A look back at the New York State Athletic Commission’s role in allowing boxing legend Erik Morales to fight Danny Garcia, even though he failed two pre-fight USADA drug tests.
We’re just one day away from UFC 210: Cormier vs. Johnson 2 in Buffalo, New York. This is, of course, a fight that had to be made because Jon Jones derailed the UFC 200 main event by failing his pre-fight US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) drug test. The positive “A” sample was enough for Jones to be pulled from the card, even though the “B” sample results didn’t come back until after the event had completed.
By now, MMA fans are accustomed to the practice that fighters are pulled from a UFC event if their “A” sample turns up positive. We’ve seen this happen to the likes of Jones, Tim Means, Ben Rothwell, and Matheus Nicolau Pereira. But in 2012, a high-profile boxing match between Danny Garcia and Erik Morales became the centerpiece for a drug testing controversy involving USADA and the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC).
Philadelphia’s Danny Garcia had won the vacant WBC 140 lbs title vs. Mexican great Erik Morales in March 2012, winning by unanimous decision over a foe who was competitive but otherwise well past his prime. That a rematch was booked in the first place (after Garcia had KO’d Amir Khan) is something that can be debated at another time. Both men agreed to USADA-administered drug testing in the lead-up to this contest.
Unlike their first fight, which took place in Texas, the rematch was staged in New York at Brooklyn’s brand new Barclays Center. The Showtime-televised bout represented the first boxing event in the borough’s $1 billion arena, and Golden Boy Promotions went all-out by booking a quadrupleheader of title fights.
With the fight on October 20th, it was reported on October 18th by Halestorm Sports that Morales had tested positive for a banned substance. Shortly thereafter, BoxingScene reported that the failure was for clenbuterol, with Morales blaming the positive result on the consumption of tainted meat in Mexico.
Despite news of Morales’ initial failure, the bout was not cancelled. Multiple news outlets reported that Morales had failed tests taken on October 3rd and 10th (and analyzed at the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City). He’d also taken another test during fight week and the results came back negative. If you’re keeping score: Morales took three drug tests, failed twice, passed once, but that one pass somehow overruled the two failures. This is the flip outcome of when Nick Diaz passed two UFC 183 drug tests, failed one, and that failure overruled the two negative results and Nevada famously handed Diaz his (since reduced) five-year ban for marijuana.
On fight day, ESPN’s Dan Rafael wrote that Garcia had opted to accept the rematch with Morales anyway, thereby assuring himself of his first-ever $1 million payday. Both Danny and his father/trainer Angel Garcia were initially not going to take the bout, but had a change of tune when Morales’ third test was negative. If you’re to believe Danny, the NYSAC seemingly put the onus on him and his team to make the final decision, as opposed to the commission scratching Morales from the card, which is their jurisdictional right. For what it’s worth, if Garcia-Morales 2 had been a no-go, the card would’ve gone on as scheduled, but losing the main event would’ve obviously been a major blow.
The fight itself was not remotely competitive. Early in the fourth round, Garcia knocked Morales out cold with a left hook and just about had him halfway out of the ring. Morales was out of his depth and looked like an aging, faded legend.
Just how and why did New York’s historically beleaguered athletic commission allow the bout to continue despite multiple, verified pre-fight failures from Morales? Well the story is a bit muddled, to say the least.
When speaking to Sports Illustrated, then-Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer said that USADA had notified the NYSAC of Morales’ test results on Wednesday, October 17th.
According to Schaefer, USADA informed Golden Boy on Tuesday of the irregularities. On Wednesday, USADA informed both camps and the New York State Athletic Commission of the positive test.
“USADA has now started the process,” Schaefer told SI.com. “The process will play out. There is not going to be a rush to judgement. Morales is a legendary fighter. And really, nobody deserves a rush to judgement. You are innocent until proven guilty.”
ESPN’s Dan Rafael later reported that, “USADA discussed the test results with the fighter camps, Golden Boy and the New York State Athletic Commission during a teleconference on Thursday [October 18th].”
“(USADA) said it could be a false positive,” one of the sources with knowledge of the disclosure said. “But from what I understand, they won’t know until the test on the ‘B’ sample comes back, but that probably won’t be until after the fight.”
Those are two reports stating the commission knew of Morales’ tests before the October 19th weigh-ins. On fight day, the NYSAC released an official statement on why they didn’t suspend Morales’ license and allowed the fight to proceed, citing “inconclusive data” as their main reason.
“The New York Athletic Commission has taken into consideration the testing of Erick [sic] Morales conducted by USADA, an independent non-governmental organization contracted by Golden Boy Promotions to conduct testing on its boxers.”
“Based upon currently available information and the representations made by Mr. Morales that he unintentionally ingested contaminated food, it is the Commission’s opinion that at this time there is inconclusive data to make a final determination regarding the suspension of Mr. Morales’ boxing license. The Commission will continue investigating the allegations and will wait until official laboratory results are available before making a final decision.”
Interestingly enough, they also wrote that the “B” samples from the first two drug tests came back positive.
The 24-year-old Garcia and his father and trainer, Angel Garcia, had threatened to pull out of the bout at Friday’s weigh-in, but decided to go through with it after the final test — administered on Wednesday — returned negative early Friday evening.
Morales had blamed contaminated meat for the positive results of the two earlier tests, after which Angel Garcia had been adamant that his son would not fight. Morales’ “B” sample returned positive for the banned substance Clenbuterol on random tests given by USADA taken on Oct. 3 and on Oct. 10, but tested negative on the final one.
Let’s fast forward to late 2015, when esteemed boxing journalist Thomas Hauser wrote an SB Nation longform titled, “Can Boxing Trust USADA?” Hauser touched upon Morales-Garcia 2 in his piece, mostly repeating content he’d already written in “The PED Mess” two-part series penned for Maxboxing.com.
While USADA CEO Travis Tygart said that the New York commission was aware of Morales’ results before October 18th, the NYSAC claimed that they had no record of USADA notifying them before the Halestorm Sports’ article was published.
This writer submitted a request for information to the New York State Athletic Commission asking whether it was advised that Erik Morales had tested positive for Clenbuterol prior to the Oct. 18, 2012, revelation on Halestorm Sports.
On Aug. 10, 2015, Laz Benitez (a spokesperson for the New York State Department of State, which oversees the NYSAC) advised in writing, “There is no indication in the Commission’s files that it was notified of this matter prior to October 18, 2012.”
In the aftermath of the longform, USADA released a lengthy and deeply detailed list of corrections and responses to almost every issue raised by Hauser. One of the corrections ran counter to the NYSAC’s statement that the “A” and B” samples from Morales’ first two tests came back positive before fight night, but rather just the October 3rd sample.
When addressing the NYSAC’s statement to Hauser about not knowing of Morales’ tests results before October 18th, USADA firmly restated that this was unequivocally not the case. (Bold emphases are mine)
The NYSAC was notified, by phone on October 17, 2012, of Mr. Morales’ positive test. Notice was provided directly to NYSAC Chairwoman Melvina Lathan by USADA Legal Affairs Director Onye Ikwuakor and USADA Sports Testing and Resources Director Andrew Morrison. A representative from Golden Boy Promotions was also on the call when notification was provided to the NYSAC.
On August 14, 2015, well in advance of the publication of Mr. Hauser’s article, a USADA spokesperson provided him with the following written statement regarding the timing of USADA’s notification to the NYSAC:
“We were notified by the Laboratory of the adverse analytical finding on the afternoon of October 16, 2012, and were in contact with the commission by phone the following day, once it was determined that a potential anti-doping rule violation had been committed.”
Since the NYSAC was notified promptly of Mr. Morales’ positive test by telephone, there was no need for USADA to send any written followup for the NYSAC’s files (nor was one requested). There are multiple witnesses to the fact and substance of that telephone conversation. It is totally irresponsible journalism for Mr. Hauser to ignore the factual information USADA provided to him regarding the notification timeline.
USADA later added that “the NYSAC chose not to stop the fight, as was their right.” This falls in line with what Richard Schaefer told Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole on the eve of the event.
He said Friday that “it’s out of my hands” and was allowing the matter to be handled by the New York State Athletic Commission, in consultation with USADA officials.
You may notice that not once have you read a statement from Melvina Lathan on anything related to what transpired. That’s because she consistently offered no comment to inquiring media. Attempts to get meaningful quotes out of other NYSAC officials similarly proved to be unsuccessful.
We reached out to Melvina Lathan, head of that commission, with a phone call to her New York City office Friday. We were told she was at the weigh-in.
Instead, we had a brief chat with Edison Alben, the commission’s public information officer.
He was of no help.
“The commission is not commenting on any of this,” Alben said.
He was asked why.
“No comment,” he said.
It wasn’t until months later that Lathan would provide a canned response to FightNews, never directly addressing the incident and instead making sure everyone knows “that before seeking to impose any sanctions, NYSAC carefully reviews the available data and information before issuing an appropriate response.”
Five months after the fight, USADA suspended Morales for two years, and Morales announced his retirement (for the second time) from the sport in 2014. Garcia recently lost his WBC welterweight title to Keith Thurman, putting an end to his undefeated record.
Melvina Lathan is no longer the NYSAC chairwoman, having resigned from her position in 2015. Her replacement, Thomas Hoover, would later resign amid major scandals within the commission, which was subject to an Inspector General’s inquiry (with the report heavily implicating Lathan).
New York hasn’t dealt with any notable drug testing controversies since Garcia-Morales 2, but the commission will soon be handling testing of the fighters who are set to compete on the Bellator NYC/Bellator 180 PPV event on June 24th. MMA Fighting’s Marc Raimondi received this statement from the commission’s spokesman, Laz Benitez. (Bold emphases are mine)
“The Commission’s normal practice is to conduct testing on any athlete who has a history of doping violations every time they compete in the State of New York.”
“The Commission gains authority over the competitors once they are licensed,” Benitez wrote. “Once licensed, however, the Commission may — in its discretion — require drug testing prior to the event.”
When asked to clarify about the particulars of the drug-testing plan regarding Sonnen and Silva, Benitez said the commission had “no further comment.”
Ah yes, the magic “no further comment” line.
Let’s just hope that New York is able to handle the Bellator card better than what we’ve seen just from the UFC 210 weigh-ins.
The next edition of Tales from the NYSAC will be published in May, as we look back at the controversial decision to license Antonio Margarito to fight Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden.