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
Out. “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.”