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Dr. Don Catlin on Anti-Doping in Boxing

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By Gabriel Montoya


The world of boxing is slowly getting to know the world of anti-doping and its cast of characters. Organizations like USADA and VADA, people such as Victor Conte, Travis Tygart, and Dr. Margaret Goodman are slowly being introduced to the boxing world as key figures in an ongoing movement towards uniformity within the anti-doping rules and regulations in the sport of boxing.

 

One significantly experienced voice belongs to Dr. Don Catlin. His accolades within an anti-doping career spanning thirty years are impressive. A co-founder of Carbon Isotope Ratio testing (CIR, designed specifically to detect the presence of endogenous testosterone; meaning testosterone from a source other than your body), Dr. Catlin is the founder and former director of the UCLA Olympic testing Lab. The lab, which Dr. Catlin ran for twenty-five years, is the first anti-doping lab in the United States and is the world’s largest. According to Dr. Catlin, [the UCLA lab does] testing for everybody under the sun. The NFL, Major League baseball. All of the Olympic Sports. You name it.”

 

In 2002 and 2003, Dr. Catlin identified norbolethone and tetrahydrogestrinone [THG] respectively following track coach Trevor Graham sending the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) syringes containing the substance followed by detailed intelligence as to where it came from. These are the first two designer steroids recorded. Created by the Bay Area Lab–Cooperative (BALCO) labs, each were different generations of a product created in 1966 and decades later re-discovered and manufactured by chemist Patrick Arnold.  He passed it on to Conte (at the time referring to it as “stuff)  who refined it at BALCO as “The Cream” and “The Clear.” It was Dr. Catlin who assigned the THG label. Newsweek labeled Graham’s decision to send that syringe to USADA as #7 on its 2010 decade’s end list “Top-10 History-Altering Decisions.”


In short, when it comes to the subject of anti-doping, Dr. Catlin is an experienced expert. He sat down with David Duenez and me on a recent episode of Leave it in the Ring radio show (leaveitintheringradio.com) to discuss the issue as it pertains to the sport of boxing.

 

“[Anti-doping] is what I’ve done for 30 years,” Dr. Catlin said. “But the boxing thing keeps coming up in my face time after time. I finally decided it’s an area where I can actually do some good. They really need help. Boxing is in abyssal shape. So I have been working and getting to know people in boxing and trying to see if we can find a serious way that [boxing] can get on to testing.”

 

Dr. Catlin helped developed CIR testing some fifteen years ago. Despite the fact that there have been no false positive tests reported in relation to the test, testing organizations have not fully implemented CIR. Only one, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association uses it on 100% of every urine sample collected. In its place is the industry standard “T/E ratio” test which measures the balance between testosterone vs. epitestosterone. Most people average 1:1 but differing athletic commissions allow for 4:1 and 6:1 ratios. As the Lance Armstrong case and others stemming from it have shown, that with leeway like 4 or 6:1, athletes simply cycle on and off testosterone when they know they are being tested. In anti-doping circles the T/E ratio test is considered a large loophole that only be closed by using CIR uniformly. Among dopers, it is considered a wonderful joke.

 

“A major problem in testing is that T/E ratio test. That’s the only way [commissions use to] tell whether a boxer or anybody has used testosterone,” Dr. Catlin pointed out. “If you submit a sample to Carbon Isotope Ratio, you can tell whether or not they used store bought testosterone or whether their testosterone is natural. [CIR] was finally approved by WADA ten years ago. It’s stood the test of time. It’s used every day all over the world. It’s a great test if I say so myself.”

 

How much CIR is used in Olympic sport and why it is not part of the standard protocol is a bone of contention.

 

“I’m not sure of the percentage. I would have to look it up. But of every WADA lab and there are 35 of them around the world, probably 30 of them do the test. And if they don’t the test, then the next country does it,” said Dr. Catlin. “UCLA does a lot because I developed the test. Unfortunately it’s still expensive. But it works and it’s never been overthrown.”

 

Despite being a part of the discovery of two designer drugs, Dr. Catlin believes that synthetic testosterone is the athlete drug of choice. With testosterone replacement therapy becoming as normal and popular as Viagra and with the release of  the Armstrong Report and books like Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race” or Dr. Robert Voy’s “Drug Sport and Politics, it’s very easy to believe him.

 

“[CIR] is a perfect way to deal with a very complex problem because testosterone is a favorite drug for people to use. Dopers who wants to get away with it because (testosterone is very hard to detect). The T/E/ ratio test is a very blunt instrument. That’s what [state commissions] use,” he said.

 

With its lack of regulation and Wild West mentality, boxing is an easy place for anyone with any past to set up shop. Two men whose work Dr. Catlin is familiar with now work actively in boxing.

 

Former bass player for Tower of Power, fitness guru, millionaire supplement magnet, former head of BALCO and now (very) outspoken anti-doping advocate Victor Conte is one. Conte served four months in a federal prison and four months house arrest because of BALCO.  Conte, 63, is semi-retired but occasionally sponsors top level fighters through his Bay Area supplement company SNAC (Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning).

 

Another character, seemingly Conte’s nemesis if you watch them on twitter, is strength and conditioning Coach Angel “Memo” Heredia. In 2005 he was accused by U.S. officials of money laundering and steroid distribution. He never went to jail but instead provided key testimony against Graham and others he allegedly supplied drugs to. According to an interview he gave Yahoo! Sport’s Kevin Iole last year, Heredia is actively involved as in giving testimony in ongoing cases. Currently he is the strength coach for Juan Manuel Marquez, Jean Pascal and worked with Brandon Rios for his rematch with Mike Alvarado.

 

“I know them very well. It was me that did all the work for the BALCO case. So of course doing the work for BALCO means you get to know those guys very well, what they were doing and how they were doing it. It’s hard for me to generate lot of enthusiasm for what they did because I had to deal with the fallout. And there was a lot of fallout. A lot of people were injured. And sport was hurt pretty badly by it. But they’re gone. It’s been ten years. And it’s a new page,” said Dr. Catlin.

 

Though I asked for his thoughts on both men in the sport, Dr. Catlin only spoke to Conte, in particular, entering into boxing.

 

“I can see that Victor Conte is trying to help. I just have a problem, given my own history, in accepting his help,” Dr. Catlin half-chuckled. “But it’s not for me. [Conte] can help boxing. I disagree with some of his recommendations but that is neither here nor there. He’s trying to say he knows it all because he was once the leading doping person and now that he is no longer doing that and he is reformed that he can help people. And to some extent that’s true. I don’t have day to day dealings with him so I don’t really know what he is doing. But I have read some of the things he has suggested and some of them I agree with and some of them I don’t agree with at all. He’s agrees with the Carbon Isotope Ratio so he is OK from that point of view.”

 

The subject of “Biological Passport” has come up recently in boxing. In essence, it would be a universal testing program where blood and urine is collected from individual athletes in a given sport and analyzed over a long timeline. Biological markers and baseline readings are established for each athlete.  By watching certain blood level measurements, red flag signs of drug use can be detected. It’s an interesting idea for boxing but not particularly cost effective considering there are specific drug tests available to target drugs like EPO or synthetic testosterone.

 

In essence, biological passport to a sport like boxing which doesn’t have a uniform testing program yet is sprinting before you can crawl.

 

“I agree with you. It’s hard to push on to passport at this point,” said Dr. Catlin. “You have to be able to walk first. Then you can run. Passport is very complex, very difficult but it’s a wonderful tool when boxing gets there. But I don’t think they’re there. Right now, they’re nowhere. You have a different set of rules and regulations [in every state that does testing in boxing]. They don’t agree. The penalties are not systematic. In one country you get slapped on the wrist. Another country you get suspended for six months. It’s just shameful the way it goes on. And that’s going to continue I’m afraid until somebody with some real clout organizes and pouts some sense into it. It’s too bad. Boxing is a wonderful, wonderful sport. It’s just gone downhill with each and every bout.”

 

On the specter of designer drugs, Dr. Catlin seemed to think that while designers do happen, there is plenty of doping havoc to be wreaked with the knowledge and drugs we currently have available.

 

“There are lots of things you can do today without a new drug. All you have to do is read the book [The Secret Race by Lance Armstrong former teammate Tyler Hamilton] to learn how to dope and get away with it,” said Dr. Catlin. “He described in intimate detail and it worked. You just have to be smart. You have to know when to dope and when not to dope. And how to cover it up and they have all kinds of tricks which anybody in any sport can do today. That’s why it’s kind of sad to see [boxing] has not really got on top of that because all you have do is read his book and you can be an athlete in any sport and get away with doping. And testosterone is the main drug they use.”

 

A common reason given for not implementing CIR or EPO testing among commissions is that CIR testing or an extensive, effective drug testing panel is too expensive. Considering the amount of money generated by a major boxing match, especially within the gaming industries like Atlantic City or Las Vegas, the complaint seems rather hollow. While state commissions catch drug cheats now and again, without EPO or CIR testing it feels more like a convenient front designed not to actually solve the problem long term.

 

“They don’t want to catch people. Let’s face it,” Dr. Catlin put it bluntly. “[Commissions] say they don’t have the money. I’m sure they don’t have a lot. But people have ways of getting by with minimal resources. If they really had a will to do something they could get it done. People would help. I would be happy to help. [VADA president] Dr. Goodman is more than willing to help. She doesn’t get a chance because USADA comes in and [charges] triple [to test].”

 

When I asked if Dr. Catlin felt Dr. Goodman’s VADA was being intentionally marginalized due to industry politics, Dr. Catlin ceded he was not familiar enough with ground-level boxing politics but pointed out VADA’s successful track record. The first sample they tested came up positive for synthetic testosterone. The detected nandrolone metabolites in the next fighter they tested.

 

“The outcome is when Margaret Goodman has had a chance to do the testing, the first two people she [tested] were positive. It was pretty amazing. She did the testing right. She hit a homerun with the first Carbon Isotope Ratio she did,” he said.

 

Another drug of choice is (Erythropoietin) EPO which increases red blood count which in turn increases endurance and recovery time. To Dr. Catlin, it is a perfect drug for boxers who run a violent marathon over anywhere from -12 rounds in the pros. EPO was part of Shane Mosley’s regimen in his lead up to the rematch with Oscar De La Hoya. Mosley came on in the back end of that fight to win by close decision.

 

In cycling, where EPO use is rampant, they have implemented the 50% hematocrit rule. If a cyclist’s hematocrit, (red blood cell count), is 50% or above, they are immediately suspended from competition for two weeks. In many cases, EPO is tested for and suspensions and fines happen from there. In other cases, an athlete is tested after the suspension and if levels are normal, can resume competition.

 

Dr. Catlin believes this rule could easily be implemented and would be highly cost effective.

 

“Absolutely. [EPO] is very, very powerful. Boxers should not go over 50%. Anybody over 50% is using EPO. I think there is a lot of EPO being used in boxing. I know there is. But it is too expensive to test for it,” said Dr. Catlin. However, he explained that in this case, using a red flag test like analyzing the hematocrit levels of an athlete would be effective scientifically, financially and legally.

 

“The hematocrit test you can do for $5 and you don’t have to call the person positive. You just say ‘You can’t play until your hematocrit goes down below 50. I am not saying you are positive. I am saying it’s a danger to your health to compete in boxing if your hematocrit is more than 50%.’ And then you don’t get a lawsuit. You’re not saying ‘you are positive.’ You are saying ‘you’re a health issue,” he explained.

 

Dr. Catlin feels the use of EPO is rampant in boxing.

 

“I think it is from my intelligence sources but you don’t know until you get out there and test,” he said. “But if they’re smart they are. It’s the world’s most powerful drug for almost any sport. Testosterone leads the pack but I would give EPO the edge. It just works. It really works.”

 

Boxing has come a long way in over three years since Floyd Mayweather asked Manny Pacquiao to undergo random blood and urine testing for their ill-fated fight. But there is a long way to go.

 

“It is a mountain that can be climbed because [doping] will kill you in the long run,” warned Catlin. “It will kill the sport. It will kill within the sport. Eventually you got to deal with it. You can try as long as you can to get away with it but it will come back and bite you in the butt every time if you leave it alone. You’ve got to cope with it. And there are ways to cope with it without spending a fortune. Very clever and simple things. But I don’t think that boxing powers-that-be are all that interested. I’ve called up Keith a couple of times and not gotten a call back. That shows his interest in me.”

 

Some people argue that doping is as old as sport and that to fight it is to fight futilely against an enemy that cannot be defeated. No one is saying prohibition of all PEDs will ever be possible. It likely isn’t. But regulation is. And that is what the anti-doping movement is all about: Finding unregulated territory and bringing knowledge and order to it. When it comes to doping, there appears to be no more unregulated major sports than those involving combat.

 

“Most people come down on the side of ‘You can’t get away [from doping]. You can’t stop it. I am beginning, after 30 years in the business in trying to promote testing and [developing tests for dianobol and other steroids] to see that there is always a way to beat the test. I am becoming more and more fan of [voluntary testing]. I think that could work. I think to try and chase people around all over the world year after year and pin them down, there are too many ways they can run away and hide. And so I becoming more and more enamored with the idea of taking a different approach. You have to keep going with some kind of testing. Because it will go all over the place on you.”

 

I asked Dr. Catlin if he felt that famed anti-doping investigator Jeff Novitzky could get involved with boxing. While Dr. Catlin agreed he could help in terms of investigation, the change is going to have to come from within the sport. It isn’t like we don’t have powerful people who could create positive change. The question is “Do they want to?”

 

“I don’t see much exploration going on. But I know that boxing is not all that wealthy and it can’t afford to do much exploration. But they can use the monies they do have to do more efficient [testing]. But they have to get reasonable advice and they have to follow it,’ Dr. Catlin advised. “I work with a number of people in boxing who could make a difference. And also, there some real prime movers in boxing, some of the big promoters who could well afford it, I should think. None of the big time boxing organizations care that much about it. They don’t care at all. And I got all their rules and set them down and read them. They don’t make any sense.”

 

To Dr. Catlin, the trend of top level fighters volunteering to do anti-doping testing like Mayweather, Nonito Donaire, Danny Garcia, Amir Khan, Tim Bradley, Ruslan Provodnikov, Lamont Peterson, Andre Berto, Saul Alvarez, and Shane Mosley will ultimately drive the movement forward towards permanent change.

 

“[The fighters] should. It’s their sport. And they’re the ones who will have to take the drugs if they want to stay competitive against somebody that is using. So it is very powerful, that argument, if you can that to them. They’ll figure it out. They’re not dumb. They understand,” he said.

 

Boxing is an old sport but new to the world of anti-doping. It’s time it entered the modern world. Catlin believes that it is not only possible but necessary in order for the next generation of fighters to flourish. All it takes is boxing wanting to change.  

 

“There are lots of people out there and they would help,” Dr. Catlin said in closing. “They want to see boxing get better. I am involved. I have spent a lot of time in boxing. It is one of the last places in the world that doesn’t have a decent program. And it really needs something. Boxing is terribly important to the kids who come up through boxing. I learned that myself when I first got involved twenty five years ago. Boxing is crucial to young people in inner cities where there isn’t lot of money around. They should have fair and equitable testing.”



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