By Thomas Hauser
There was a time when big fights were chronicled in the New York Times with banner headlines in large type that stretched across the front page.
Those days are long gone. Newspapers across the country are abandoning the sweet science. Like the sport itself, writing about boxing is fading from view. But the Times is America’s newspaper of record. Being slighted by the fabled “gray lady of journalism” cuts particularly deep.
“The Times is important,” says publicist Fred Sternburg. “It’s still the New York Times. If a million people buy a fight on pay-per-view, you’d think that some of the paper’s readers would want to know what’s going on in boxing. But you don’t get that in the Times anymore. The Wall Street Journal covers boxing in greater depth now than the Times.”
“Do we want to be in the New York Times?” Lee Samuels (director of publicity for Top Rank) asks rhetorically. “Of course, we do. Coverage in the Times is contagious. It really gets the word out there. We make phone calls. We send them advisories on everything we do. They’re always welcome at ringside. But except for the occasional big fight, we don’t get any coverage at all. It hasn’t been for lack of trying.”
“Several years ago, we had a heavyweight championship fight at Madison Square Garden,” Alan Hopper (director of publicity for Don King Productions) recalls. “The Times didn’t cover it. Is it too much to ask that the New York Times cover a heavyweight championship fight at the world’s most famous arena when it’s a five-minute walk from their office?”
Robert Lipsyte (who covered boxing for the Times in the 1960s at the start of his career in sports journalism) observes, “Boxing offers an interesting window onto the world. But as far back as I can remember, the Times has had an editorial bias against it. And in recent years, the bias has gotten worse. When the Times runs anything about boxing now, it’s a one-time feature story rather than ongoing coverage of the sport.”
Tim Smith (the last boxing beat writer for the Times) has covered the sport for the New York Daily News since 2000. “The situation today saddens me,” Smith says, “because boxing has such a rich tradition and the Times once covered it well. Boxing is an industry that generates more than a billion dollars in revenue each year. Why go out of your way to limit coverage of a sport that has worldwide appeal and a significant economic impact? It makes no sense to me. But someone at the Times has made the determination that boxing simply isn’t worth their time and effort.”
Indeed, the New York Times is one subject on which warring promoters Bob Arum and Richard Schaefer actually agree.
“The editors at the Times say they don’t cover boxing because boxing is a dying sport,” Arum states. “But the truth is that the New York Times is a dying elitist newspaper that has lost touch with its audience. That’s one of the reasons its readership keeps shrinking and the paper is failing financially.”
“I don’t think it really matters,” Schaefer says of the situation. “There are so many other outlets, social networks, and major online destinations like ESPN and Yahoo, which frankly have become much more relevant to the sport of boxing than the New York Times. All of these major newspapers are on the verge of going out of business. Obviously, they have been missing the boat. The sport of boxing has graduated into the twenty-first century. The New York Times has not.”
The man at the center of this controversy is Tom Jolly.
Jolly is the sports editor of the Times; a position he has held since 2003. He’s a respected editor, well-liked by the people who know him. The Times has two dozen fulltime reporters in its sports department. Jolly gets suggestions regarding content from many of them in addition to being on the receiving end of constant pitches from the outside.
Jolly has the final say regarding what goes in the sports section. He is not a boxing fan. He has been to one professional fight (Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden in 1999) and watches “parts of three or four fights” on television each year.
“We try to identify the sports that matter the most to our readers,” Jolly explains. “Tracking our own website and using other measures, we feel that boxing as an overall sport doesn’t rise to a level of importance to our audience that would justify greater coverage.”
“There are more sports vying for attention now than in the past,” he continues. “Boxing has hurt itself by having so many champions. It has cut itself off from a larger fan base by putting its best fights on pay-per-view. And many of its biggest fights take place at a time that’s out of our news cycle. When there’s a big fight in Las Vegas, the main event doesn’t start until 11:30 at night New York time.”
Those are valid points, although one might note that the Olympics aren’t always conveniently timed for the Times news cycle and still receive saturation coverage.
Jolly is on less firm footing when he says, “With sports like boxing, we look for stories that transcend the sport and are of interest to someone who’s not a hardcore fan. Boxing today doesn’t have a lot of stories that transcend the sport, and it doesn’t have a lot of personalities who demand attention.”
More on that later. But first, some statistical data.
This writer catalogued every article that appeared in the New York Times sports section over a 100-day period. The study ran from July 1 through October 8, 2009.
The conclusion is clear.
The New York Times no longer covers boxing as an ongoing sport. If a fighter of importance dies, it’s noted. On rare occasions, bouts are referenced. But the paper’s motto – “All the News That’s Fit to Print” – which is prominently displayed in the upper-left hand corner of page one each day, doesn’t extend to boxing.
During the 100-day study period, articles were categorized as “full articles” or “briefs.” There were seven “full” articles about boxing in the Times sports section and nineteen briefs. There were also four entries on the obituary page.
Thirteen of the articles dealt with the deaths of Arturo Gatti, Alexis Arguello, Vernon Forrest, and Darren Sutherland, which might lead casual readers to the conclusion that all boxers do is get murdered or commit suicide unless they’re being arrested like Roger Mayweather (who was the subject of two briefs).
The most extensive boxing coverage (three of the seven full articles) dealt with women’s boxing being added to the Olympics. Another full article was devoted to the recollections of a woman who grew up in the suburban Detroit house that John Roxborough (Joe Louis’s manager) had previously lived in. The results of two fights were reported: Floyd Mayweather vs. Juan Manuel Marquez and (without rhyme or reason) Marco Huck vs. Victor Emilio Eamirez.
Another item considered worthy of mention by the Times was the fact that four officials of Mongolia’s boxing team were expelled from the International Amateur Boxing Association championships for trying to bribe a referee. That occurrence took place on the same day (September 10th) that Manny Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto held a kick-off press conference at Yankee Stadium to announce their November 14th megafight. There was no mention of Pacquiao-Cotto in the Times the next day. Nor was there any acknowledgement of several significant fights that took place during the study period.
On July 4th, Eddie Chambers defeated Alexander Dimitrenko to become the mandatory challenger for Wladimir Klitschko’s WBO crown. The next day, the Times didn’t mention the fight. But it did report that the Kansas City Royals had acquired a 33-year-old utility player named Ryan Freel from the Chicago Cubs.
On July 11, Tomasz Adamek (the best cruiserweight in the world) defended his title against Bobby Gunn at the Prudential Center in Newark. That day, the Times ran a feature story about mixed martial arts that covered seventy column inches. The following day, it devoted twenty-four column inches to football in France. There was no mention of Adamek-Gunn.
On July 26th, the Times ran a feature story about Gina Carrano (a mixed martial artist, who had a fight against Christine Santos scheduled for August 15th). On August 4th, it devoted 112 column inches (including six photos) to Carrano (who was subsequently knocked out by Santos in the first round). It’s unclear why the Times thought that Carrano-Santos was more important than the championship fight between Timothy Bradley and Nate Campbell that took place in the same time frame.
On August 16 (the day after Roy Jones vs. Jeff Lacy and Nonito Donaire vs. Rafael Conception), there wasn’t one word about either fight in the Times. But the paper found space for a news brief reporting that Bordeaux had beaten Sochaux in a French soccer league game.
Juan Diaz vs. Paulie Malignaggi took place on August 22nd. That day, the Times reported the qualifying times for the Sharpie 500 in Bristol, Tennessee. Not one word on Diaz-Malignaggi. On August 23rd, the Times reported the result of every match in the Solheim Cup golf competition in Sugar Grove, Illinois, and the results of every game in the Little League World Series. Not one word on the outcome of Diaz-Malignaggi.
On August 26th, there was a fight card at B.B. King’s (three blocks from the Times offices). On the day of the fights, the Times found space to announce that Gary Rizza had been named trainer by Guilford College; Jay Myers was the new women’s assistant soccer coach at Manhattan College; Mark Paluszak was the new men’s and women’s golf coach at Otterbein College, and Peachy Trader had resigned as women’s basketball coach at Thiel College. But there was no mention of that night’s fights.
On August 27th, the Times reported that Scott Fitzgerald had been named assistant sports information director at Goucher College; Steve Bintz was the new men’s and women’s assistant volleyball coach at Pfeiffer College; and Catherine Barry was the new assistant field hockey coach at Union College. No fight results were reported.
Also on August 27th, Bob Arum held a press conference at Madison Square Garden to announce an October 10th MSG card featuring Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa. The next day, the Times didn’t mention it. But it did report the result of every match contested at the Pilot Pen tennis tournament in New Haven, Connecticut.
Nor was there any mention in the Times of Vitali Klitschko’s September 26th WBC heavyweight title defense against Chris Arreola.
The only staff-written article that the Times devoted to professional boxing as an ongoing sport during the 100-day study period was a July 14th piece on Showtime’s “super six” super-middleweight tournament.
So what sports did the Times cover during the period in question?
Certain events (Wimbledon and the U.S Open in tennis; the British Open and PGA in golf) received saturation coverage. So did the Tour de France. In fact, the Times ran 78 articles about cycling during the 100-day study period (three times as many as it devoted to boxing).
Baseball (which was in season the entire one hundred days) was the dominant sport in terms of coverage. The Times ran 1,173 pieces (490 full stories and 683 briefs) about America’s national pastime. The National Football League, despite not starting its season until early September, was in second place (164 full stories and 416 briefs).
Boxing was far down the list.
During the study period, there were feature stories in the Times sports section about the hockey program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha; a rodeo participant named Lee Ray, who ranks 22nd among team-roping heelers on the National Rodeo Tour; rugby in Colorado; lumberjacking; APBA (a baseball board game played with dice); the Moose Moss Aquatic Center in Moultrie, Georgia; the Professional Windsurfer Association Slalom World Cup in Turkey; the Meadowcreek High School football team in Norcross, Georgia; and trout fishing in Calgary.
Each of these articles was longer than anything the Times ran about professional boxing.
The Times also reported match-by-match tennis results from the ECM Open in Prague; the Mercedes Open in Stuttgart; the Catella Swedish Open in Bastad; the Internazionali Femminil di Tennis Di Palermo in Sicily; the Slovenia Open in Portoroz; the Nuernberger Gastein in Austria; the Guangzhou Women’s Open in China; the Open de Moselle in Metz; the ATP BRC Open Romania in Bucharest; the Tashkent Open in Uzbekistan; the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo; the PTT Thailand Open in Bangkok; and the Proton Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur.
Given this data, is it too much to ask that the Times devote some agate type and one-inch “briefs” to the results of major fights?
In some ways, the lack of boxing coverage at the Times has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The paper’s readers care less about the sport because the Times gives them less reason to care.
In dismissing boxing, the Times is ignoring the growth of the ever-expanding Hispanic market.
And most significantly, at present, the Times couldn’t cover complex boxing issues on short notice if it wanted to. Tim Smith left the paper nine years ago. Richard Sandomir is an excellent journalist, but his primary beat is the interaction between sports and television. It has been many years since he made regular stops on the boxing tour.
Tom Jolly has built staff around versatile journalists who can report with authority on a variety of subjects. But he doesn’t have a “go to” person on staff who is grounded in the sport and business of boxing.
As for the future; the Times is planning to cover Pacquiao-Cotto. The paper has assigned Greg Bishop (a respected writer whose area of expertise is football) to report on Pacquiao’s iconic status in the Philippines and on the fight itself.
But that’s only one event. At the very least, it would be nice to see the Times tell its readers the result of this Saturday’s super-middleweight tournament fight between Arthur Abraham and Jermain Taylor (which will take place in Berlin in the early evening New York time).
And more important, the Times should reconsider the belief that “boxing today doesn’t have a lot of stories that transcend the sport, and it doesn’t have a lot of personalities who demand attention.”
One doesn’t have to look beyond New York to find personalities and stories that Times readers could appreciate.
Start with John Duddy. The movie-star-handsome Irishman came to New York in 2003 to pursue his ring career. Since then, he has fashioned a 27 and 1 record with 17 knockouts and fought at Madison Square Garden eight times.
On January 30, 1972 (a day known as "Bloody Sunday"), fourteen unarmed demonstrators were shot to death by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Northern Ireland. One of the dead was seventeen-year-old John Francis Duddy. His nephew is now a symbol of reconciliation.
"He was my uncle," the fighter says. "That’s my history, and there’s nothing I can do about it. His name was John Francis Duddy, and my name is John Francis Duddy. He was a fighter and I’m a fighter, but I didn’t become a fighter because he was a fighter. My father never talked at length about my uncle when I was growing up. It wasn’t a political home. We were taught to treat people with respect regardless of race, creed, or color. My uncle’s death was a tragedy, but it happened years before I was born."
Then there’s Paulie Malignaggi, also from New York. Parts of Paulie’s childhood were like scenes from a horror movie. Malignaggi has style and he never shuts up. Every time he enters the ring, he’s like a man with a penknife facing an opponent armed with an AK-47. That because Paulie can’t punch (only five knockouts in 29 fights). But he can box his ass off. He’s a former IBF junior-welterweight champion who’s reaching for the brass ring again.
On August 22nd, as noted earlier, Malignaggi journeyed to Houston to fight hometown hero Juan Diaz. Before the fight, Paulie told everyone who would listen that the referee and judges were going to rob him. Given past history, he had reason to mistrust the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (which would oversee the fight). Sure enough . . .
And don’t forget 22-year-old Danny Jacobs; an 18-and-0 middleweight with an ingratiating personality, who’s one of the most-promising prospects in boxing. Jacobs might fizzle out and fall short of the mark. Or he might be the best fighter to come out of New York since Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe.
The New York Times is a great newspaper and a treasured American institution. But it could, and should, do a better job of covering boxing.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. His most recent book (“An Unforgiving Sport”) has been published by The University of Arkansas Press.