Eddie Hearn, Conor Benn and the poison at the heart of British boxing
Eddie Hearn and Conor Benn have been tested over the last eight months in ways the promoter describes as “unbelievable” and his boxer compares to a “witch hunt”. Yet they will soon intensify the controversy should Hearn announce Benn’s return to the ring in the Middle East. Benn’s comeback will happen despite the fact that he recorded two positive test results for clomifene, a banned substance which can boost testosterone by 50%, when he was preparing to face Chris Eubank Jr in a bout scheduled for last October.
Those results still hang over the fighter, who vehemently denies intentionally taking a prohibited substance. He insists that scientific proof has cleared him, yet Benn and his team have declined to share their 270-page report into the case with anyone apart from the World Boxing Council (WBC), the sanctioning body which ranks him in its list of top 10 welterweights. The WBC said there was no conclusive evidence that the 26-year-old had deliberately taken a banned drug, but disagreed with him, and the contents of the report, as to the reasons for the presence of clomifene in his system on two separate occasions.
Benn relinquished his British licence to box in late October but has been under investigation by UK Anti-Doping (Ukad). Should he find a jurisdiction outside of the UK that allows him to box, such a contest might imperil the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) licence of any manager, trainer, promoter or other fighter who participates in the bout.
Hearn, meanwhile, voices belief in Benn. The two men seem defiant as the furore rages.
I have spoken to Hearn many times over the years and, last October, the Guardian ran my sympathetic interview with Benn two days before the clomifene story broke. In the midst of the interview, and reflecting on his childhood trauma, Benn broke down and said: “I battle things every single day … sometimes, my thoughts are troubled.”
He was talking about his past; but I did not know then that Benn also carried the secret of two positive drug results which had been shared only with a small group of people that included Hearn.
A contrived catchweight contest between Benn and Eubank Jr, built on the enmity between their fathers in the early 1990s, was worth an estimated £25m. But on 6 October, the Thursday of fight week, Hearn finally cancelled his heavily hyped show. During the previous 36 hours he had tried to salvage the fiasco despite the fight having been prohibited by the BBBoC. Benn and Hearn had been informed of the positive test results by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (Vada) in August and September but they pressed ahead with the promotion and continued to do so even after one test result was leaked to the Daily Mail.
For more than a month Hearn appeared to mislead the public by only mentioning this single result. The promoter tells me now that he and the Board “were bound by legal confidentiality”. Eventually, on 27 October, Benn conceded publicly he had tested positive twice.
The case has rocked British boxing and confirmed that the sport’s problems with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and their regulation are insidious and entrenched. Benn’s positive results and his failure to present a credible defence in public matter so much because they suggest that meaningless lip service is paid to anti-doping procedures.
On 26 October, three weeks after the clomifene story broke, Hearn declared: “You become cold and emotionless in this business … it’s the worst business in the world and it takes away all emotion … you go through fucking horrendous situations. All the stick I’ve had probably would have broken me four years ago. But you become immune.”
I have followed boxing for 50 years, seven years longer than Hearn has been alive, and written about it professionally for three decades. Yet my love of the sport has been compromised repeatedly by the fact that fighters can be maimed and even killed. Unlike athletes in other sports, the intention of most fighters is to render their opponents unconscious. We are not watching an athlete run faster or jump higher. We are watching highly trained professionals punch each other harder in the head.
Over the past 10 weeks I have spoken to numerous sources and Hearn’s shifting reaction to various cases involving positive test results since 2018 is striking.
The performance enhancing drugs expert Victor Conte believes Hearn is a primary “culprit” in boxing’s failure to control doping. Leon Margules, an American lawyer who has dealt with Hearn, says: “Eddie is one of the most arrogant human beings I’ve ever met. I’m 69 and been in the business over 30 years and I’ve never met a guy who more people at the highest levels dislike.”
These are just opinions. But, focusing on Hearn’s response to anti-doping cases, a pattern of seeming hypocrisy emerges.
Conte had seen, heard and done so much in the murky world of doping. But, on 9 November 2019, he was surprised when Hearn approached him in Los Angeles. Hearn was promoting a scrap that night between KSI and Logan Paul, a couple of boisterous YouTubers, and traditional boxing fans were outraged that seasoned professional fighters had been consigned to an undercard headlined by two novices.
Hearn, according to Conte, had something else on his mind. One of his fighters, Danny Jacobs, was scheduled to box Julio César Chávez Jr in Las Vegas the following month. However, Chávez Jr had fallen foul of Vada. At the outdoor weigh-in area near the Staples Center, Conte says, Hearn approached him.
They must have made a curious sight as the then 40-year-old promoter from Essex towered over the bespectacled Californian who would soon turn 70. Hearn presented himself as the amiable face of boxing who aimed to take over the fight game in America. Conte, meanwhile, had admitted to distributing tetrahydrogestinone (THG), known as “the Clear”, and other prohibited substances to multiple high-profile athletes in 2004.
But Conte had since become one of the world’s most informed and passionate advocates against the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs in sport. Anti-doping entities around the world regularly rely on Conte’s expertise and he also works with athletes as a conditioner and nutritionist at the Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning training facility in California. He has worked with leading boxers including Andre Ward, Nonito Donaire, Mikey Garcia, Devin Haney, Danny Jacobs and Joshua Buatsi.
Conte says: “The Chávez Jr case was the first indication that Eddie may be willing to do whatever it takes to make a fight happen even if a boxer is not following agreed anti-doping rules. Chávez had enrolled in Vada and agreed to be randomly tested at all times. When the doping control officers went to the gym, Chávez refused to give blood and urine samples. This was a violation of the Vada agreement. Eddie said: ‘I want you to help me find another anti-doping group aside from Vada. We want to take the fight to Arizona and they’re saying they will do it if we have a credible anti-doping programme.’
“I said: ‘What Chávez did is the same as a positive drug test. I can’t do that.’ It seemed crazy he was asking me, of all people, to do this. But, sure enough, they jumped commissions and went to Arizona and the fight carried on.” When I asked Hearn this week if he had met Conte at the KSI-Logan Paul fight he said: “Victor? Probably. I mean, I’ve met him.”
But Hearn disputes Conte’s claim. When I asked him to confirm that he had asked Conte for advice that night Hearn said: “Never. No, no. I’ve had one or two conversations with him in my life. I think I’ve messaged him before, once, about a fighter.”
But the Observer has seen screenshots of multiple text messages which appear to have been sent between Hearn and Conte. They relate to Hearn’s questions about performance-enhancing drugs and two fighters. “No,” Hearn told me about the Chávez situation. “I would never say to [Conte]: ‘How should I handle this?’ It’s got nothing to do with him. He’s very knowledgeable about substances, not about commissions.”
Hearn added: “We never applied for that fight in Las Vegas. We’d never booked anything in Las Vegas, so we didn’t move anywhere. We had an option of about three different venues. One was Las Vegas. We hadn’t secured the date with the commission officially.”
But Hearn’s company, Matchroom Boxing, had notified the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) that, on 20 December 2019, it planned to stage Jacobs-Chávez Jr at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. This lead to a request from the commission that Vada test both fighters. On 24 October, a Vada collection officer went to the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood where Chávez was training. The collection officer arrived just before 2pm but, throughout the afternoon, Chávez refused to provide a sample.
Matchroom was made aware of the awkward situation. Frank Smith, Matchroom’s CEO, and Shaun Palmer, the company’s lawyer, contacted Vada’s president, Dr Margaret Goodman, to ask that the Vada official remain at the gym while they tried to convince Chávez to provide the sample. At 4:35pm, Chávez left the gym without doing so.
On 30 October Bob Bennett, executive director of the NSAC, suspended Chávez temporarily. There was no chance Chávez’s December fight against Jacobs could take place in Vegas and Hearn chose Arizona as an alternative.
I asked Hearn which testing agency he used before the fight in Arizona – as Chávez had refused to work with Vada. “I don’t believe that was our testing for that fight,” Hearn said. “I believe that was a commission test or something.”
Hearn’s decision to proceed with the fight, despite the cloud hanging over Chávez, prompts Conte to say: “That’s a very bad message for boxers. It’s saying: ‘Oh well, if you have drugs in your system or you refuse to be tested that’s OK because Eddie will just move the fight to another location.’ He’s giving the same message with Benn.”
Conte works with Demetrius Andrade, an American middleweight whom Hearn promoted to a shot at the World Boxing Organisation world title then held by Billy Joe Saunders (a fighter promoted at that time by Hearn’s arch-rival, Frank Warren). They were scheduled to fight in Boston on 20 October 2018. “I’d watched Saunders cut weight so quickly before fights,” Conte says, who suspected something else may be involved. “I got hold of [Andrade] and his manager, Ed Farris, and said: ‘We need to test him with Vada. Talk to Saunders’ team and, if they’re willing, I’ll pay.’ So we filled out the forms and I paid the money.”
Saunders was tested by Vada on 30 August 2018. A month later ESPN confirmed his positive result for oxilofrine – a stimulant and amphetamine which also helps induce weight loss. It is banned “in-competition” by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) but not in the weeks preceding a fight. Saunders, like Benn, did not fail any UK Anti-Doping (Ukad) tests. He blamed a nasal spray for oxilofrine being in his system.
Hearn was indignant: “What is the point in signing up for drug testing if, when you fail, everyone goes: ‘Don’t worry about it. Just let him fight.’ The argument that it’s all right with Ukad is totally irrelevant. You’ve signed for drug testing with Vada, the best testing agency in my opinion in the sport. If Ukad thinks in-competition should just mean the night of the fight, you are telling me a fighter should be able to take oxilofrine to cut weight and get faster and stronger.
“Vada’s rules are quite simple. In-competition is 365 [days of the year]. You can’t take performance-enhancing drugs in camp so you can be more dangerous in the ring. It’s outrageous … he failed a Vada test. You can’t ignore it. Otherwise the sport’s a mockery.”
Those words seem to contradict Hearn’s strategy since Benn’s positive Vada tests. Surely boxing has become a mockery if Benn plans to fight again without fully clearing his name? I asked Hearn if he still endorsed his 2018 statement on Vada. “Yes, I think so. In terms of the available testing agencies, I would say they are the best in the world.”
Did his approach with Benn make him feel like a hypocrite? “No, I’m not. The Vada results haven’t been ignored. The [British Boxing] Board have precedence and they do not acknowledge Vada testing.” He added: “All disciplinary matters are in the hands of the governing body.”
The Vada test results have certainly shaped the thinking of Robert Smith for, as the head of the BBBoC told me this week, he believes the governing body is unlikely to grant permission to any British licence holders to be involved in a Benn promotion outside the UK.
Hearn also claimed to be on the side of clean sport when, in April 2019, Jarrell Miller’s Vada test returned a positive result for GW1516. As Conte explains: “This is a peptide with similar effects to anabolic steroids. He also tested positive for human growth hormone and [the blood-doping agent] EPO.”
Miller was denied a licence by the New York State Athletic Commission and lost the chance to fight Anthony Joshua for the world heavyweight title. Hearn was scathing: “This leaves no doubt. Miller is out. AJ’s new opponent for 1 June will be announced next week. Clean fighters only need apply.”
Then, in February 2020, Hearn rejected an approach from Miller. “He was desperate to sign with us. I couldn’t do it. I know I can be hypocritical at times, but this guy failed three drug tests.”
Conte says Hearn texts him for information. “It’s happened a few times when Eddie says: ‘Tell me about dianabol.’ I say: ‘Well, it was invented in the 1950s when the US weightlifting team was trying to combat the Russians, who were using testosterone. It’s very hepatotoxic, bad for the liver, an oral, very androgenic.’ A day or two later, bam! I realise one of Eddie’s fighters tested positive for dianabol.’”
On 17 July 2019 a random Ukad drug test showed trace amounts of dianabol. The sample belonged to Dillian Whyte, whose fight against Óscar Rivas in London three days later was promoted by Hearn. Ukad informed Whyte’s team, which included Hearn, and the BBBoC. But Ukad did not share news of the positive result with Rivas or his management.
A Ukad spokesman told the Observer that: “We take all matters of suspected doping activity very seriously … The question as to whether any particular athlete has provided a sample for analysis to Ukad at any particular time is confidential, as is the result of the analysis of that sample, whether it be positive or negative.”
The BBBoC decided that Whyte could fight Rivas. Furthermore, following the Ukad rule of confidentiality, it did not divulge the result to Rivas. Hearn also did not tell Rivas or his promoter, Yvon Michel, because of his interpretation of confidentiality protocols. Instead, according to a source, he hinted to Michel that Whyte was struggling with an injury and that the fight might be postponed.
Hearn disputes this version. “At the weigh-in [Michel] came over – because Dillian was late – and said: ‘Is there a problem?’ I said: ’No, look, he’s dealing with some issues or something like that.’”
Then, having invited Michel to breakfast on the morning of the fight, Hearn was advised the bout could proceed as an independent anti-doping panel had lifted Whyte’s suspension. He told Michel that the fight was on. That night Rivas lost the decision to Whyte.
Four days later Thomas Hauser, the esteemed American journalist, broke the news of Whyte’s positive test result – to the shock of the previously oblivious Michel and Rivas. Margules, Michel’s lawyer, is still astonished.“The really shocking thing,” Margules told me, “was here’s Eddie Hearn, one of the biggest promoters in the world, and he was willing to take the risk – because if something happened to Rivas the liability would be immense.”
Margules adds: “I’m a promoter and a lawyer. A fighter died on me. It was Teddy Reid against Emiliano Valdez [in January 2000]. It was a brutal fight – and I remember going to the hospital with Valdez. He was in surgery when I saw Teddy. He had broken ribs, a broken jaw, his head was swelled up and he was the winner. Valdez was in a coma for a couple of years before he passed.”
A December 2019 statement from the BBBoC declared: “Ukad has accepted the explanation provided by Mr Whyte … the charge has been withdrawn.”
Whyte’s explanation has never been made public but, in a joint statement with the boxer, Ukad said: “Having rigorously scrutinised and investigated the detailed factual and scientific evidence provided by Mr Whyte, Ukad is satisfied that the presence of the very low amounts of metabolites in his 20 June 2019 sample was not caused by any fault, negligence or wrongdoing on Mr Whyte’s part and, given the circumstances, could not have affected the fight between Mr Whyte and Mr Rivas.”
It is difficult to understand, then, why Benn hides the underpinning of his own defence from Ukad when he has stressed his anguish repeatedly. If the report produced by Benn’s team is scientifically credible it is again hard to fathom why it remains shrouded in secrecy. Benn told Piers Morgan that his own “pride” was the reason.
I emailed Benn’s lawyers to offer them a chance to reply to numerous issues in this article. They replied to say: “Whilst keen to assist it is obviously difficult to comment with such sensitive matters.”
Last month the WBC said it would return Benn to its world rankings because it accepted what it called a “reasonable explanation” that the positive results had been caused by a “highly elevated consumption of eggs”. In response Benn said: “In my defence to the WBC, and the 270-page report provided to them, at no point did I indicate that I failed any Vada tests because of contaminated eggs … the WBC statement did a disservice to my defence which was based upon a comprehensive scientific review of the testing procedures, which set out a number of reasons why we believed the results were completely unreliable, and proved beyond any reasonable doubt that I am innocent.”
A source has told the Observer that the report prepared by Benn’s legal team alleges that the Salt Lake City laboratory that recorded both positive results is guilty of fraudulent behaviour, including the deliberate manipulation of test results. The public statement from the WBC, in explaining why it was reinstating Benn to its rankings, dismissed this, concluding: “There was absolutely no fault attributable to the laboratory.”
Benn’s legal team also said that its designated scientist was denied access to the testing of the B sample. But a source says Benn’s representatives wanted the scientist to travel from Europe to the United States. As the scientist was born in Belarus, he required a visa which was not the responsibility of lab officials to obtain. Benn’s team then sent a French scientist and, under Wada protocols, she was allowed to witness part of the testing procedure. She was also present when the results were returned.
The Observer understands that third parties who might share the 270-page report with the Salt Lake City lab, Ukad or the BBBoC have been threatened with lawsuits should they do so. Benn’s legal team declined to comment on that matter.
It is a familiar story to Conte who, in 2004, said: “The whole history of the Olympics is full of corruption, cover-up [and] performance enhancing drug use.” His subsequent work has convinced Conte that boxing is the most corrupted of all sports.
A Mail on Sunday investigation suggested that, in the first 10 months of 2022, 30% of all fight cards promoted by Hearn involved at least one boxer who had failed a drugs test or been punished for an anti-doping offence. This figure does not include fighters who used micro-dosing or other techniques to avoid detection of PEDs.
Hearn told me that he had “no idea” if the Mail figure was accurate but he conceded that there had been a card in Saudi, among the “40 shows I do a year”, when “three or four fighters out of 12” had previously dealt with doping controversies. But he stressed that the Mail’s suggested percentage “certainly did not” apply to “my contracted fighters”.
In October Hearn said: “I could have put [Benn-Eubank] on 5 November in Abu Dhabi, but that would have looked terrible. He has to go through a process to be cleared to fight. I’m telling you now I am not prepared to stage the fight until he has gone through some kind of hearing … I believe he is innocent. But you have to take responsibility, whether you are unlucky or not, that something has been found in your system.”
Now, despite deep concerns about doping in boxing, it feels as if there is an increasing desperation among Hearn and Benn’s other backers to see him fight again. “Controversy sells,” Conte says. “Hearn himself said: ‘Whoever [Benn] fights, it’s bigger than ever.’ Everybody’s got an opinion. That creates interest. It’s polarising but in the end it’s about how much money will be made when Benn steps back into the ring.”
Hearn suggested recently that Manny Pacquiao, a once-great fighter who is now retired and aged 44, would be an attractive opponent: “If we make Pacquiao v Benn, make one thing clear: every fucking person in this country will watch that fight. So get ready!” Such a contest, amid sportswashing in the Middle East, would have reduced boxing to a new low.
Hearn remained bullish last week, indicating to me that a different opponent will be chosen: “I’ve never seen so many people contacting us, trying to land the Benn fight. It’s going to be one of Kell Brook, Chris Eubank Jr or a couple of big name Americans. That’s up to Conor and [his trainer] Tony Sims. It will be in June and I think it will be announced [next] week.”
In any other sport there might be questions as to whether Hearn should retain his promotional licence. This is boxing. But even here, in this perennial wasteland, the inexcusable is no longer acceptable. Resistance to doping and deceit, evasion and hypocrisy, is now the only antidote to the poison at the heart of British boxing.