The headline doesn’t flinch: “Can a Boxer Return to the Ring After Killing?” But the resulting piece, published last November in The Atlantic, enthralls. It’s a moving profile of Charles Conwell, so haunted by his fatal fight with Patrick Day that he asks a pastor if he’s going to hell. Stern also delivers a sensitive profile of Day, a former star trying to summon the promise of his earlier career. Along the way, he weaves in a nimble history of boxing’s deadly past, and a looming question mark about a sport whose predicted demise never seems to arrive.
The story grew out of a cable-sports chyron and an offhand comment, but Stern said it took doggedness to pursue, especially since he had no prior knowledge of the sport.
“I watched maybe 100 old fights,” he told me. “I read nearly a dozen books. I inhaled all the magazine reporting and academic research and Wikipedia articles I could find. In short, I went overboard.”
That approach extended to other avenues, such as Stern’s unannounced visit with Patrick Day’s family, and the surprising events before it that that led to the moving interview.
“You never know how people will react until you give them the chance to,” Stern said.
Stern agreed to an interview and annotation with Nieman Storyboard. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me a bit about how you joined The Atlantic, and what your role is there.
I’d done a few short freelance pieces for The Atlantic when I was still in school, and I joined full-time right after graduation, in the summer of 2019, as part of a yearlong fellowship program. When the fellowship ended, I was hired to stay on as an assistant editor with the science-tech-health section, and I’ve been in that role for the year and a half since. I do a combination of writing, editing, fact-checking, and whatever else is asked of me.
How did the story on Charles Conwell and Patrick Day come to you?
I was watching a game on ESPN one night, and I saw a chyron at the bottom of the screen about a boxer who had died after being knocked out in the ring. Or maybe he was still in critical condition at that point. In any case, I fixated on this. I kept thinking about what it must be like for the surviving boxer, to have killed another person almost literally with your bare hands and yet not be culpable in any ordinary sense of the word. Eventually I mentioned this to Ross Andersen, a deputy editor at The Atlantic, and he encouraged me to go after the story.
Please describe the general reporting, writing and editing process for this story.
The short answer is long — two years just about from conception to publication, which was partly because of the pandemic and partly because I did on this piece was on top of my regular daily responsibilities. The long answer is that it began in late 2019 or early 2020, not long after the Conwell-Day fight. Conwell and his team, much to my surprise, agreed pretty much immediately to participate and give me whatever access I needed. I met them for the first time at their gym in Toledo, Ohio, and then in early February I attended Charles’ first fight after Day’s death. I hung around with him, his camp, and his family for a few days in the lead-up to the fight When the pandemic started the next month, my reporting ground to a halt for a while. I ended up going to three more of Charles’ fights, and I also visited him a few more times. I started writing at the end of 2020 and submitted my first full draft that spring, though I was still waiting on a number of FOIA requests and had good deal more reporting to do, mainly on Day. I kept reporting pretty much until the piece closed in October.
What editors or other staff members did you work with on this story, and how much did it change, if much, in editing?
My primary editor on the piece was Ross Andersen. If not for his enthusiasm and guidance, I might not have done the piece at all. Denise Wills, John Swansburg, Janice Wolly and Jeff Goldberg also provided invaluable edits. So too did Susan Banta, whose eagle-eyed fact-checking saved me much embarrassment. Christine Walsh and Luise Strauss masterminded the art, and the great Devin Yalkin (not technically staff member, but it would be a crime not to mention him) shot the photos. Paul Bisceglio gave me some crucial reporting advice early in the process. Over the course of the editing process, the piece got a bit shorter (and much, much better), but structurally it didn’t change all that much. Most of the edits were about streamlining things, paring back the language, or clarifying ambiguities. The biggest changes from draft to draft were the result of new reporting, mainly about Day.
What did you learn from this story you or other journalists can apply in the future?
From the beginning, I felt it was important to include Day’s family in the piece, and I tried for months to reach them without any luck. Eventually I got in touch with one of Day’s brothers, who told me over text that the family didn’t want to talk. I had already met with a number of his closest friends and done several long interviews with his coach, and I was about ready to call it quits. My editors were not: They wanted me to show up at the Days’ house in Freeport — the dreaded doorstop. I thought that if I were in the Days’ position and a reporter showed up at my door, I would probably tell them to get the hell off my property.
When I knocked and rang, I got no response. I could see there were windows open, though, and I thought I heard someone puttering around upstairs, so I waited 15 minutes or so then tried the door again. Still nothing. Just as I was leaving, a neighbor happened to step outside. I asked him if he knew whether the Days were home, and he said sure, he thought so. I told him they hadn’t answered their door, at which point he marched over onto their lawn and started shouting to Mrs. Day through the open upstairs window — “Lisa! Lisa!” — saying there was a young man here who wanted a word with her. She and her son Jean-philippe came to the door downstairs, and Jean and I spoke on the porch for more than an hour. He did not tell me to get the hell off his property; to my surprise, he was appreciative that I’d come all this way visit in person. That, he said, was not something the other reporters had done.
I think there are at least three lessons here: 1) Show up in person, 2) Luck is everything, and 3) You never know how people will react until you give them the chance to.
We ask this of everyone: What are you reading for inspiration (can be journalism, fiction … anything you’d like)?
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Stern’s answers in blue. To read the story without the annotations, click the Hide Annotations button in the right-hand menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile device.
CAN A BOXER RETURN TO THE RING AFTER KILLING?
In 2019, Charles Conwell unintentionally ended Patrick Day’s life with his fists. Now he’s trying to make sense of his life, and boxing itself.
He had once looked like a star: No. 1 amateur welterweight, Olympic alternate, undefeated in his first 10 professional fights. But boxing is unforgiving. One bad loss to a weak fighter, and the glow was gone. Now not even a comeback can restore it. Just a few months ago, he was overwhelmed by a Dominican prospect who called himself “El Caballo Bronco.” On this October night in 2019, at the Wintrust Arena, in Chicago, there is a sense that the 27-year-old Day is fighting for a good deal more than the mid-tier title belt officially under dispute. If this bout does not go well, Day’s career could be over. After a lede that plunges the reader into the ring, you stop long enough to give us some sense of who Day is, and where he is in his boxing career. Why did you pause the action for that at this point? On a very practical level, I think this background material is essential to understanding why Day is even still in the ring at this point in the fight. He’s tired, he’s fading, he’s been knocked down twice already, and yet he’s not just trying to make it to the finish line, as most fighters would be — he’s looking for a way to win. This is a moment of desperation. It’s important to grasp that. I also think, more generally, that it’s important to for readers to know something about the person they’re about to see die, especially when the death itself is described in such detail.
And it is not going well: Day went down in the fourth round and again in the eighth, and he’s way behind on points. “You got no choice,” his coach told him before the final round began. Either he scores a knockout in the next three minutes or he loses.
So he presses. He jabs, then hooks, then jabs again, but his blows all deflect off Charles Conwell. At 21 years old, Conwell is everything Day once was and more: an 11-time national champion, a 2016 Olympian, a perfect 10–0 since he went pro. He is a defensive virtuoso, but he hits hard enough to crumple a body like cardboard, and even as he repels Day’s blows, he stalks forward in a spring-loaded crouch, peering over the tops of his gloves with a kind of predatory patience.
Conwell knows that he can wait this round out. The fight is already his. But he also knows, as all boxers do, that people don’t pay to see a 10-round decision. They pay to see a knockout. Sometimes, before fights, Conwell will write himself a short note to hang above his bed. Before this one he wrote I WILL KO MY NEXT OPPONENT AND DOMINATE. The note is a perfectly placed detail. How did you arrive at that? I think the note captures the pressure Charles is under, the incentive structure he’s operating within, and his conciousness of both. He knows he has to go for the knockout, because that’s what’s expected of him, because thats how he advances his career. But he doesn’t want to hurt people. That isn’t something that comes naturally to him. And so he has to write himself a note. I wanted the reader to know this about Charles before they see the actual killing.
Conwell throws a straight right and an uppercut left, and another right and another left, the punches flowing together in quicksilver combinations, and all Day can do is bear-hug him. But Conwell will not have it. He shoves Day off. Day tries to wheel away, as he has done all night, but this time his legs fail him, and Conwell is ready for the maneuver. As Day retreats, Conwell stuns him with an overhand right. Day staggers. His guard falls away. Another overhand right whistles by his cheek, but a big left hook hits him square on the chin and he collapses onto the canvas. To get writing-nerdy for a moment, I like the rhythm of this paragraph, with its mix of longer sentences (combinations, if you will) broken up by jab-like shorter ones. How conscious are you of rhythm in your writing, if at all? Painfully so. Maybe excessively. I can’t say that I was thinking specifically about the rhythm of punches when I wrote this paragraph (though I like that idea, now that you mention it!), but I’m constantly reading sentences and paragraphs out loud to test how they sound. In moments of acute neurosis, I’ll actually map out the scansion.
The referee doesn’t even bother with the 10-count. It is clear that this fight is over. The crowd is roaring, and Conwell is pounding his chest. He vaults onto the ropes and flexes his biceps, then leaps down and flashes an electric smile.
A man shoves his way into the ring. His voice is sharp with panic. “Get away! Get—get away from him!” Only now does Conwell turn and see that Day has not moved. EMTs climb through the ropes. Day’s chest heaves and heaves, but he does not blink, just stares glassy-eyed into the floodlights. The crowd has gone quiet. The house music plays on. This scene is so specific and vivid, but you weren’t there at the time. What kind of reporting did it take to reconstruct it? The crucial source here was the telecast, which the helpful folks at DAZN (the sports streaming service that aired the fight) were kind enough to share with me. That’s where most of the details in this paragraph come from, though I also interviewed a number of people who were at the fight.
Charles Conwell stands in the neutral corner, rocking from one foot to the other. He blinks a lot. Someone points a camera in his face. He looks out at the crowd and up toward the lights and anywhere but into the lens. He looks across the ring, where physicians are crowding around Day. One checks his watch.
Conwell looks the way fighters sometimes do after suffering a big knockout, as they struggle to stand, desperate and uncomprehending. He has never felt this way before. He has never been knocked out, and while he has knocked out many opponents, he has never, until this fight, knocked one out cold. He looks at the body convulsing on the mat. And for the first time in his career, he is afraid.
When Patrick Day’s head hit the canvas, it bounced once, then again, then settled and was still. A blood vessel had burst in the thin space between his brain and its protective covering beneath the skull, and now this space was filling with blood, compressing the brain. Oxygen flow weakened. Neurons began to blink out.
The ringside physicians stabilized Day’s spine and held an oxygen mask to his mouth, then the EMTs loaded him onto a stretcher and passed it carefully through the ropes. On the way to the ambulance, he had a seizure. The EMTs tried to intubate him but could not insert the breathing tube. This unsettled the doctors at the hospital. Even five minutes without oxygen can do the brain permanent, catastrophic harm; nearly half an hour had passed before Day was finally intubated.
Conwell had a cut above his right eye stitched and then made his way to the locker room, where he changed into street clothes. When he heard about Day’s condition, he broke down in tears.
At the hospital, doctors removed part of Day’s skull to alleviate pressure on his brain. His camp prayed in the waiting room. Joe Higgins, his coach and manager, wore the red-and-blue silken robe that Day had entered the ring in. The next morning, his parents and one brother arrived. Then his other brothers, his friends, and other fighters. They sat in the waiting room and took turns visiting him. “It was very, very surreal,” Higgins says. “Being in there with him and feeling his hands and his muscles—they’re all still there. But he wasn’t. We sat there for two days and prayed for a miracle.”
Conwell flew back to his training camp in Toledo, Ohio, and drove home to Cleveland the next day. His girlfriend was waiting to greet him. When she started to unpack his black gloves and bloodstained uniform, he asked her to take them away. He said they scared him. Did Conwell tell you this detail, or did his girlfriend? She did.
He kept his phone on silent and hardly left the house. He couldn’t sleep. When he tried to watch a fight on TV, his heart started racing, and his hands started sweating. He felt like he was having a panic attack. He turned it off and told his girlfriend he didn’t like boxing anymore. He said he was done.
Two days after the fight, he wrote Patrick Day a letter. He didn’t know how to reach Day’s family, so he posted it to Instagram in the hope that it would make its way to them. He cried as he wrote.
Dear Patrick Day,
I never meant for this to happen to you … I replay the fight over and over in my head thinking what if this never happened and why did it happen to you … I see you everywhere I go and all I hear is wonderful things about you. I thought about quitting boxing but I know that’s not what you would want. I know that you were a fighter at heart so I decided not to but to fight and win a world title because that’s what you wanted … With Compassion, Charles Conwell
Two days later his girlfriend called to tell him she was pregnant, and for the first time since the fight, he felt happy. That evening, the two of them were at the mall when his phone rang again. Patrick Day had died. This is a deeply felt story, especially because Charles Conwell was so open. What was the interview process like with him specifically? Charles, as I mention in the piece, is not a talkative guy. At certain moments I felt that he was as virtuosic at parrying questions as he is at parrying punches. That said, he was unfailingly cooperative and remarkably generous with his time. We spent many, many hours together over a period of almost two years and, though there was never a breaking-of-the-emotional-dam-type moment, he definitely grew more candid as we got to know each other better. We did our first long interview at his gym in Toledo, and a couple more sit-downs in Cleveland, but we spent the bulk of our time together on the road, in hotels in the days before and after fights. Mostly I just stood in the corner observing and let Charles and his team go about their business. The first time I did this, in Indiana, Charles told me that I reminded him of Joe from the Netflix series “You.” Only when I got around to watching the show did I realize that Joe is a psychopathic serial killer. When I pointed out to Charles that this comparison was not terribly flattering, he assured me that he just meant I was quiet and observant.
Patrick Day’s father was a doctor. His mother was a multilingual secretary at the United Nations. Most boxers come from poverty. Day did not.
His parents were Haitian immigrants who settled in Freeport, Long Island, in a pleasant little burgundy-and-yellow ranch house so close to Baldwin Bay that, some evenings, you could feel the salt breeze blowing off the water. They had four sons and named the youngest Patrick. Then they divorced, and Patrick’s father moved out, but Patrick never did. He lived all 27 years of his life in that house by the bay, made honor roll there and earned his college degree there. I particularly admired the “all 27 years of his life” detail, which reminds us of the sudden end of Patrick’s life. Do you remember how you came to write that detail specifically? This is a paragraph that evolved a lot over the course of the writing and editing process. It started out fairly meager, then filled out as I learned more about Day. That specific detail, I believe, came in fairly late.
On a summer day in 2006, at the age of 14, he walked into a neighbor’s open garage and started hitting an old Everlast heavy bag. He was a quiet freshman, a Dragon Ball Z fanatic who sometimes got picked on at school. I was struck by how much time and attention you spent building a profile of Patrick Day; how much of your reporting was focused on him? Were there any challenges specifically associated with that part of the story? The major challenge was that for a long time it seemed as though I wouldn’t be able to speak with the Day family at all. So for roughly 90 percent of the time I was working on the piece I was operating on the assumption that I would write the Day section based only on publicly available information and interviews with friends and coaches. I’d spent a huge amount of time traveling to meet Day’s friends and scouring the internet for anything I could find about him. I’d gone through all of his tweets and Facebook posts several times and watched every interview he’d ever given. Thankfully, I was able to speak with Jean-philippe in the end. I felt strongly from the beginning of the reporting process that this story would not work without a deep focus on Patrick. I don’t think it’s possible to really appreciate the tragedy of the situation or, for that matter, why it was so traumatic for Charles without an understanding of what — of who — was lost.
He’d never boxed before, but his father used to buy Mike Tyson fights on pay-per-view. And one of his older brothers had started training at a nearby gym. As Day hit the bag, his neighbor appeared in the doorway. Joe Higgins was a former New York City firefighter who could still remember how the air at Ground Zero had tasted like metal and sparkled at night. He’d lost a brother there, and he figured he might die soon, because so many of his crewmates were getting sick. Since 1992, he’d run the Freeport Police Athletic League Boxing Club. He showed Day how to jab and throw a simple one-two and told him, “Don’t do nothing more than this, and you do it 150,000 times.” Day stayed all afternoon, then returned the next day, and the day after that.
Higgins wanted to bring Day to the gym, but first he would have to speak with Day’s mother, a Christian who did not tolerate violence. She told Higgins that she did not want her son to box. She worried he would be injured. “I understand, Mrs. Day,” he told her. “He’s just gonna come and work out.” By the end of the year, he was entering tournaments, and winning them. Six years later, he went pro. His gym-mates idolized him. “He could be working on something by himself, and it would still seem like the light was on him,” one said. And then he’d come talk to you, and you’d feel like the light was on you, and for a moment you were at the center of the world.
His mother refused to watch him fight. When other family members tried to talk to him about the risks of head injuries, he got annoyed—not because he denied the risks but because he’d already taken them into account. Once, after his brother Jean-philippe voiced concern about brain injuries, they didn’t speak for a week. “He wasn’t ignorant about that,” his girlfriend, MaryEllen Dankenbrink, says. “He knew there were consequences.” But he never thought about them in the ring. That was part of what he loved about fighting. In the heat of combat, he told her, everything else fell away.
Day understood that he was not like other boxers. He said as much at the press conference before his fight with Conwell: “People look at me, look at my demeanor, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re such a nice guy, well spoken, why do you choose to box?’ But, you know, it’s about what’s in your heart, internally, and I have a fighter’s soul, a fighter’s spirit, and I love this sport … Hopefully you guys enjoy the show that me and Charles are going to put on. It’s going to be an entertaining fight. You don’t want to miss it.”
Day was confident. Young boxers with stainless records didn’t faze him. He knew they could be beaten, because he’d been one of them and he’d been beaten. Coming out of the amateur ranks, he’d been the top fighter in his weight class. He was undefeated in his first 10 professional bouts. When he lost his 11th in a close decision to an exceptionally tall super middleweight with an elastic reach and a near-perfect record, that was all right—an off night, a bad break. But three fights later, when a journeyman with fewer wins than losses beat him in just 79 seconds, that was different. His promoter quickly dropped him. In the locker room after the fight, he rushed to Dankenbrink to explain what had happened. They’d just started dating, and this was the first time she’d seen him fight. “He thought I would leave him because he lost,” she says.For the first time in his career, it seemed like boxing just might not work out. He’d always been a good student—his gym-mates called him “Straight-A Day”—so he enrolled at an online university and earned a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness. He wanted to have a backup plan. The prospect of having to use it terrified him. “That was his nightmare,” Dankenbrink says. Boxing was his identity. He loved it, he once told his brother, “because it tells you exactly who you are.”
But the golden-boy days were over. Now he was a B-side fighter, an opponent, the guy promoters brought in to give their top prospects a good workout and a résumé boost. He hoped to resurrect his career, and over the next three years, he won six straight fights, all against highly regarded prospects who by rights should have beaten him. “I love humbling these undefeated guys with the big egos who think they’re invincible,” he told a reporter. “In life, nobody is invincible.”
His streak ended in June 2019 against “El Caballo Bronco,” the Dominican fighter, who looked more like a heavyweight than a super welterweight. Next came Conwell. From the opening bell, he was landing big punches. This unnerved Day, an elusive fighter unaccustomed to getting knocked around. In the fourth round, Conwell floored him with a straight right to the chin, but Day hopped up immediately. It was only a flash knockdown. In the eighth, though, a hard one-two left him sprawled against the ropes and sent his mouthpiece spinning into the crowd.
It was at this moment that Higgins thought, No more. I should stop this fight. But at the end of the round, Day jogged back to the corner. His eyes looked clear, and his legs looked good. Higgins decided not to throw in the towel. Keep your stance angled and your guard tight, and tie him up when you need to. Day did all of this, and fought the ninth round to a stalemate.
In the corner before the tenth, Higgins knew a win was unlikely—Day would need a knockout. But if he can give me a round in the tenth round like the ninth round, Higgins thought, he goes out with respectability. Day would win the round, and on the plane home Higgins would suggest that he retire. With his degree and his title belts and his raw charisma, Day could get a job as a health-and-wellness instructor, maybe at a school. The kids would think he was so cool.
Day rose from his corner for the beginning of the tenth round. Higgins laid a black-gloved hand on his neck, tenderly. “You good?” he asked in a low voice.
“Yeah,” Day answered.
He looked Higgins in the eye. Higgins touched his cheek. The bell rang.
Conwell wept at the news of Day’s death. This is a striking transition. You give us a final, freighted moment before the tenth round, then whisk us immediately to Conwell getting the devastating news. How much work did you put into crafting this passage? I spent a lot of time on the final exchange between Higgins and Day right before the section break. Those paragraphs went through about as much tweaking and finessing as any in the piece. The transition itself was more straightforward. I’m a compulsive outliner — can’t start writing until I know where I’m going — and it just made intuitive sense to me to cut the second section of the piece with Charles hearing the news of Day’s death, then step back and take the reader through Day’s life, and then pick up where the previous section left off, with Charles’ reaction. He had conceived a child and killed a man and learned of both on the same day, hours apart. At first, he thought maybe it was reincarnation, but later he decided it was only chance, because the baby turned out to be a girl, and anyway he was not a particularly religious man.
His phone rang all the way back from the mall and kept ringing when he got home. It was his mom, his dad, his brothers, his coaches. He shouldn’t blame himself, they said. He was just doing his job. It was just boxing. But he kept thinking, Did I really do that?
He’d never liked telling people that he was a fighter, and now when strangers stopped him to ask, “Hey, are you that guy who boxes?,” he’d say, “Nah, that’s not me, I don’t box,” and for a moment they’d stare, but then they’d leave him alone. One time, he’d noticed a man eyeing him from across the barbershop. Eventually the man asked if he boxed, and this time he couldn’t deny it—everyone else at the shop already knew. The man didn’t say anything more. He must know what I’ve done, Conwell thought.
Several major news outlets had covered his open letter to Day, and since then hundreds of people had commented on it. Most were supportive. Some were cruel. He knew he shouldn’t read their comments, but he did: “Go retire before you kill more people”; “U need to be in prison for murder”; “I hope u go to jail and get raped for killing someone”; “Bro you killed him”; “You killed Patrick”; “You killer”; “Killer.”
On a bright September afternoon in 1842, the Englishman Chris Lilly and the Irishman Tom McCoy met in a makeshift arena on the eastern bank of the Hudson River for a bare-knuckle boxing match. Two thousand spectators looked on. McCoy had not wanted to fight, but when he’d rebuffed the challenge weeks earlier, Lilly had punched him in the face, and so here they were. That morning, McCoy had vowed “to win or die.”
For a time, it seemed like he might win. He knocked Lilly down early. But by the 30th round—which, back then, meant the 30th knockdown—it was all Lilly. Forty rounds later, McCoy staggered and gasped and spat blood, and some in the crowd cried, “For God’s sake, take him away!,” but the doctor did nothing, and McCoy’s second snapped back, “He ain’t half licked yet!” So the fight went on. McCoy wouldn’t quit. In the 120th round, he fell on his back and did not get up. The first casualty of the American prize ring drowned in his own blood. At what point in the process did you decide to provide this context for death in boxing, and why did you feel it was needed? You always hate to interrupt a narrative with history/background/context, but in this case I thought such an interruption was merited for a few reasons. The first and most important is that I was pretty sure that in the course of reading a 7,000-word piece on the death of a boxer, people were naturally going to have some basic questions about deaths in boxing more generally. Has this ever happened before? How often? Etc. I certainly had these questions when I first started my reporting. So I thought I’d better answer them, and I’d better not wait too long to do so. Second, I wanted to situate boxing in American culture more broadly, since the overlap between The Atlantic’s readership and, say, Top Rank’s viewership is, I suspect, rather small. This is not, in the end, a piece about boxing; it’s a piece about human behavior. I wanted it to be accessible to anyone, not just boxing junkies, and so I needed to give readers a sort of miniature version of the crash course I gave myself. Third, I wanted to introduce or at least prime the reader for some of the themes that would appear later in the piece.
More than 2,000 fighters have since died in the ring. They have died in backroom brawls and at intercollegiate competitions and, occasionally, after fights viewed on live television. Several rule changes have made the sport safer now than it once was, but it is not safe: Most professional fighters suffer brain injuries. About nine or 10 still die each year. How did you research this paragraph and the rest of the historical material? I read all the books and magazine reporting and academic research I could get my hands on, and whenever I came across something that seemed worth including in the piece, I added it to a document specifically for historical research. By the time I sat down to write, that document was about as long as the entire piece ended up being, so there were some tough calls to make.
There has long been a sense, on account of this carnage, that boxing is merely the vulgar vestige of a less enlightened time, destined to go the way of bloodletting and cockfighting. After the Lilly-McCoy bout it seemed as though it might: 18 men faced manslaughter charges, including Lilly, the seconds, and the ringside physician. The jury deliberated for three hours before convicting all of them, and for a time boxing virtually disappeared in America. Within five years it was back—it has always come back.
By the 1920s, it had made its way from the seedy peripheries of American culture to the roaring center. When Gene Tunney fought Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title in 1926, The New York Times ran a banner headline and six front-page stories about the match. By the 1950s, boxing was one of the most watched sports on television, and by the 1970s, Muhammad Ali was the most famous athlete in the world.
Over the years, boxing’s demise has been prophesied again and again, but each time the sport has come back. In 1965, the New York Times editorial board forecast that “a sport as sick as this one surely cannot survive much longer.” More than half a century later, the members of that editorial board are dead, and boxing has survived. I like this sentence’s bluntness; do you remember anything about how you wrote it? I first came across that quote from the Times editorial in David Remnick’s brilliant book on Muhammad Ali, “King of the World,” and I wondered whether any of the board members who wrote that sentence had survived. They hadn’t, it turned out, and that irony seemed to pretty well epitomize the folly of all those moral optimists who through the years had assumed the sport would fade out.
But it is not what it once was. Today, few people can name the heavyweight champion. Fights have retreated to pay-per-view. And the ones that generate the most hype usually involve aging titans necromanced out of retirement or B-list celebrities clamoring for attention—sometimes both. These are not so much fights as circus acts. “Necromanced” is undoubtedly my favorite word choice in this story. Do you recall how you landed on it? Thank you! It’s hard to say how/why I thought to deploy the word here specificaly, but what I can say is that I keep a notebook full of words I come across and like, and so that’s how I knew the word at all.
Boxing no longer faces any real risk of extinction on account of its brutality. Now the threat comes from the opposite flank. Why watch boxing when you could watch mixed martial arts? Why settle for mere punching when fighters elbow and kick and choke each other into submission? Boxing, once both celebrated and reviled as the most primal of all sports, has been made to look a little prudish, a little repressed. Besides access and cooperation from key sources, what challenges did this story present for you, and how did you approach them? The first and maybe greatest challenge was that before I started reporting this story I knew nothing about boxing. A professor of mine always used to talk about this idea of comparative advantage — the idea that you should go for the story where you already have some sort of leg up, some personal connection or prior familiarity. If anything, I had a comparative disadvantage with this story, so the first thing I did was try to correct that. None of this prepared me for the visceral experience of sitting ringside at an actual fight, but I at least understood what was meant when Day’s coach made reference to the No Más fight or when Conwell’s coach told him to stop worrying about his opponent timing him and just open up already.
In a way, it always has been. It has always felt the need to justify itself by appealing to something loftier, to be more than violence for violence’s sake. It is the sweet science. It is the manly art. It is, as David Belasco, the famous theater producer, once put it, “show business with blood.” For years, each big fight was a parable; an allegory; a morality play staged, quite literally, on canvas. Such grandiose pretensions have come to sound a little silly, but the pageantry persists. Just look at the referee, in his starched shirt and bow tie. What boxing promises spectators is the chance to indulge their appetite for violence without offending their self-image as good people. For the most part, it delivers on this promise. Except, that is, on those rare occasions when something goes very, very wrong.
Charles Conwell Sr. wanted desperately to be a fighter, but he didn’t have the stuff. He trained and sparred in the basement of the local Salvation Army with a coach everyone called “The Godfather,” but he never fought a single bout. He always had the desire to box, but he had neither the discipline to work at it consistently, nor a disciplinarian to make him. His own father wasn’t around much.
Conwell Sr. became a brick mason. He bought a house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and he hung a heavy bag in the living room and another in the basement, and when he had children, he taught them to punch, same as he taught them to walk and read. The neighborhood kids came by too. They’d try on the gloves, and he’d show them the right way to hit the bag. They started calling him “Coach Chuck,” then just “Coach.” By the time Charles Jr. was born, people he’d known for years couldn’t have told you his real name.
His first four children all tried their hand at boxing, but none of them took to it. The next two, Charles and his half brother Isaiah, started competing when they were 11 and 7 years old, respectively. Charles’s earliest memory is play-boxing with his older brothers with cheap gloves from Walmart—and losing badly. He and Isaiah would hit the bags that hung around the house with the gloves they got each year for Christmas. When they were older, their father asked if they’d like to box for real, and they said they would. The one condition, he said, was that if they started, they couldn’t quit until they were 18. They agreed.
Charles hated it at first. He wasn’t used to the hard work, and training sessions made his whole body hurt. He wanted to quit, but his father wouldn’t let him. In the backyard, Chuck hung lights and a third heavy bag from a tree so that the boys could train after dark. Some nights, at 3 or 4 a.m., he would wake them and make them run laps around a nearby graveyard in the headlights of his pickup truck. Other nights he would dream of some new combination, and when he awoke in the middle of the night, the vision still ablaze in his mind, he would rouse Charles and Isaiah so the sons could lace up their gloves and animate the father’s dreams. Again with a writing-nerd question: After “necromance” a few paragraphs earlier, and the dry sentence about the editorial board, you place us in a graveyard with members of the Conwell family. How deliberate were you, if at all, of placing death-related imagery and language in the story, even in sections that weren’t ostensibly about Patrick Day’s death? Not deliberate at all, I have to admit! I hadn’t noticed the recurrence until you pointed it out. I guess I was just in a morbid mood.
Charles got good. He started winning fights, and he kept winning fights, and in time he came to love it—whether the winning or the fighting, it’s hard to say. All boxers have nicknames, and his, at first, was “The Body Snatcher.” Then one day he was pounding some hapless opponent, and his father started shouting, “Bad News! You got ’em, Bad News!” and he kept shouting it at the next fight and the one after that too, until his son became Charles “Bad News” Conwell.
By ninth grade, Charles had begun telling his classmates he wasn’t going to college. He spent most of high school on the road for tournaments and rarely went with his friends to parties or basketball games. Mostly this did not bother him. He does not drink or smoke, and he has always been reserved. He is, in his words, “the Kawhi Leonard of the boxing game.” But even so, he occasionally chafed in high school at the strictures of his vocation and wondered, Why can’t I just do normal-people stuff? “I don’t think he knows how to have regular fun,” his mother says, “because all he’s ever done was box.”
He was in Miami, he was in Morocco, he was on the news, and then he was walking in the opening ceremony at the Rio Olympics, just two months after he walked at his graduation. The school still displays his photo and one of his title belts in a trophy case.
Chuck was at every fight, even after Charles moved to Toledo to train with Otha Jones Jr., an elite coach, at his gym. After one bout, the three of them convened in their casino hotel room for a midnight film session among unfolded clothes and grease-stained pizza boxes. Charles had fought well enough—he’d commanded the ring from the bell and finished his opponent in the ninth round with a nose-breaking uppercut. But for stretches, the fight had looked like a stalemate. It was not a dominant performance, and did not make for good TV. This bothered Chuck: “The fuck is you doing, man!?” He turned to Jones. “You gotta cattle-prod him, man. I’m sorry, man, you gotta light a fire under this motherfucker’s ass!” Charles said nothing.
After they watched the video replay, Chuck turned back to Jones. “He’s mad at you now, but he’ll love you later,” he said, laughing. “If he wins, he’ll love you later.”
A defensive posture, the pastor thought. It was Sunday morning, an hour before the service started, and Bible school was still in session. The church halls were quiet. The pastor sat behind his desk, and Conwell sat on a couch across from him, hunched over a little, elbows on his knees. He’s only a child, the pastor thought, young enough to be my son. They made small talk. This scene is a particularly moving, intimate piece of reporting. What kind of reporting did you do for it? This scene comes almost entirely from one long interview I did with the pastor. In an early conversation I had with Charles, he’d repeatedly mentioned that talking to the pastor was a sort of turning point for him after the Day fight. He didn’t say much by way of specifics, but he did give me permission to ask the pastor about their meeting. This was a trend in my reporting: Charles would mention an encounter to me, and though he might not provide all that much detail, someone else would.
Conwell hadn’t been to church in years, but his mother, his father, and his grandmother had all suggested he seek spiritual counsel. “You’re going to be facing a lot of demons in your life,” they’d told him. And he was. He sometimes felt as though he should never fight again. He could not bear the thought of hurting anyone else. At random moments, he would think of Patrick Day and wonder, Is he looking down at me? Is he in the room?
“Your grandmother kind of explained to me what was going on,” the pastor said. “But tell me how you feel. What’s going on in your mind?” Conwell’s eyes started to well up. What he needed to know, he said, was whether he was going to hell. He had killed a man, and he was afraid that God would not forgive him.
The pastor assured him that God would. He spoke of grace and mercy and redemptive love. He said that if Conwell requested forgiveness, he would receive it. But even then, he said, Conwell must also forgive himself. “It was not in your heart to kill him. You’re a man who was doing your job.”
But Conwell wanted to be certain: Was the pastor sure he would not go to hell? Was he sure God would forgive him? The pastor reassured Conwell that he was, then rose and laid a hand on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and asked God to protect this fighter and grant him “peace as he moved on with his career.” He invited Conwell to come back anytime, and Conwell said he would. When he left the church, he felt lighter. He was ready to box again.
His promoters wanted to take things slow, so they scheduled a fight on a small card in Hammond, Indiana. The competition would be tame, the crowd small, the TV cameras absent—a perfect comeback bout. Conwell understood his promoters’ concerns. Some fighters came back fine after a killing; others could never hit the way they once had.
When he returned to the gym he looked tentative, and Jones said, “You ain’t look like you was … You gotta come on, B! You gotta go back to how you used to be!” Conwell wasn’t trying to hold back. He felt like he was hitting hard. He kept at it.
Every so often, the pastor would text him messages of encouragement, which he appreciated. But he couldn’t imagine returning to the church. “Maybe I should,” he says. “It’s hard, though. I just don’t want to feel—I know he’s not judging me, but it’s just hard to look at somebody. I feel like—I don’t know. I just—I don’t know.”
He’s never gone back.
God may have forgiven Charles Conwell, but Jean-philippe Day has not. How did you connect with Jean-philippe Day, and at what point did you decide to give him this stretch of the story? See above for the full story of how I connected with Jean-philippe, but the short version is that I showed up at his house and knocked on the door. We spoke for a little more than an hour, and by the end I knew he had to be in the story. I came back again the next week, and that time we spoke for about four hours. By that point, I’d already done multiple drafts of the story. It was pretty close to done, and so figuring out where and how to fit in the new material was a bit of a structural puzzle. I considered folding it into the earlier section about Day, but the chronology was all wrong; everything in that section was about Day’s life, and the new material was about what happened after his death. So it became it’s own section. I liked the idea of returning to Day later. I thought it gave the piece balance.
He has not forgiven him for the way he stood over Patrick in the moments after the knockout, or for the way his camp talked about his brother’s death as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a loss to be grieved. Nor has he forgiven Lou DiBella, Patrick’s promoter and Conwell’s too, for the way he profited at Patrick’s expense. Most of all, he has not forgiven Joe Higgins for taking the Conwell fight so soon after Patrick’s last loss, or for failing to stop the fight after the second knockdown, or for trying, since that night, Jean-philippe says, to cast himself as a victim, even a tragic hero.
Sometimes, Jean-philippe struggles to forgive himself. He had a bad feeling about the fight from the moment his brother mentioned it. “I just wish I could have been there that night, so I could have said something, or jumped into the ring and stopped the fight, or been there to catch his head when he fell,” he says. “But instead I was sitting in front of the TV like a fucking sap.”
His mother, his father, and his two other surviving brothers try not to think about all of this. Two years have passed, and they do not want to talk about the fight anymore, do not want to be drawn back into the emotional riptide. They are exhausted. Jean-philippe understands this, though he does not feel the same. He intends to talk about what happened “until I take my last breath.”
For the past two years he has been turning over in his mind the circumstances of Patrick’s death. He has come up with theories; he has questioned the cosmos; he has always run up, in the end, against the blank senselessness of what happened. In these moments, he wishes that his brother had died pushing his mother out of the way of oncoming traffic. That way at least his death would have meant something. But boxing matches, he knows, are not parables or allegories or morality plays. “To die in the ring,” he says, “means nothing.”
It was snowing when Conwell and his camp drove into Indiana. Fight night was three days away. The boxers all stayed at a truck-stop hotel where the concierge was always pissed off and someone had carved the words best fuck ever into the elevator doors and the quilts had little black-singed holes where guests had put out their cigarettes. The only store within walking distance was an old liquor shop across the iced-over parking lot. A sign out front advertised carry-out Jack. Conwell understood why he was here. But he sure as hell wasn’t fighting on another card like this ever again.
At the weigh-in he got his first look at his opponent. The guy he was originally supposed to fight had bailed at the last minute, and word around the camp, maybe apocryphal, was that he got scared when he heard about the Day fight. No matter—the promoters had lined up a replacement, a journeyman from Mexico named Ramses Agaton who’d lost 10 of his previous 15 fights. They’d called him up on Wednesday, flown him in from Mexico City on Thursday, and here he was on Friday. That morning, Conwell had watched one of Agaton’s old fights and said, “I can’t lose to this guy.”
Agaton evidently had not studied Conwell’s old fights, because he knew almost nothing about him, and the little he thought he knew—“he moves fast and he doesn’t punch hard”—was wrong. No one, it seemed, had thought it worth mentioning that the fighter he was about to face actually punched quite hard—hard enough to kill. Conwell had been training for a couple of months; Agaton appeared to have hardly trained at all. He had a visible paunch and was over the weight limit, but Conwell’s camp told the officials to let it slide.
After the weigh-in, Conwell and his team ate lunch at a Red Lobster—lobster rolls, shrimp platters, biscuits—and then had nothing to do but wait. Conwell ran on a treadmill and threw punches in the hotel gym, but mostly he lay on his unmade bed chewing gum and watching reality TV.
He would be all right tomorrow, he told himself. He would go in there and fight like he always did. Lead with the jab, break down the body, finish strong. In his mind he envisioned ending the fight with a heavy blow to the body—but he knew the crowd would not like that. You just can’t win in boxing, he thought. You go for the knockout—you must go for the knockout—and yet you have feelings. You strike your opponent down, and yet you wish him no harm. It must get easier with time, he thought.
Conwell wasn’t worried much about getting hurt himself. He trusted his defense. And later in his career, after he’d won all there was to win and made all the money he could ever want to make, if he started taking damage, he’d quit. He’d go into real estate, flip houses maybe—nothing to do with boxing. Unless his kids boxed, that is, but he’d much prefer that they didn’t. He doesn’t think any boxer would want their kids to fight. When asked whether his own parents should have let him, he pauses, then says, “At this point …” then trails off.
By nightfall, Conwell’s girlfriend and mother had joined him in his hotel room. The TV played softly. Conwell and his girlfriend sat side by side on the bed, and she ran one hand through his hair, and he held her other hand in his, and they murmured to each other in the low light. He sat up and shadowboxed a little. Then, to no one in particular, he said, “One fight can change your life.” Everyone was quiet. The TV filled the silence.
To step into a boxing ring, a fighter must convince himself that several things he knows to be true are, in fact, false. He must convince himself that the blows he sustains to his brain will not do irreparable damage and that the accretion of these blows will not, eventually, destroy him, as it has so many others. He must convince himself that his opponent is not altogether human, because otherwise how do you strike someone toward whom you bear no ill will, and strike him not just for show but savagely, to hurt him? Above all, he must convince himself that what goes on inside the ring and what goes on outside it are separate matters entirely, that the one has no relation to the other. And he can have no doubt, because doubt breeds hesitation, and in the ring, hesitation can be deadly.
Charles Conwell has never had much trouble with any of this. He always found it easy, he says, to “turn the switch on and off.” But that was before the Day fight. Now he has knocked out a boxer in the ring, and a human being has died in the hospital. The wall between the boxing ring and the real world has come down. Having been made to see in the worst way that all those things a boxer convinces himself are false are in fact true, he must again convince himself that they are false. He has killed a man with his fists, and now he must get back in the ring and punch another man in just the same way.
So he does the only thing he can do. He tells himself what he needs to believe, and the people around him do too: “Maybe there were some prior issues going on with the man.” “I’ve seen fighters get knocked out and take a harder punch than that and get right up.” “We really think it was something that happened prior to this. It didn’t have anything to do with us.”
Conwell has his own version: “I’ve fought hundreds and hundreds of fights before, and it never happened. What makes this fight different from any other fight? I just try to think about it like that. Maybe there was something wrong with him rather than what I did to him.”
These stories may or may not be true. What matters, when the lights come on and the bell sounds and he meets the gaze of his opponent, is that he believes them. I’m struck by this passage describing the mentality necessary for boxers, and especially necessary for Conwell’s return to the ring. How did you come to conceive and write this passage? From very early in the reporting process, certainly after watching Charles fight in Indiana and maybe even before that, a central, motivating question for me was this: How does a fighter who has unintentionally killed an opponent with a punch get back in the ring and punch another oppoent in just the same way, without so much as flinching? That feat struck me, initially, as both superhuman and chilling. The more I learned about boxing and the more I talked to Charles, though, the more I came to think that the logic behind getting back in the ring after a killing is merely an extension — or a taking to the extreme — of the logic behind getting in the ring in the first place. That the self-delusions required of Charles were not really so different from the self-delusions required of all boxers, or of boxing fans, or of pretty much everyone at one time or another. What initially seemed to me to be superhuman came in the end to seem very, very human, though no less chilling. For the final scene to resonate as I wanted it to, I thought it was important to give the reader some of this context/framing in advance, to say, in effect, “Here is how to interpret what you are about to see.” Or one way to interpret it at least.
The nerves begin with the hiss of the tape winding around his wrists. The locker room smells of leather and sweat. The chords of the national anthem echo through the hazy halls. A door opens. “Charles,” someone says, “it’s time.”
He skips down the hall with his entourage, throwing one-twos at phantom foes. He bounds up the steps two at a time and into a dim backstage corridor, where EMTs wait with stretchers. He removes his hood and stamps his feet. His shoes squeak on the linoleum. He wears red, white, and blue, as he often does, to remind the crowd that this isn’t just anyone they’re watching—this is an Olympian. Sewn onto his trunks is a red-and-white patch that says all day pat day—his idea. Earlier that evening, as he dressed in the locker room, he had paused for a moment to look at it. On the ride over, he’d gotten a text from Joe Higgins, Patrick’s coach and manager, wishing him luck. “Pat is watching over you,” it said.
The ring announcer bellows his name and the speakers blare Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” and he bursts through the curtains and into the smoky glare of the arena. The arena is not much of an arena at all. It’s a New Deal–era gymnasium with rickety bleachers. Conwell’s coaches strip off his shirt and Vaseline his face until it shines. They massage his shoulders and review the plan one last time. Now the nerves are gone. “Ain’t no point in being nervous,” he will later say. “Now you’re here.”
The bell clangs. Conwell has always been, by his own admission and to his coaches’ chagrin, a slow starter. He almost never throws the first punch of a fight. Agaton opens with a series of jabs, then tries a one-two. He doesn’t get anywhere near Conwell. His punches have no pop. When Conwell fires back with a jab of his own, there’s no comparison. The punch doesn’t connect, but it goes off like a warning shot. He begins to stalk Agaton, working him into the corner until Agaton, unable to escape, tries to tie him up, but before he can, Conwell catches him with a pair of hard left hooks to the ribs. The crowd loves it.
No one seems to notice the man at ringside with tears in his eyes. He is a cutman, the person who treats a boxer’s wounds during a fight, and as such has an intimate familiarity with the damage the sport can inflict. He has worked some of Conwell’s fights before, but at this one he is only a spectator; he is here for another fighter. He has not worked a corner since October, when he watched the live broadcast of Day’s fatal bout with Conwell. Day was one of his fighters. They were both from Long Island, and the cutman had known him since he was an amateur. After Day’s death, the cutman thought about quitting boxing altogether, but he reconsidered, because he thought that Day would have wanted him to continue on. Tonight, as he watches Conwell pound Agaton, he can’t help but see Conwell pounding Day, and he can’t take it anymore. At the end of the first round, he walks out.
In the next two rounds Conwell’s body blows seem to almost literally deflate Agaton. Early on he had tried to match Conwell punch for punch, but now he simply leans on him. When, in the fourth round, Conwell breaks Agaton’s guard and lands a powerful shot to the head, Conwell does not flinch. “In the moment,” he will say after, “it’s just boxing.”
Nothing extraordinary happens. If some subterranean psychodrama is playing out deep within Charles Conwell, the surface registers no tremors. At the end of the fourth round, as he leans against the turnbuckle and drapes his arms over the ropes, he looks at ease. One of his coaches wipes his brow. Jones pours ice water over his chest. And then, all of a sudden, the referee is waving his arms. Agaton will not come out for the fifth round. The fight is over.
There will be no brutal knockout, no paralyzing flashback, no moment of reckoning. Just two human beings fighting for some money, and a thousand more intoxicated by the spectacle, and an empty folding chair at ringside, where not long ago the cutman sat, until he couldn’t watch anymore. I’m sure there was no shortage of options for where to end this story. Why did you end it with the folding chair? What did you want readers to leave with? When I’m doing a piece, I tend to know pretty early on either how I want it to end or how I want it to begin — but never both. And whichever one I know, the other one is inevitably torturous. To be clear, this is distinct from what I was saying earlier about knowing from the beginning that the piece would open with the Conwell-Day fight and close with Charles’ first fight back; here, I’m talking about not just what scene I’m going to open and close with but how exactly I’m going to write the first and last lines. In this case, I knew how I wanted it to end. Something about that image of the empty chair just struck me as ineffably sad. I don’t think I can fully say why. But here, at least, is a partial explanation. In this last section, Charles returns to the ring. He tells himself what he needs to tell himself, he wins the fight, the crowd cheers — on the surface everything seems to be just as it was before the Day fight. Except, of course, everything is not as it was. Patrick Day is still dead, and the bereaved are still in pain, and there, at ringside, is the empty chair, a physical reminder, in the middle of this scene of ostensible triumph, of what has been lost, of the price of it all.
Trevor Pyle is a former newspaper journalist who now works as an information officer in the Puget Sound region.