"I'm not doing anything illegal"

Does trainer Angel Heredia's PED past make him a threat to boxing?

Originally Published: November 18, 2013
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

Angel HerediaChip Litherland for ESPNNo matter how much Heredia insists he's working clean, he can't escape his PED-tainted past.

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"RAPIDO!"

Angel Heredia is shouting into the early Las Vegas morning as the boxer he trains, Juan Manuel Marquez, speed-steps across a flat rope ladder. It's early October, two days before Marquez's welterweight title bout with Timothy Bradley, and Heredia is trying to bleed the last bits of speed from his fighter's feet.

"Faster," he shouts. "You need to focus!"

Marquez, the senior statesman of Mexican boxing, is in astounding shape for a 40-year-old. His muscles are ripped from weight training, and as these repeated trips up and down the rope ladder show, his red blood cells are firing oxygen. In large part because of Marquez's conditioning, Vegas oddsmakers like him to beat Bradley, an American 10 years his junior. But Bradley has his own game plan for their HBO pay-per-view. It involves asking the question raised by many boxing insiders: Why is Heredia -- a key player in a doping ring that spawned the BALCO scandal a decade ago -- even in Marquez's corner as his strength coach? "I'm not saying he's on anything, because I'll be legally sued," Bradley tells reporters. "But it's too damn suspicious."

No matter how many times the 39-year-old Heredia insists he's working clean these days, he can't escape the dark clouds. MLB and NFL teams won't go near him. His name is toxic in track and field, where Usain Bolt has sprinted away from rumors that he worked with Heredia at the 2009 world championships. The trainer's PED past hovers over fights he's not even in. On Nov. 23, he won't be in Brandon Rios' corner for the welterweight's fight against Manny Pacquiao in Macau, China, even though he worked with Rios as recently as March. Rios' manager, Cameron Dunkin, denies the split has anything to do with the scrutiny around Heredia, saying only, "Brandon just wasn't interested in him."

Still, Marquez and plenty of other high-profile boxers are welcoming the 6'3" former Olympic hopeful into their entourage these days. ("If Angel had problems in his past, those were his problems," Marquez says.) And in so doing, they've reminded the world why boxing remains the Wild West of sports. Its lax rules and lack of oversight are allowing Heredia to shake off his past and become one of the most successful survivors of the steroids era.

Maybe the most audacious thing about this second act is what he says he wants to do with it: "Everyone wants to make publicity off me. But no one wants to say that I am the one trying to save boxing."


HEREDIA HAS SPENT his life rising through big-time sports. Known to his friends as Memo (his middle name is Guillermo), he possesses the irrepressible charm of a real estate agent who earns the biggest bonus year after year. His big hands almost always find your back, and once they've brought you close, he follows with a quick wink-and-smile combo. "Let me tell you something," he says in one such moment. "When I was a kid, I was always very smart. I was very gifted in the areas I wanted to be."

Thanks to his father's success as a chemistry professor in Mexico City, Heredia grew up in private school privilege, painting and acting and eventually pursuing the discus. "My father would buy me Cuban coaches, Russian coaches, German coaches, all kinds," he says. Whether that education included early lessons in PEDs, he won't say. But his athletic ambitions took him as far as a tryout for the 1996 Mexican Olympic team, where he says he came up four meters shy of qualifying for the Games.

[+] EnlargeTimothy Bradley, Juan Manuel Marquez
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesHeredia's training erased the age difference between Marquez (far right) and Bradley, 10 years his junior.

What happened next is detailed in a musty U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case file about a Jamaican track coach named Raymond Stewart. When Heredia moved to the U.S. to study kinesiology at Texas A&M-Kingsville, he befriended Stewart, who trained runners in the state. They were a perfect match. Stewart was looking for ways to give his runners an edge. Heredia was eager to use what he'd learned in college and from his chemist father to make a splash in Olympic circles. So Heredia volunteered to help the ambitious coach get PEDs from Mexican pharmacies -- drugs that would have required a prescription in the U.S. He also invited Stewart to his father's lab, where according to evidence later collected by USADA, Stewart had blood and urine from his athletes analyzed to make sure they would pass official testing.

Over the next five years, Heredia became perhaps the most prolific drug dealer in track and field, a steroids savant who supplied hard-to-detect PEDs to Stewart and a dozen star athletes. He was also an expert in the contours of high-level cheating, endlessly studying the World Anti-Doping Agency's code so he could crack it. His tentacles reached so deeply into the sport that his client list grew to include Trevor Graham, a track coach with a roster of Olympic stars that included Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Jerome Young. Young, who was later stripped of his gold medal, was secretly using a stipend from USA Track & Field to pay for Heredia's drugs.

But Heredia couldn't avoid detection by law enforcement forever. In 2002 a federal investigation into the infamous BALCO lab turned up evidence that Heredia was dealing drugs to those track icons. That year, the government's lead agent, Jeff Novitzky, tracked Heredia to a Laredo hotel and confronted him with wiretaps on which he could be heard boasting about his doping operation. Novitzky gave Heredia a life-altering choice: Do the right thing or do time.

Heredia chose the former, beginning an odyssey of government debriefings, grand jury appearances and trials that led to Olympic bans against Jones, Montgomery and their coach, Graham. In the last of his cases, Heredia testified against his old friend Stewart, leading to the coach's lifetime ban in 2010.

Heredia insists he's proud he took the cooperation route. "People keep asking me, 'Don't you feel sorry for Marion?' " he says, comparing the six-month jail sentence that Jones received for lying to federal authorities with his own route to freedom. "I say: Look, there's no doubt I feel sorry. But she had the opportunity to help out her government and didn't." Yet he also says the feds left him feeling unappreciated for his help in showing how the doping underground worked. "When I was helping the government, they took everything down," he says, lighting a cigar as he sits poolside at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas. "They hugged me all the time. But they never once have given me the credit in the media."

Eventually Heredia shut down. As Travis Tygart, CEO of USADA, put it: "Angel cooperated initially and was helpful. But then he went silent."

The reason was that Heredia, ruined in track and field, had returned to Mexico in 2009 to plan his next move. He applied for a teaching job. When that didn't come through, he tried to start his own supplement company but couldn't put the pieces together. "My life was very stressful at that time," he says.

Finally, he realized there was one sport that wouldn't care about his murky past because so many in it had murky pasts: boxing.


HEREDIA DESCRIBES THE sweet science almost nobly: "It's about ethics. It's about two people who can kill each other." His entry into it came when friends in Mexico City introduced him to Jorge Arce, a former four-division world champ who was looking for a new strength trainer. Heredia took on Arce as a client and soon after, in 2011, accompanied him to Las Vegas to watch as he shocked an MGM Grand crowd with a 12th-round KO of the heavily favored Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.

With that transformative win under his belt, Heredia called the powerful Mexican promoter Fernando Beltran, who was representing Marquez in a third fight with Pacquiao. Marquez had battled Pacquiao to a draw in 2004 and lost their 2008 rematch by split decision; he needed a win in their November 2011 rubber match to lift his career. Heredia told Beltran: "I'm the guy who's going to help you beat Manny." They took him on, and over three months, Heredia increased Marquez's weight loads and speed drills, hoping to make him strong enough to stand up against the heavy-punching Pacquiao. It nearly worked: Marquez lost a majority decision, but most fans and pundits thought he had won decisively.

Realizing, as he puts it, that "only a knockout would get us a win," Heredia went back to his whiteboard to design an even stronger Marquez for a fourth bout. While he refuses to discuss his precise methods -- "It is my bread and butter; why would I give it away?" -- the change wrought in Marquez was startling. By the time of the December 2012 fight, he had bulging shoulders scaffolding a torso that looked like it was ripped off a rock wall. When Marquez unveiled that body at the weigh-in, people gasped. Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, blurted to USA Today, "If [that body] is natural, I will kiss his ass."

Come fight time, Marquez battled through a broken nose to knock out Pacquiao in the sixth round with a thunderous right hook, a win that instantly altered the boxing universe. Marquez was suddenly in line for a $6 million guarantee to fight Bradley. But his strength coach had just bought himself an avalanche of new scrutiny. That scrutiny is only fueled by the fact that Heredia's father, who says he's retired from his pharmaceutical work, now trails him everywhere he goes, including to his fighters' camps.

"What can I do?" Heredia asks. "I'm always the topic of conversation. All I can do is stay away from all that old stuff and tell the truth, because no matter what I do, people will still say, 'I'm sure he's doing something to this guy.'"

The problem is that boxing doesn't have a PED safety net that lets him prove his skeptics wrong -- or lets them prove that they are right.

Without a single league to push uniform drug-testing rules, or a union to negotiate on behalf of all fighters, boxing isn't much further along than it was in the days when pugs wrapped their hands in plaster for an edge. Though Nevada usually tests fighters on the day of a bout, no state actually requires even that much. Drug rules vary from state to state (and from year to year), which lets promoters shop for the friendliest turf. In the case of certain big-money bouts, the two camps will negotiate their own testing programs, if only to create the appearance of a level fight.

[+] EnlargeAngel Heredia
Chip Litherland for ESPNHeredia has an idea for how to close boxing's vast drug-testing loopholes, but will anybody listen?

All of this is exactly as disorderly as it sounds. And to cynics, it's precisely why someone like Heredia is so problematic. With so many shifting and competing protocols, there is a corresponding array of loopholes that a savvy cheat could exploit. Heredia, however, sees it from a different angle: Every camp needs a guy like him who can ask all the right questions as the drug testing for a bout is being negotiated. How many tests should be allowed? Two? Six? Ten? Should blood be taken, or just urine? How about creating a biological passport that follows your fighter through his career?

"I make sure my fighters have the best advice I can give them," he says.

That comes in most handy when promoters decide they want to negotiate tougher drug-testing protocols beyond what a state may require. In such cases, they typically weigh the merits of two competing testing agencies: USADA, the Colorado-based agency that receives funding from Congress to enforce the World Anti-Doping Code; and the Voluntary Anti-Drug Association (VADA), a Las Vegas-based nonprofit formed two years ago by ring physician Margaret Goodman. Both use the same banned drug list as a guide. But because USADA is empowered to enforce the world agency's code and impose penalties against offending athletes, it is more feared and, critics say, heavy-handed. VADA, on the other hand, merely administers and reports the findings of its drug tests. The penalties for any positive test are left up to the two camps and the promoter to decide, usually during the fight's negotiations.

Much of the boxing world is now warring over which agency is better -- a war that, among other surreal subplots, has pitted Heredia, a USADA backer, against BALCO founder Victor Conte, who sides with VADA. (In a recent tweet, Conte called Heredia "dumb & a sleaze w/an IQ under 100" and told him to "go back to Mexico.") And if a promoter can't decide between USADA and VADA? There's yet another option: turning over testing authority to a state athletic commission. For the Marquez-Bradley fight, Bob Arum tapped the Nevada Athletic Commission, which ordered a total of six drug tests for each fighter.

Heredia maintains that he too is frustrated with this disorganized effort at testing fighters. He has a suggestion on how to fix it: Band together the biggest state athletic commissions -- in Nevada, New York, California and Texas -- to create a single supercommission that can enforce a single set of rules. "Make it more sophisticated," he says. "Instead of making drug testing voluntary, make it mandatory."

But until then, or until somebody comes up with a better idea, he's more than happy to cash his checks as a strength coach.

"I'm here to do a job," he says.


AT THE THOMAS & MACK Center on fight night, Bradley dances circles around Marquez, spearing him high and low and from all angles. Marquez comes back in the late rounds to shake off devastating head shots and briefly pin Bradley against the ropes. But in the end, a split decision goes against the oddsmakers 
and Marquez. As angry chants of Me-ji-co, in support of Marquez, rain down over the ring, Heredia hustles his fighter into the locker room, muttering with the rest of the entourage that they were robbed. Then 
he stands to the side as his guy gives his sixth and final urine sample.

Marquez may have lost the fight, but Heredia's drug-testing record in boxing remains perfect -- his fighter passes all six tests, confounding those who want to believe the worst about him. He wonders when the questions will stop, when people will believe he's sincere about making something out of this new chapter in his life. "I've proven I can get back on top without drugs," he says. "This time, it's just with my knowledge. I'm a government witness, for god's f---ing sake. I'm not doing anything illegal."

He produces an Oct. 8 letter from his attorney to Bradley, demanding that he retract a "defamatory and inflammatory" remark he made on HBO that Marquez "hired a cheater." The letter goes on to claim that "such public statements have both the purpose and actual effect of interfering with Mr. Heredia's ongoing business relationships with his clients."

Heredia is not saying whether that is a reference to the fact that he won't be at the upcoming Rios-Pacquiao showdown in China. But he seems to have moved on quite nicely. His current clients include Cuban Olympic gold medalist Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jean Pascal, the Canadian light heavyweight who will face countryman Lucian Bute in a superfight on Jan. 18 in Montreal.

In the meantime, Heredia still hasn't dropped off the feds' radar. The last time he says he met with agents was before the Pacquiao-Marquez fight last December, when Novitzky asked him to detour to LA for a meeting. "He was doing his job," Heredia says. "He just wanted to see how I was doing."

Asked what they discussed, he looks down at his black Rolex watch.

"I really wish I could tell you," he says. "Maybe one day I will write a book."

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• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"

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