Steroids in Boxing & Combat sports

Steroids in Boxing & Combat sports

Fighting fit? Weight gain and steroid use in heavyweight boxing

A successful heavyweight boxer needs a lethal combination of power and speed. But with so much muscle mass to move, some fighters are turning to controversial means in order to improve their performance.

Here we take a look at weight gain in professional heavyweights including Anthony Joshua, asking how much is too much, and what can be done about the growing problem of steroid use within the sport?

How much do heavyweight boxers weigh?

Heavyweight is the highest weight class in professional boxing, and it has no upper limit. To fight in this class, a boxer must weigh at least 90kg (14st 4lbs, or 200 lbs). This minimum weight has been standard since 1980, and is recognised by all the major professional boxing bodies, including the World Boxing Association, the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Organisation.

This differs from amateur Olympic-style boxing, where the heavyweight category ranges from 178lbs (81kg) to 201lbs (91kg). Boxers over this weight compete in the super heavyweight category, which does not exist in professional boxing.

What is an ideal fighting weight?

The ideal fighting weight will be different for every boxer and every fight. Most heavyweight boxers are extremely tall, so they are naturally heavier than fighters in other categories, as well as having more muscle mass. In addition, as the heavyweight category has no upper limit, boxers in this division have to be prepared to meet fighters with a wide range of different body masses. This is why a heavyweight boxer’s weight will change depending on which opponent he is preparing to fight.

However, fight statistics show that many of the world’s greatest heavyweight boxers have performed better when they are not at their heaviest. Boxers including Wladimir Klitschko, Tyson Fury and Lennox Lewis all achieved notable victories while fighting below their maximum weights.

Anthony Joshua’s rapid weight gain

The case of Anthony Joshua is an interesting one. One of the UK’s most successful and popular boxers, he rose to fame after winning Olympic gold in London in 2012, fighting in the super heavyweight category. Following this success, he turned professional as a heavyweight boxer, going on to win the British and Commonwealth titles and also becoming the unified world heavyweight champion, having won the WBA, IBF and WBO titles.

However, after his Olympic victory, Joshua gained 24lbs (almost 2 stone) in weight during the first four years of his professional career. By the time he fought Carlos Takam in October 2017, Joshua weighed 18st 2lbs. Even though Joshua stands 6’ 6” tall, this is a heavier weight than most champion boxers of a similar height have fought at during their career peaks.

It isn’t unusual for heavyweight boxers to put on considerable amounts of weight in a short time after turning professional, to ready them for the vastly different range of fighters they will have to face. However, Joshua’s transformation was rapid and remarkable enough to cause concern within the sport, with some commentators worrying that he had put on too much body mass too quickly.

However, a lighter weight is not always a guarantee of success. For his last fight against Andy Ruiz Jr, which resulted in the only defeat of his professional career and the loss of his heavyweight title, Joshua weighed in at a leaner 247lbs. His defeat was a huge shock for the entire boxing world, coming at the hands of Ruiz, who, weighing 268lbs and standing four inches shorter than Joshua, appeared out of condition.

Why weight gain can be a problem for heavyweights

Heavyweight boxers rely on the force of their punches to take down their opponents, so obviously there needs to be enough weight behind the punch to produce sufficient force. However, to create sufficient power, you also have to move as fast as possible.

The more body mass a boxer has, the harder he will find it to generate enough force, as he has to move more muscle mass, which slows him down. The sustained effort of trying to move a lot of muscle quickly, precisely and repeatedly can cause heavier boxers to tire and slow down more quickly. This often causes their performance to suffer in later rounds.

The other major problem is agility. As heavyweight boxers are tall as well as heavy, carrying increasing amounts of body mass makes them less flexible. This can lead to muscular injuries, which is why the right training and conditioning are so important. Heavyweight boxers continually have to work on the right running techniques and increase their flexibility in order to stay fit enough to fight.

With so much pressure and such high monetary stakes involved, it isn’t really surprising that some professional boxers are tempted to turn to performance-enhancing drugs. These banned substances increase the boxer’s ability to maintain speed and accuracy, even when fighting at a heavier weight, giving him an unfair advantage over his opponent. They can also cause extremely serious health problems.

The problem of steroid use within heavyweight boxing

The issue of banned substances is causing increasing concern within the entire sport of boxing. Anthony Joshua was never meant to fight Andy Ruiz at all. Ruiz was a last-minute replacement after Joshua’s original intended opponent, Jarrell Miller, failed three drug tests, testing positive for the banned substances GW1516, HGH and EPO.

This resulted in the WBA issuing Miller with a six-month ban; but this only prevents Miller from competing in WBA bouts and being temporarily removed from their rankings. As there is no one overall body for boxing in the USA, the WBA can only ban Miller from competing for their own titles – he is still free to fight in other competitions.

Pro boxers including Anthony Joshua claim this leniency is one of the reasons why there is a problem with steroid use throughout the sport. “It’s not being taken as serious as possible by the people in charge,” he told The Independent newspaper in an interview earlier this year. “It doesn’t put any fear in fighters.”

Joshua thinks it’s wrong that bans for taking steroids are so short, and in many cases only apply to titles organised by one particular boxing body. With a number of top heavyweights including Alexander Povetkin, Luis Ortiz and Tyson Fury all having served bans for using steroids, there is a growing concern that the use of banned substances is now widespread within the sport, as the consequences are not seen to be significant enough.

What can be done?

Britain is known to have one of the most rigorous anti-doping mechanisms in the entire boxing world. Joshua has reported being drug tested more than 16 times a year, and having to report his whereabouts at regular intervals. If the sport is to maintain its reputation, it is to be hoped that other countries quickly follow suit.

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