Mythmaking Manny Pacquiao is mobbed by supporters and the press after his November 24, 2013, victory over Brandon Rios in their welterweight title fight. (Siu Chiu via Reuters Pictures)
In the span of two weeks last fall, two prizefighters went to the hospital after their bouts. Francisco Leal, 26, died of a brain injury after a knockout loss to Raul Hirales on October 19. Magomed Abdusalamov, 32, remains in a medically induced coma as I write, with a blood clot near his brain, after a November 2 fight with Mike Perez. The incidents provoked a flurry of self-flagellating stories in the boxing press, from Mike Gallego’s “Boxing is Still a Goddamned Tragedy” on the Gawker site Uppercutting, to Greg Bishop’s A1 story in The New York Times that explored “why we cover this brutal sport.”
A better question might be: Why don’t we cover this brutal sport more? For amid the thousands of words about Leal and Abdusalamov, an issue that has become one of the defining sports stories of our time was conspicuously absent: the connection of repeated concussive and subconcussive hits to long-term brain damage that surfaces years later. “Writers tend to write much more often when a guy’s battling for his life with a subdural hematoma than when a guy is potentially sustaining consequences from subconcussive hits,” says Lou DiBella, one of boxing’s biggest promoters. “I don’t think the writers give a rat’s ass about concussions.”
But this may be starting to change. And the implications, for boxers, boxing fans, and boxing writers, are profound. “We’ve all helped make a lot of myths,” says The New York Times’ Bishop, who also covers college football. “Somebody needs to be looking out for these guys.” He acknowledged having had “trouble sleeping for a few nights” after covering a fight. “I don’t get that watching football,” he says.
That boxing is dangerous is hardly news. just look at Muhammad Ali, Meldrick Taylor, or countless other veterans of the sweet science, their hands shaking, their speech slurred, their gait unsteady. But the growing unease among some boxing writers is something new. It is, surely, a product of everything we’re learning about subconcussive hits and their correlation with a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. But it just as surely is a result of the public furor that’s erupted around this issue in a contact sport with a much higher profile: football [see page 19]. “With the NFL getting into the concussions, people are writing about these things,” says Michael Rosenthal, editor in chief of The Ring Magazine. “Before, people were like, ‘Okay, this is part of boxing, this isn’t something we’re focusing on.’ Now people are focusing on it.”
This new focus on brain trauma and sports has made the rationalization that so many reporters and fans of boxing have leaned on for decades—that the fighters know what they’re getting into—a much less sturdy device. Previously, the very nature of the problem made it easy to suppress. Unlike severe injury—a broken bone, a hard knockout, or even a death in the ring—the effects of repeated concussive and subconcussive hits are insidious, unseen, and therefore under-reported, lurking beneath the surface for years. Their cause can be attributed to other things. In other words, the problem was easy to ignore.
Now boxing faces the same dilemma—if much more acutely, given that head pounding is the point rather than an incidental aspect of the sport—that football and hockey face: The violence that makes the sport compelling has become its biggest problem. “All of the drama comes from the inherent danger,” says Jimmy Tobin, who writes for the fight-news website The Cruelest Sport. “To take away one is to take away the other—it loses its poetry, it loses its metaphor, it loses its gravity, it loses everything.”
As the Times’ Bishop wrote in the front-page piece on November 21 about Magomed Abdusalamov, “Violence is not simply a part of boxing, it is the best part, the most visceral part, the backbone of the sport. It is what people pay to see.”
For this reason alone, Ring’s Rosenthal posits, boxing is “not even really a sport. It’s sort of life and death, and that’s what makes it so fascinating and sort of exciting. But that’s what makes me feel so ghoulish—that I get pleasure out of watching it.”