested positive. I’m thinking that you’re dirty, my friend.”
Stevenson, who has the same promoter in Top Rank and fights in the same division as Valdez, shared his thoughts regarding Valdez’s drug test during an Instagram live interview.
“Valdez fails a drug test; he gets a slap on the wrist. If I fail a drug test, Lord Jesus.”
Throughout the entirety of the failed drug test coming to light, Valdez has maintained that he is unsure how phentermine got in his system and believes it may have been a herbal tea he was taking.
“I don’t know how that got into my body,” Valdez said to ESPN’s Mark Kriegel. “I know every fighter is responsible for whatever they consume, but on behalf of myself, I have no clear answer how they got into my body. I’ve always been and will always be a clean fighter.”
Unfortunately for Valdez, there is a vast majority of boxing fans and pundits who aren’t willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Currently, the WBC super featherweight champion is trained by Mexico’s Eddy Reynoso.
The Mexican trainer won the 2019 BWAA trainer of the year award and is regarded as one of the top elite trainers in all of boxing.
The gym in which Reynoso trains his fighters has not come without controversy, with his most significant and well-known fighter Saul “Canelo” Alvarez testing positive for banned substance clenbuterol in 2018. The following year, another fighter he trains tested positive for clenbuterol in WBC flyweight champion Julio Cesar Martinez.
Valdez’s association with Alvarez and Martinez through Reynoso will make him guilty in the eyes of numerous fans for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve never been as hurt at this before,” Valdez said to ESPN. “Being discredited is one of the worst feelings. I just came out of a great victory. And I realize how many people, you know, immediately jump to conclusions. But at the same time, they’re right because the rules were broken.
“But a couple of months ago, everybody loved me. A couple of months ago, they were calling me a champ. ‘Hey, what’s up, champ?’ Now, everybody’s calling me a cheater. ‘Mr.Steroid. Mr. Anabolics. Mr. Performance Enhance Drug Taker.’
“My name will never be a hundred percent clear because a lot of people out there will always use that against me,” continued Valdez. “ Maybe because they don’t like me or maybe because they truly do believe that I’m trying to cheat. Or what the reasons are. They’re always gonna say, “Yeah, he cheated.’
“And people will always look at just the last fight or the last result. And they’ll only see the positive test. And when they see positive, they immediately assume there’s a steroid, or there’s a growth hormone or performance-enhancing drugs. Without knowing that all my other fights have been tested and came back negative, with the same VADA testing.”
So, what can Valdez do to help alleviate his situation?
He could take the opportunity and follow in future Hall-of-Famer Nonito Donaire’s footsteps and take the step in having drug-testing 24/7/365 in and out of competition.
However, it’s not just Valdez that should be tested all year long. That falls on every fighter that participates in the sport. We can’t have just a few fighters taking year-round testing as it will continue to allow others to escape without punishment.
Plenty of fighters throughout boxing history have tested positive for banned substances and would later be celebrated.
Shane Mosley, in 2007 admitted to taking designer steroids known as the ‘cream’ and the ‘clear’ before his 2003 rematch with Oscar De La Hoya. He then went on to participate in huge PPV events with Miguel Cotto, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and would eventually be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Roy Jones Jr. and his opponent Richard Hall both tested positive for androstenedione in 2000. At the time, Jones claimed that the substance might have been found due to him taking a supplement called ‘Ripped Fuel.’
However, other fighters have faced some form of punishment for testing positive for admittingly much more egregious drugs.
Infamously, heavyweight contender Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller received a two-year ban for multiple failed tests for EPO, HGH, and GW501516 in 2019. Former junior middleweight champion, Fernando Vargas tested positive for stanozolol in 2002 after his bout with Oscar De La Hoya and was fined $100,000 and faced a nine-month suspension.
The point being that Valdez can continue his career with many putting an asterisk next to his accomplishments. Frankly, there is nothing that Valdez can do to change everybody’s opinion of him without a time machine. There will always be those who look at him as a cheater no matter what he does moving forward.
The only thing he can do is continue fighting, and for him, hopefully winning. Over time many will forget or sweep under the rug the phentermine debacle. But, for many, the positive phentermine test will forever have tainted his career.