A routine drug test administered to Fernando Vargas in Nevada the night of his fight against Oscar De La Hoya has revealed the presence of an anabolic steroid, an illegal substance that could result in a suspension for the Oxnard fighter.
Vargas is the first boxer to test positive for steroids in Nevada, according to Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Vargas' manager, Rolando Arellano, said his fighter would ask for a second test.
Vargas, who lost the 154-pound championship fight to De La Hoya on an 11th-round TKO at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Sept. 14, denied wrongdoing in a written statement.
"I'm extremely upset about the preliminary results of my urine test following my bout against Oscar De La Hoya," Vargas' statement read. "However, I want everyone to understand that I would never knowingly put harmful chemicals, such as anabolic steroids, into my body.... I would ask that people refrain from passing judgment until all the facts are uncovered. And I wish to make it clear that I do intend to get to the bottom of what happened and uncover the truth."
A source close to Vargas said the fighter was pointing a finger at his nutritionist, Mazen Ali. Ali could not be reached for comment.
"I want you to know that I am shocked," Vargas wrote in a letter to Ratner. "I had professionals in my camp and I was given many nutritional supplements each day. I took what I was given and did not think to question because I relied upon and trusted those around me.
"I knew that steroids were banned and that there would be testing. The others responsible in my camp knew the same. I am upset beyond words...."
According to Arellano, Vargas was unsupervised during his urine test at a Las Vegas clinic.
"Someone intentionally using an alleged illegal substance would find a way to switch samples ... under those circumstances," Arellano said.
Vargas is expected to request a hearing before the Nevada commission, which, according to commission officials, would be held in 30 to 45 days.
The only precedent commissioners can cite is the case of Josh Barnett, who tested positive for steroids after the Ultimate Fighting Championship earlier this year and was suspended for six months.
"We are going to be asking the hard questions," said Luther Mack, head of the Nevada Commission. "He is saying that somebody gave him those steroids without his knowledge. That is hard to believe.
"This is the first pure boxer to test positive and it will not be tolerated. We will not sit idly by. We have to be strict. We need to increase the integrity of the sport. It has to be clean....
"It's particularly unfortunate because this was a great fight, maybe one of the best of all time."
Vargas tested positive for stanozolol, the same steroid that cost Canadian Ben Johnson a gold medal in the men's 100-meter event at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"For a boxer to use steroids, it gives him an unfair advantage tantamount to assault and battery," said Dr. Robert Voy, the former chief medical officer of the USOC, who is now the president of USA Boxing, an amateur wing of the sport. "I feel sorry for Fernando Vargas. He has embarrassed himself."
Vargas, who has sometimes had weight problems, spoke repeatedly about his physical conditioning in the days leading up to the De La Hoya fight. He would not allow photographs of his chest or stomach until the weigh-in, saying that his uncharacteristically lean, muscled frame would scare De La Hoya.
"The use of steroids does produce an increase in muscle mass and power," Voy said, adding that such effects would last only through the first portion of a 12-round fight.
"After that, muscle fatigue would set in faster and the fighter would slow down," he said.
Vargas won the first round and was even on most scorecards before the seventh round. Then De La Hoya began to catch Vargas with his right hand. De La Hoya shook Vargas with a left hook in the 10th round, knocked him down with another left hook in the 11th, then threw 16 unanswered punches against the defenseless Vargas before referee Joe Cortez stopped the fight.
De La Hoya said, "It's very unfortunate that Fernando Vargas felt he had to resort to the use of steroids. We don't really need that in boxing. We cannot tolerate performance-enhancing drugs. It does not make for a level playing field.
"But hard work, determination and heart will always beat steroids."