JEFF PEARLMAN

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Billy Collins

billy

I’ve been a journalist for 15 years now. If one were to ask me which stories stand out, I’d name three:

1. When I was 23, The Tennessean asked me to profile a Nashville couple, Warren and Lynn Thompson. She was in her mid-40s and dying of cancer. To honor her memory, the two were working on a garden together. It was haunting stuff (I’ll always remember sitting next to Lynn and asking her whether she feared death. It was around the time that Forrest Gump had just come out, and she had seen the film with a friend. During the scene when Jenny dies, the friend apologized to Lynn. “Oh, you don’t need to apologize,” Lynn said. “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m just sad about all the things I’ll miss. My children getting married, and having their own children.” It was very profound. And, just today, I looked up Warren and Lynn’s children on Facebook. They’re married. With kids.), and while the finished product won’t go down as one of my best, I treasure the experience. As well as the gratitude from Lynn and Warren. Why, when Lynn died after a long and courageous battle, Warren asked me to write her obituary. I was blown away (if I can dig up this clip, I’ll try and scan it one day).

2. In the days following 9/11/2001, I profiled Tyler Ugolyn, one of the victims. I’ve remained close with his family—a relationship I cherish.

3. In the early months of 1998, I was 26 and trying to rise from fact checking at Sports Illustrated. During my time at The Tennessean, I’d learned of the plight of Billy Ray Collins, Jr., a local middleweight boxer whose bright future was derailed in 1983. That’s when, on the undercard of the Roberto Duran-Davey Moore bout at Madison Square Garden, he faced an obscure journeyman named Luis Resto. Collins was supposed to have his way with Resto. Instead, the Nashville native was battered and battered and battered. Afterward, when Billy’s father (and trainer) reached out to shake Resto’s hand, he felt his glove and noticed all the padding had been removed.

Collins, who was nearly blinded by the savage beating, was done as a fighter. Shortly thereafter, he died in a car accident. His father believes it was suicide. Others aren’t so sure.

Anyhow, I wasn’t a big enough gun at Sports Illustrated to have the story assigned to me, and I feared that, had I pitched it, some editor would have swiped it from me and given it to a Gary Smith or Steve Rushin. Hence, I paid my own way to Nashville and reported the whole thing myself.

I will never—never, ever, ever, ever, ever—forget sitting in Billy Sr.’s ramshackle house, listening to his racist banter as he sucked from a cigarette, watching the tapes of his son fight. It was the most depressing assignment ever, yet a riveting story that probably took my reporting to a new level. I still remember getting off an airplane in San Diego, walking through the airport and spotting the new SI in a magazine store. It was the issue with Kevin Gogan on the cover, and when I saw my Billy Collins story in print, I nearly cried.

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I bring this up because on the night of August 1, HBO is premiering its new documentary, Assault In The Ring. I haven’t seen it yet, but the story alone makes it worth watching. The various characters are tragic and fascinating; the impact of that bout still profound.