Sarah Shephard: “As a journalist, you have to be honest. You have to be critical when the time is right.”
By Chris Akers
Sarah Shephard is a writer and author who is gaining a growing reputation as someone who writes with a depth, clarity and perspective on various subjects within boxing that few have considered before.
She has always been active and was always an active person, when she decided to take up boxing recreationally.
“It was probably around 2011 that I started boxing,” says Shephard. “So I was already in my late twenties, and basically that was because I was really active. I used to run and lot and do a lot of half marathons and as much as I love running, my body hated it. I ended up having operations on both my knees, and I couldn’t run the way I used to enjoy, so I needed to find something else. I used to go to the gym everyday still, but I was using a cross trainer, which is boring as hell. For about an hour, that’s all I’d do. I hated it, but I still wanted to exercise. I enjoyed keeping fit.
“One of the personal trainers in my gym would do pad work with people all the time. You could tell that he wasn’t just a PT who just did pad work. He used what he was doing and did it differently to the other PTs I’d see. So I went up to him and asked if he would ever train a woman, as I’d also seen him train guys. He said ‘Yup, I’d train you the same.’
“So we started training and I got completely hooked. I was already watching boxing, but I think once I started the pad work, I was learning more about it. The PT used to box as an amateur and pro, so he had quite a pro style on the pads. He would talk to me as if I was training to have a fight, not just to keep fit.”
The pad work didn’t just benefit Shephard in regards to her fitness, but also in helping her build up her knowledge of the sport.
“It taught me a lot about the sport and about technique and what you’re looking for when you are watching it as well, which just made me want to watch more boxing.”
Other benefits were psychological and have a positive impact for her away from covering the sport.
“In terms of what it did for me, that was probably when I started lifting weights. Before I went running, that was all I used to do, which is probably why my knees broke. When I started boxing, it was also explained that I needed to lift weights as well, to keep the whole body strong, to punch harder, to be able to hold your hands up for a full hour with pad work, which is what we’d often do. The lifting weights combined with boxing really improved my confidence in lots of ways, not just in the gym but outside the gym. It makes you walk a bit taller and carry yourself a bit differently, even though I can’t imagine throwing a punch at anybody. I’m not a violent person, but knowing that you can handle yourself. It just gives you a bit more confidence in lots of ways, especially for a female walking around. It made me come out of myself a lot more, not only in a physical way, but as a person as well.”
At the same time, Shephard was in sport journalism. Indeed, she had been writing for Sport Magazine since 2007.
“I was a staff writer there. When I went into that magazine, I was not in journalism. It was my first job in journalism. So I was working my way up. But by 2011, 2012 I was responsible for tennis, athletics, I did a bit of football, and I enjoyed boxing but we had a boxing writer, who was far more knowledgeable than me.”
Like with the pad work, Shephard was able to learn about the sport through conversations she had with this writer. Combined with watching boxing more, these two things helped to build her knowledge about the sport. Over time, opportunities to do boxing articles with sport arose.
“Whenever he (the boxing writer) couldn’t do an interview, I’d get to do it. So I got to do a few boxing interviews. David Haye, Amir Khan are the main ones that I did. But I was never able to do it as my main thing, because it was his main thing, and he deserved for it to be his main thing because he was far more knowledgeable than I was.”
Shephard wrote for Sport Magazine for 10 years until the magazine was closed in 2017. Then she was at The Times for a few months, before moving on to a website called The Coaches Voice, which is about football managers, then to her current home at The Athletic, which has given her the opportunity to focus on writing about boxing full time.
The thoughtfulness of her writing came across in an article she wrote for The Athletic about the Daniel Dubois vs Joe Joyce fight earlier this year, and specifically on her thoughts about Dubois supposedly quitting in the fight. Summing up her views on how fighters are perceived when they quit can be difficult for a few reasons.
“It is so nunaced and it’s really difficult to sum it all up.” she explains. And it’s difficult because I’m not a professional boxer, I’ve never been a professional boxer. I’ve sparred a few times and I hated it to be honest, as I wasn’t used to getting hit and I didn’t enjoy it. I like to hit the pads which didn’t hit me back, so I obviously haven’t got the mentality to be a prizefighter, which some people would probably say doesn’t give me the right to comment on stuff like this. But as a journalist you have to.”
And summing up her views she does so with an honesty, balance and consideration of language that isn’t always apparent from other people who talk about this subject.
“So my views I guess were that, yes Dubois did make the decision not to stand up. He physically could have stood up and beat the count, when he was fighting Joe Joyce. But there was a reason why that jab stopped him from doing that. All the other jabs previously, and Joe Joyce had thrown many of them, hadn’t had that effect. So there was obviously something in that final jab that had some sort of effect. Whether it was the sight in that eye had suddenly gone and he suddenly realised and that scared him or if it was a different kind of pain, as we heard about nerve pain, there was obviously different that happened. I don’t think you can blame a fighter for making that choice in that situation, especially given Daniel’s age, his lack of experience and all those sorts of things.
“I just think that when the term quitter is thrown around, there are so many other things that have to be take into context, before you judge someone on that word. To just say that anybody in a boxing ring, who decides to stop, to throw that label at them and say they haven’t got what it takes. I saw so many people say that after the Dubois fight, I don’t understand how they can say that now at his age and level of experience, as he will come back from that and he will learn from that. He might not make it in the end, but we don’t know that yet. That might be the making of him. That might be the turning point, or the thing he needed in his career to make it.
“So I just think that the word nuance needs to come into boxing a bit more, when people are reacting to what they see in the ring. As often I think it’s just too black and white.”
Another issue I wanted to get her views on was the needs for fighters to protect their 0. Can the media be a big reason as to why fighters are eager to protect their unbeaten record?
“We definitely have a role to play in that,” she says. “We can be quite a fickle beast at times, say one thing and then say something else the next week.
“At the moment, this is more promoters than media, but you have got Eddie Hearn complain about the belts in regards to Joshua vs Fury and saying that they might do the fight without belts and that the WBO should made an allowance for them to do the fight and then the next breath, he’s saying that Ryan Garcia should fight Devin Haney because he’s his mandatory,” she laughs. “That I think can be the case with the media as well in terms of they’ll said that they want these boxers to get the toughest fights, we don’t want to see warm up fights nor pointless fights. We want boxers to push themselves. And then when they do that and they come up short, sometimes the media can be like ‘Well maybe they should retire.’ As the media sometimes I think we are too ready to retire people or write them off as world level, just because they have the balls to put it on the line, but come up short.
“But also as a journalist, you have to be honest. You have to be critical when the time is right. If someone has been outclassed and they have stepped up a level too high, then you’re entitled to say that. So it’s a question of balance.”
Three months into the year and arguably the biggest controversy in the sport this year, is the judging and scoring of fights. Several fights have been criticised for not just the wrong boxer been given the points win, but even the victor winning a fight by too wide a point margin.
Though scrutinised by the public, it seems that judges performances by the authorities is not scrutinised often enough, as there seem to be certain judges that no matter what the fight, their scorecards tend to be controversial. This is a view that Shephard seems to agree with.
“They get scrutiny from the public, but I don’t think they get enough from the Board.’ says Shephard. “There’s a small group of top flight judges and referees and there seems to be a reluctance to hold them to account too much. So that is something that I would like to see changed.
Shephard expands on this and explains what she thinks could be done to improve the assessment process of referees and judges.
“I don’t know if there is a constant analysis. Football referees have an assessor judging them at each game. That doesn’t happen in boxing and I think it’s something that probably should.
“There a lot more I think could be done. I think we need to start getting more referees into that top level, so that there is a bigger pool to choose from. It’s not in the board’s interest to leave themselves too short. So that might affect their decisions in terms of how they reprimand people or whether they reprimand them at all. There’s definitely more scope for keeping a close eye on how the judges are doing and working with them to improve and at least question them a bit more.”
There are even disagreements between boxing fans as to who won a fight on points. There is not a major fight that goes by, without its hashtag on trending and fans disagreeing, at times vehemently, on the reasons why their fighter won on points or shouldn’t have lost the decision.
But in terms of the general public, the casual fans, are they educated enough in the criteria of how fights are scored? Shephard states that in her view, this is not the problem, but the fault of the scoring system itself.
“I don’t think I’d blame the boxing public nor boxing viewers for that. I think I’d blame the system and the way that the scoring system works,” she explains. “The way that it works opens itself up to scores being wider that a fight actually looks. I think most boxing viewers know the sport incredibly well and there are going to be differences of opinion over results.
“We’ve all had fights we’ve watched and been convinced of one thing and then Twitter is screaming the opposite at us. And then you see the judges scores and they might go with you or with the other side. It’s a different one. It’s not quite like any other sport where so much is open to interpretation and it’s so loose. It’s feels that way anyway. It’s a question of how to do change it. Is there a way of making this better? It’s an interesting one.”