‘Fighters should know what boxing is doing to their brain.’ Margaret Goodman has been a fierce advocate for the health and safety of fighters for decades. Now she’s getting her due, writes Thomas Hauser
SOMETIMES the boxing gods get things right. This June, Dr. Margaret Goodman, a pioneering ring physician who has earned widespread respect throughout the boxing community, will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Goodman was born in Toronto. Her father was a musician who played the saxaphone and clarinet, managed several rock groups, and ultimately became a record producer. When she was seven, the family moved to Southern California, and Margaret became a child of Beverly Hills.
“Broadway Danny Rose was the story of my father’s life,” Goodman reminisced years ago, referencing the hard-luck talent agent from the 1984 Woody Allen movie. “In the 1950s, he managed a group called The Diamands that had hits with Little Darlin’, Walking Along, and The Stroll. He worked with Brook Benton and Dinah Washington. He started Sonny & Cher and the Righteous Brothers. But what always happened was, he’d take them to a certain point, and then somebody big with a recording studio and more clout in the industry would come along and take them away from him.”
Music was the love of young Margaret’s life. “I was a daddy’s girl,” she recalled. “I’d follow my father to nightclubs and concerts. He taught me how to read music and sing. And it was my father who got me interested in boxing. I used to watch fights on TV with him. Then I started drawing pictures of boxers in elementary school. Even at that age, I was attracted to fighters’ physiques and the definition in their bodies.”
Goodman self-trained as an artist. By the time she entered college at UCLA, she was drawing a lot in her spare time; mostly black-and-white charcoal drawings. And she was pretty good.
“Several of my sketches were put on display in a local gallery,” she remembered. “Someone from Collier Publishing saw them, and I was commissioned to supply artwork for lithographs that went into office buildings and hotels. Then, after college, I wasn’t sure what to do. My father always wanted to be a doctor. I think that’s road he wanted me to travel, but he also wanted me to be happy. And I loved singing. That’s what I really wanted to do. So I had a heart-to-heart with my father, and he told me, ‘If you want to be a studio singer, you’ll do fine. But if you have your heart set on becoming the next Barbra Streisand, go to medical school’.”
Properly warned, Goodman enrolled at Chicago Medical School. But it was expensive and she had to make ends meet. So while many of her classmates were partying on weekends, Goodman worked her way through school by singing old standards – Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and others – in Chicago nightclubs. She graduated in 1984 and, four years later, moved to Las Vegas where she joined a group practice as a neurologist. Eight years after that, she went out on her own. Her practice today is roughly fifty per cent headache management (migraines, head injuries, etc.) and fifty per cent general neurology.
Goodman’s formal association with boxing began in 1992. She wanted to get involved with the sport in some way and was told that a good first step would be to work amateur shows.
“So I went to the amateurs,” she later recounted. “I did physicals and worked the corners. It’s hard to get doctors to work the amateurs. There’s no pay, no glory. You’re doing forty physicals an hour under sweatshop conditions. So they were happy to have me. And at the same time, I was going to every professional fight possible. I couldn’t always get passes for the big ones, but I went when I could. Finally, in 1994, a spot on the medical staff opened up and I got it. But they didn’t give me fights. They sent me to cover professional wrestling.”
Eventually, Goodman was elevated to boxing. At the time, she was one of a handful of women ring doctors in the world. In the years that followed, she worked more than five-hundred fights and was in the corner with some of boxing’s biggest names. Her long red hair and designer pants suits made her a distinctive presence at ringside. The quality of her work also set her apart. Eventually, she became Chief Ringside Physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission and Governor Kenny Guinn appointed her to serve as chair of the NSAC Medical Advisory Board.
Goodman took preparation for her ring duties to a level beyond most of her peers. Not only did she ask in advance who would be on each fight card; she learned the history of the fighters and, when possible, watched tapes of their previous bouts. “You can’t just show up,” she explained, “You have to work at it. You have to know what a fighter has done in the past.”
“Margaret does a good job during the fights,” Emanuel Steward observed admiringly. “She knows when to let them go on and when to stop them. But more important, she’s pushing hard to get people to realise that boxing is a dangerous sport. A lot of people care about safety. Margaret actually works to promote it.”
Most people in boxing voice support for safeguarding the health and safety of fighters. But there has long been a tolerance in the sport for a dangerous status quo. Goodman challenged that status quo.
“Fighters should know what boxing is doing to their brain,” she said. “That’s the heart of the matter, really. The fighters should be better protected physically. I’m tired of the excuses. I’m sick of it. Some of these guys are hurt; they’re injured; and they’re allowed to keep fighting.”
But Goodman’s quest for higher medical standards aroused ire in some circles. Over time, she was marginalised at the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The relationship ended in 2007.
‘I’ve reached a point in my life where I find boxing sometimes hard to watch because of the violence’
After Goodman left the NSAC, she refocused her attention on other pursuits. Her practice as a private neurologist was thriving. She owned two horses that she rode – and still rides – in competitions.
“I was disillusioned,” she says. “But I still cared about boxing. And then I had an epiphany. I realised that the horses in show competitions and racing were tested for illegal performance enhancing drugs more often and more thoroughly than boxers. No one was doing the job properly. I said to myself, ‘This is nuts’.”
In late-2011, Goodman founded the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. VADA offers educational programs, professional drug counseling, and referral services to combat sports participants. But the heart of its mission is state-of-the-art testing for illegal performance enhancing drugs.VADA’s services are retained by promoters, individual fighters, and other parties. Fighters enrolled in the program must keep VADA informed of their daily whereabouts, provide VADA with a contact number where they can be reached 24 hours a day, and are subject to unannounced testing at any time. Participants must also agree that all test results can be released immediately to appropriate third parties (such as a fighter’s opponent, his promoter, and the commission with authority over any scheduled bout).
Overseeing VADA was a lonely journey at first. The powers that be in boxing were used to paying lip service to PED testing but often looked the other way when a problem arose. Most PED testing, to the extent that it existed at all, was conducted by ill-prepared local commissions or the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
USADA had begun testing professional boxers for performance enhancing drugs in 2010. Data taken from the USADA website shows that USADA administered 1,501 tests on 128 professional boxers through August 2018 (when it ceased testing professional boxers). In all those years, USADA reported only one positive PED test regarding a professional boxer to a governing state athletic commission. And that report came after news of the positive test leaked on the internet.
By way of comparison, close to four per cent of the tests for illegal performance enhancing drugs conducted by VADA come back positive. Using the four per cent benchmark, one would have expected that 60 of the 1,501 tests conducted by USADA would have yielded a positive result.Thereafter, it was revealed that USADA was choosing to “adjudicate these matters” internally without reporting positive test results to an opposing fighter’s camp or the state athletic commission with oversight responsibility for a given fight.
VADA doesn’t adjudicate. In the event of a positive test result, it reports the result and leaves judgments regarding mitigating circumstances and penalties to the appropriate governing body. Its testing isn’t perfect. Given the limited funds available to VADA and the sophistication of PED users today, the likelihood is that VADA fails to catch some fighters who are dirty. But VADA is widely regarded as the most credible PED testing organisation in professional boxing today.
The list of fighters enrolled in VADA programs who have tested positive for the presence of a banned substance in their system includes, among others, Andre Berto, Lamont Peterson, Canelo Alvarez, Jarrell Miller, Manuel Charr, Billy Joe Saunders, Luis Ortiz, Alexander Povetkin, Lucas Browne, and Brandon Rios.
VADA received a significant boost in 2017 when the World Boxing Council inaugurated the WBC Clean Boxing Program. This program requires all WBC champions and fighters ranked by the sanctioning body in the top fifteen of any weight division to be available for random PED testing by VADA at any time.
VADA receives $10,000 a month from the WBC to underwrite the direct cost of this testing. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a lot of money. The WBC has eighteen men’s and sixteen women’s weight divisions. Multiply this by fifteen fighters and one champion in each weight division. Then add “interim” champions, “silver champions,” and fighters who aren’t ranked by the WBC but have voluntarily enrolled in the WBC Clean Boxing Program. All told, more than 500 fighters are subject to mandatory PED testing under the WBC Clean Boxing Program at any given time. This averages out to about twenty dollars per month per fighter. But the program represents a good-faith commitment to clean sport. And it has helped spread the gospel of VADA.
Also, several state athletic commissions now work regualrly with VADA. One of these is the Nevada State Athletic Commission which, under the leadership of executive director Bob Bennett, has evinced a serious interest in combatting PED use in boxing. “It’s amazing what Nevada has been able to accomplish safely in the middle of the pandemic,” Goodman says. “I have a lot of respect for what Bob Bennett is doing, and not just in the area of PEDs.”
Goodman and VADA won’t be able to put a thumb in the dike and stop the flow of illegal performance enhancing drugs in boxing. Accomplishing this end will take a concerted effort by state athletic commissions, sanctioning bodies, promoters, managers, members of the media, and law enforcement authorities.
But most of all, it will require a commitment from fighters.
“It’s easy to tell fighters, ‘Don’t use performance enhancing drugs’,” Goodman says. “But the reality is that many fighters do use them. And other fighters feel now that they have to use them to be competitive. So you have to reach out to the fighters as a group and get them to understand that sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. But they’re the ones who have to take control over this issue and fix this problem.”
In 2017, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Goodman with the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing. Previously, she and Flip Homansky were jointly honored with the BWAA’s James A. Farley Award for Honesty and Integrity.
Then the International Boxing Hall of Fame beckoned.
“It’s a huge honour,” Goodman says of her impending induction. “I didn’t expect it. And to be honest, I’ve reached a point in my life now where I find boxing hard to watch sometimes because of the violence. But the fighters are wonderful. I miss them. And I look at my induction as more than a personal honour. Boxing is a sport where safety is more important than anything else. And for the Hall of Fame to finally induct a physician is recognition of that importance.”
Flip Homansky worked with Margaret Goodman professionally at the Nevada State Athletic Commission. More significantly, he has been her life partner for two decades.
“Margaret comes from a place of admiration for and caring about the fighters,” Homansky says. “That always guides her. Most people in boxing have an ulterior motive. Usually it’s financial. And no matter what they say, they come from that place first. Margaret is different. She really is. That admiration and caring are what set her apart. And that’s the truth.”