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.”