When I called strength and conditioning coordinator Angel “Memo” Hernandez (aka Angel Heredia) a couple weeks ago, I wondered what kind of person I’d be talking to. Was he the guy former BALCO associate Victor Conte (a former PED peddler himself) constantly bashes on Twitter for being a crook? Or was he, as he claims, just a man who had cleaned up his act?
“Hold on,” he said to me on the phone the minute he picked up. “I’m in Nevada and they have cell phone laws over here. Let me pull over. Call me in five minutes.”
Indeed, a few minutes later I was chatting with the man who perhaps most famously — at least by boxing’s standards – helped welterweight Juan Manuel Marquez (pictured at right with Heredia) build his 38-year-old body into the Manny Pacquiao-decapitating form we saw last December.
To begin, I asked him what he thinks about Conte.
“To be honest with you, one of my least concerns is him,” he told me. “He doesn’t possess a single college degree and yet calls himself a nutritionist. I just think that’s being a con artist. Putting that aside though, I think there is a lot of jealousy. He’s put himself as the Godfather of cleaning up the sport and trying to redeem himself from what he did in the past.”
If you follow either or both men on Twitter, you probably know Conte has made no bones about calling Hernandez out as a cheat. He does this repeatedly. The two argue back and forth almost daily, and even bring their own fans into the fray at times to help plead their cause.
Hernandez said it was, and continues to be, Conte who engages him first.
“It kind of surprises me that a guy like that who calls himself very smart is acting like a little kid, sitting behind a computer and making things up with no proof,” said Hernandez. “He tells everyone that every boxer I work with, that I supply them drugs and all this kind of stuff. It’s very childish. I don’t think anything positive about him at all.”
Hernandez said Conte takes issue with Hernandez’s claim that his boxers are PED-free, as well as his preference for getting his fighter’s tested through the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
“My boxers will be using USADA so it’s constantly a battle with him,” said Hernandez. “It seems, from my perspective, that he’s only siding on VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Association), and my understanding is that he’s an advisor for VADA, and that he gets money from VADA, so I pretty much don’t want my boxers with them.”
While there seems to have been some confusion in the media during its start-up, Conte does not, in fact, hold any kind of a position with VADA. This was confirmed by both Conte as well as Dr. Margaret Goodman, VADA president and board chairman.
“VADA’s alleged association with Victor Conte is completely false and incorrect,” said Goodman.
“This [idea that I am associated VADA] is simply not true,” Conte added. “I was originally contacted by Dr. Margaret Goodman in 2010 and she asked me to do an interview for her monthly column called ‘Fight Doctor’ in Ring Magazine. I agreed and we did an interview that was published. Thereafter, I talked with Dr. Goodman on several occasions and answered her many questions regarding my thoughts on the effectiveness of WADA’s anti-doping policies and procedures. I want it to be clearly understood that I have never received any form of compensation from Dr. Goodman or VADA.”
Conte said he has freely advised other anti-doping organizations as well:
“During 2003-2005, I met with USADA associated attorney Rich Young on three separate occasions. In short, Mr. Young is a co-author of the WADA code. I voluntarily participated in these meetings and provided him with my input without receiving any type of leniency in the BALCO case or any form of compensation. In addition, in 2007, I met with the WADA Founding Chairman Dick Pound in New York and provided my input regarding his many questions about the effectiveness of their policies and procedures. I was not compensated for that trip to New York or for any of the consultation that I have continued to provide to Mr. Pound over the years. Once again, I have made serious mistakes in the past and received appropriate consequences for my wrong doing. I have been an outspoken anti-doping advocate since 2005 and will continue to do what I can to help the anti-doping movement. I believe it is especially important to do everything possible to reduce the use of PEDs in combat sports because the objective is not just to hit a ball over a fence or run faster than the person in the next lane, but to do as much bodily harm as possible to the opponent. Dr. Goodman and Dr. Flip Homansky at VADA have been a health and safety advocates for combat sport for many years, and I very much appreciate and respect VADA’s mission.”
Regardless, Hernandez told me he believes both VADA and USADA are excellent at what they do. While none of his boxers have undergone testing by either agency as of yet, it appears that is about to change. For starters, Brandon Rios, a Hernandez client, will undergo VADA testing for his November bout against Manny Pacquiao.
“USADA is a good testing agency. VADA is doing good in boxing,” Hernandez said. “You’ve got WADA as well, and [Conte] constantly argues that VADA is the only testing agency that detects everything. That’s very faulty. What USADA and VADA can’t detect, none can detect.”
If anyone knows what kind of PEDs might go undetected, it would be Hernandez. The star witness of the U.S. federal government’s post-BALCO perjury trials, Hernandez went from helping athletes and coaches stay a step ahead of Olympic testing protocols to turning over evidence to help put them away.
“I went to trial and it is done,” Hernandez said. “Ever since then, I’ve been working on the straight side of the law. I’ve cooperated with authorities. I’ve helped the government. I’ve done things before, but I’m doing good things now.”
I wanted to know what he thought about the sport today. Is boxing dirty?
“The [PED] problem is still there,” he answered. ”The problem begins at the bottom. Every state has different rules. Every commission has different rules so how can they enforce anything when commissions are not aligned? In order to construct a true system, the commissions need to work together and unify to have universal testing. “
Hernandez said that would be half the battle right there. The other, he said, would be to identify who is responsible for paying the costly tests needed to clean up the sport.
“People ask me this all the time because maybe one of my fighters isn’t doing VADA or USADA testing, and it is because a lot of boxers cannot afford the testing. The problem is not mine,” he said. ”It is not the fighter’s problem. Obviously, it is the commissions and others. I mean, what about HBO? HBO pays millions for fights. They should enforce testing as well. If you want to sign with HBO, you should have to sign up for random drug tests. They could use VADA or USADA. It’d be a good thing, but someone has to enforce. Me, as strength and conditioning coach, I can always tell my fighters to do [PED testing], but if they don’t want to do it because they don’t have the money, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
That seems reasonable, but what about when a fighter is making millions of dollars for one fight? Can’t someone like that, Juan Manuel Marquez for example, afford the PED tests himself?
“I’ve told Juan Manuel Marquez he should do blood and urine testing for his next fight. He’s agreed to it,” Herandez said.
For his less wealthy boxers, Hernandez said he’s trying to establish a relationship with USADA. The agency confirmed talks had taken place.
“USADA has been contacted by Mr. Heredia who was looking to gather more information about our anti-doping program for professional boxing,” said Annie Skinner, USADA’s Media Relations Manager. “USADA is regularly contacted by people who are interested in learning more about our anti-doping program for professional boxing; however, in order for an anti-doping program to be implemented, we must be contacted by the appropriate event organizer, both fighters and their respective management companies. In addition to the involvement of the event organizer and contractual consent of both fighters, other criteria such as adequate program duration, athlete education, therapeutic uses exemption evaluation and whereabouts information are determining factors in USADA implementing a quality testing program. In order to ensure the integrity of the program we will only conduct a testing program if both fighters contractually agree to participate.”
In order for all that to happen, Hernandez said all parties involved would need to work together on keeping costs to the fighter as low as possible.
“Something has to be done. I have been trying to establish myself with USADA,” he said. ”I’ve sent them a list of boxers I have. I have Juan Manuel Marquez, Brandon Rios, Jean Pascal and B.J. Flores… I’m just hoping they work with me to help reduce their prices. And maybe the commissions can help put some money up or the promoters. If the promoter doesn’t want to put up money, the fighter’s manager won’t want to because they only get a percentage, etc. And they have that right. At this point, PED testing is optional.”
I couldn’t help but ask Hernandez about Nigel Collins’ recent column on ESPN.
Collins wrote, “It’s a thorny issue with no perfect answer. Nonetheless, there has to be a better way than the current system, so before dismissing out of hand the concept of decriminalizing PEDs, ask yourself if you’re satisfied with the status quo and convinced testing will solve everything. If not, it’s time to start thinking about alternatives, even those that fly in the face of conventional wisdom.”
So should PED use in boxing just be legal? Not according to Hernandez.
“He is out of his freaking mind,” he said. “We are talking human life here and not some kind of Olympic medal. It shouldn’t be legal. It should absolutely be regulated. Perhaps congress could vote to mandate testing and force commissions to follow such testing protocol. Something has to be done.”
We finished up our talk just like we started. Hernandez, sitting in a parking lot somewhere in Las Vegas, being a lawful citizen by not driving while he chats on his cell phone, told me he would’ve been happy to work with Twitter rival Conte on cleaning up the sport.
“If he really wanted to clean up the sport, he would have sat down with me and we could have worked together. But he doesn’t even want to do that. He doesn’t even want to sit down with me and do an open interview with no editing or whatever,” he said. ”He won’t do it because he wouldn’t have anyone telling him the right answers. I would chew him up in a second. That’s just the reality.
“He’s got all these people who write things for him, things that aren’t sourced. I don’t appreciate it, but sometimes you just got to do your thing,” he continued.
“Jean Pascal is [going to do] blood and urine testing with CIR testing. Everyone else will follow. Marquez has agreed to it. Brandon Rios has agreed to it,” he said. ”And the two fighters I just signed are gonna do it, too.
“I’m just hoping we can get some kind of agreement with USADA,” Hernandez said. ”Or maybe Victor can pay for our tests. Maybe he could get my fighters sponsored, but he doesn’t want to do it. Every time I talk to Victor he wants to gang up on me. He wants to sell more supplements.”
Clearly, Conte gets under his skin.
“Victor Conte has had a fighter test positive for steroids,” said Hernandez referring to Andre Berto’s failed VADA test last May. “I haven’t had one. Anyone that has had a fighter [they work with] test positive for steroids shouldn’t be an advisor in my opinion.”
Conte’s sentiments were reciprocal.
“In my opinion, Angel ‘Memo’ Heredia is a pathological liar,” he said. “I believe that Memo continues to provide PEDs to athletes from around the world in a variety of sports including boxing and track and field.” He did not offer any evidence to support that claim.
“I do my job,” countered Hernandez. “I do it legal and legit. No drugs. Everything is legit.”
Whether or not you believe Hernandez, Conte or neither, one thing is clear: boxing needs to sort through its PED mess. Because if anyone would know whether the sport is dirty, it would be them.