Tony Bellew insists Billy Joe Saunders -- banned from making a world title defence this Saturday -- is not a drugs cheat, telling ESPN that he has an "enormous amount of sympathy" for his fellow British boxer.
The Massachusetts State Athletic Commission (MSAC) last week denied Saunders a boxing license to defend his WBO world middleweight title against American Demetrius Andrade in Boston on Oct. 20 after the Englishman failed a drugs test.
Saunders, 29, (26-0, 12 KOs) tested positive for the stimulant oxilofrine -- induced via a nasal decongestant spray -- on Aug. 30.
Under World Anti-Doping Agency and UK Anti-Doping rules, oxilofrine is only banned in competition, meaning a fighter is only in breach of rules if the substance is detected in his system on the day of the fight. Saunders also did not breach the rules of the British Boxing Board of Control.
But the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, which tested Saunders, prohibits oxilofrine at all times.
Bellew, who challenges Oleksandr Usyk for all four world cruiserweight titles on Nov. 10, is scathing of drug cheats but sympathises with Saunders.
"If you're talking about fighters who have taken over the counter products, like Billy Joe or Dillian Whyte, I have got an enormous amount of sympathy for them," Bellew told ESPN.
"I don't class [heavyweight] Dillian Whyte as a steroid cheat because he drank a drink he got over the counter. If it's proven that Billy Joe Saunders sniffed a nasal spray, I believe the person who gave it to him knew, but Billy would never have taken a steroid. I know that because I have spent a lot of time around Billy Joe.
"Luis Ortiz is a banned steroid cheat [for nandrolone in 2017]. Alexander Povetkin twice tested positive [for meldonium and ostarine in 2016] and is a cheating scumbag. Guys who inject steroids into themselves, there's no condoning that.
"If a guy smokes a spliff, okay it's wrong, he's out of order, but he's not putting anyone in danger. But it's these b******s who are taking performance enhancing drugs who are at a different level.
"Billy Joe can't even spell oxilofrine, he doesn't know what that it is but I'm pretty sure everyone in boxing knows who gave him it. I'm pretty sure everyone in boxing knows why he was given it. He did not know that. Whoever gave him that needs banning.
"Billy Joe Saunders has not taken a performance enhancing drug injected into him like Ortiz, like Povetkin. Billy hasn't done that. I know Billy is no cheat."
Bellew says the inconvenience of being woken at 6 a.m. for a drugs test and having blood taken is a necessary inconvenience to keep boxing clean.
"I've been tested five times in eight weeks ahead of this fight," Bellew told ESPN.
"The only problem I have is the 6 a.m. calls but that's what it takes to keep this sport clean.
"They're ****ing my sleep up a bit and I've had a pint of blood taken in the space of eight weeks which is not good for recovery, but the sport is going the right way and we need to keep testing fighters.
"We need to keep testing the ones who have failed again because you usually find once a cheat, always a cheat."
Saunders said the positive test was the result of using "a common decongestant nasal spray" and vacated the WBO belt before being stripped of it.
Saunders' promoter Frank Warren intends to take legal action against the MSAC for loss of earnings and appeal the decision. Saunders, who has made three defences and impressively out-pointed David Lemieux last time out in December, missed out on a $2.3 million purse after it was ruled he was not allowed to fight Andrade.
Andrade (25-0, 16 KOs), 30, from Rhode Island, will contest the vacant WBO middleweight title against the governing body's No. 2 ranked contender, Walter Kautondokwa (17-0, 16 KOs), little known outside of his native Namibia, at TD Garden in Boston on Saturday.