Ring of fire

As concussion controversy rages, boxing writers look in the mirror

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.”

Bart Barry, a reporter for the boxing-news website 15 Rounds, described it more charitably: “I think we all kind of hide from it—what, we’re learning more and more, is really bad for you.”

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.”

Rosenthal speaks openly about boxing’s dangers, especially CTE, which multiple studies in the past two years alone have suggested is linked to repeated concussive and subconcussive hits. “We need to educate [the fighters], they need to know what the risks are,” Rosenthal says. “We need to protect them—but you can’t protect them 100 percent, because then it wouldn’t be boxing. Ultimately, it’s their choice.”

The idea that boxing’s advocates and chroniclers are just now learning that getting hit in the head repeatedly is likely to do long-term damage to a fighter’s brain is hard for many to digest. “Anyone who says that, I’d say that they’re not very smart or they’re not paying attention or they’re lazy,” says Thomas Hauser, a boxing writer for more than two decades, most recently as a contributor to the websites The Sweet Science and Seconds
. “There’s a reason there’s the stereotype of a punch-drunk fighter, going back 100 years. You don’t have the stereotype of a punch-drunk baseball player.”

As early as 1928, a New Jersey doctor described symptoms similar to CTE: impaired speech, memory, poor motor control. Researchers dubbed the condition “dementia pugilistica.” Forty-five years later, in 1973, a study of 15 retired fighters produced similar findings. “Everybody knew, unless they were purposely deceiving themselves, that they could develop this,” says John Stiller, the chief neurologist and physician for the Maryland State Athletic Commission.

What has changed is that new research has given us a better understanding of the nature of the risk. The studies, the most recent from Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, show that permanent brain damage for professional fighters isn’t just a possibility, but more like a certainty. No longer can Ali, Taylor, and the rest be pointed to as possible examples of the sad fate that awaits any boxer who is unlucky, careless, stupid, or desperate enough to fight too often, or face a far superior opponent, or take the wrong punch at the wrong angle. They’ve instead become closer to predictions. “When professional boxers got in the ring, they gave informed consent to the risk of brain damage and death,” says Stiller. “But in my opinion, there wasn’t informed consent for possible chronic [neurological] changes.”

So now there is zero justification for continuing to ignore or deny this problem in boxing, and that raises another issue: the idea that getting in the ring, despite the risks, is a matter of free will, a fighter’s choice, as Rosenthal suggested. “We sign up for this, you’re absolutely right,” said Bernard Hopkins, a former world champion and current Showtime commentator who, at age 48, is still fighting. “But boxers are mostly guys that wouldn’t have been doctors, wouldn’t have been lawyers. I have no Harvard degree. I dropped out in the eighth grade, I went to jail. Boxing is what I could do.”

It all presents stark choices for reporters who cover boxing: acknowledge the dangers and the likelihood of developing CTE, and move on; acknowledge the dangers and call attention to them by writing about them; or abandon the sport.

Dan Rafael, a senior boxing writer for ESPN, is in the first category. As one of the reporters who covered the death of Leavander Johnson, 35, who died in the ring in 2005 during a fight in Las Vegas, “I made my peace a long time ago,” he says. “It’s all a part of boxing, the same way fiery crashes are a part of auto racing, and giant hits are a part of football. That’s why we watch, because these guys do stuff that normal people are not willing to do.”

The idea of giving the fans what they want, no matter the consequences, remains valid for some writers. “They’re not coming to your boxing magazine or website to be told they’re ghouls, that they’re voluntary participants in the ruination of men’s brains,” says Barry, the reporter for 15 Rounds. “You and I might know it, we might talk about it with some of the other guys at the bar, but we have a professional obligation, if we’re going to have any readership, to quiet that.”

Others see their professional obligation a different way, owing at least as much to the fighters as to the fans. “You can go to a fight and look at press row and you can see a bunch of middle-aged fat guys cracking jokes about the guys who are putting their lives on the line to entertain people, and that’s kind of disgusting,” says Hamilton Nolan, a writer for Gawker who also covers boxing for Deadspin and HBO’s Inside Boxing. “If you’re someone who has some kind of voice, you have a responsibility to take these issues on. They’re putting their own health at risk for anybody who’s a boxing fan. So the people who watch boxing owe something to them in return for that.”

William Nack wrote about boxing for Sports Illustrated for more than 20 years, covering the careers of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and writing some of the most eloquent pieces in sports journalism about their struggles in and out of the ring. But by the turn of the millennium, he’d decided to stop covering boxing. “It is a hell of a sport, it’s mano-a-mano,” he says. “But at the same time, if you have any kind of sensibility, you’ve got to feel some kind of, not guilt, but misgivings about it. That’s probably too weak a word. Maybe guilt is the right word.”

He paused. “I never brought fighters together, I only publicized what they were doing. As the years went on, I was second-guessing myself more and more, because I was starting to see quite vividly the deterioration of Muhammad Ali. It’s one thing to die in the ring, it’s another thing to die quite slowly and in the public eye. Knowing that these guys who have entertained us for years are now walking around on their heels—doesn’t that give that you pause?”

For Bishop, Tobin, and others, it certainly has. Bishop wrote one of the most powerful pieces on boxing and its consequences, about Manny Pacquiao’s bout with Juan Manuel Marquez on December 8, 2012 in Las Vegas. It was the pair’s fourth fight, and was touted as deciding the “Champion of the Decade.” Marquez knocked Pacquiao out in the sixth round:

The shot crumpled Pacquiao (54-5-2) to the canvas, right in front of Bob Arum, his promoter, who held his hands out as if he wanted to catch his prized fighter in his arms. Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee, held her face in both hands and cried. It took her husband several minutes to rise, and when he did, his face was bruised under both eyes, which were vacant. He looked lost.

It is said that all boxing writers have one fight they carry with them. The knockout, in its singular fury, made this the fight that Bishop carries with him. Nevertheless, speaking almost a year later, he says, “Is it conflicting? Yeah, it is. Am I going to watch the next fight, and the next one? Yeah.

“I’ve been to the Tour de France, Wimbledon, the French Open, seven Super Bowls—there’s nothing I’ve been to like a live fight. It’s almost intoxicating.” 

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Alan Neuhauser is a reporter and editorial producer for US News & World Report