BY KEN SCHOTT
Blood on a notebook. It would give most people a sickening feeling.
For sportswriter Dan Rafael, it was an inspiration.
Covering a boxing card at the City Center in Saratoga Springs during the summer of 1996 started Rafael on the road to being one of the country’s top boxing writers.
Rafael, a Clifton Park native and 1988 Shenendehowa High School graduate, has been covering boxing for ESPN.com and ESPN since 2005. He will be in Las Vegas for Saturday’s welterweight mega-bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
“It’s been the time of my life. It really has absolutely been incredible,” Rafael said. “I marvel at it almost every day that I get to do what I do. I don’t necessarily marvel at it when I’m on an airplane at 6 in the morning flying off to some far-off place and being away from home for four days. But those are not the dominate moments. It’s a dream job.”
Rafael started his writing career at the then-Gannett-owned Saratogian in 1993. Like most journalists breaking into the business, Rafael did a number of jobs for the paper before getting a chance to work in the sports department. He covered numerous events, including minor league baseball.
But it was his first boxing assignment that changed things for Rafael. One of the bouts involved Buddy McGirt. The former junior welterweight and welterweight champion was fighting George Heckley. During the 10th round, McGirt caught Heckley with a solid punch, opening a cut. Blood splattered, and some of it landed on Rafael’s notebook.
“It was crazy, but it changed my whole life,” Rafael said. “It was like an epiphany. It was like, I had to cover more of this.”
Rafael recalled former Daily Gazette columnist Carl Strock being amused at Rafael’s excitement over the bloody notebook.
“I didn’t make a habit of reading Carl Strock’s columns, to be honest with you,” Rafael said. “But my mother read it the next day, and she saw he had made mention of that incident. I don’t know if he mentioned me by name, but my mother knew it was me by the way I had described it to her. That was pretty wild.”
Shortly after that, Rafael moved to another Gannett paper, The Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin. During his time there, he covered more boxing events. While at the Press & Sun Bulletin, Rafael spent four months at USA Today, Gannett’s flagship paper, as part of Gannett’s loan program.
“They took a dozen people from around the country,” Rafael said. “In August of 1998, I went to [McLean] Virginia, to the headquarters. While I was there, I was doing Major League Baseball and college football. But they told us when we got there, ‘We’re going to use you, but if there are things you want to do, let us know and we’ll try to accommodate you.’
“I did all what I was supposed to do, and I asked if I could do some boxing stuff. They said yes.”
After returning to Binghamton. Rafael kept in touch with the USA Today editors. Then, in March 2000, Rafael got the call — he was named the paper’s boxing writer.
“We ended up creating this brand new thing that was a big project where I would be ranking each weight class,” Rafael said. “It was great. I had all kinds of space. I was able to travel and cover fights.”
Late in 2004, Rafael got a call from ESPN.com to see if he was interested in covering boxing for the sports cable network’s website, along with making TV appearances.
“They asked me about my situation. I said, ‘What do you mean my situation?’” Rafael said. “They wanted to know if I had a contract, which I didn’t because I was a hired employee.”
After weeks of discussions, Rafael made the move to ESPN.com in March 2005.
“It was just a great opportunity,” Rafael said. “You didn’t have to worry about the space [like] in the newspaper. The money was, obviously, much bigger. I could work out of my house in Virginia. It was just a great situation.
“I had a hard time making that decision. But at the end of the day, they made you an offer that you can’t refuse.”
John Kosner, executive vice president of ESPN digital and print media, praised Rafael’s work.
“Dan Rafael is the quintessential boxing insider,” Kosner said. “Since his arrival, Dan has put ESPN’s boxing coverage on the map. Through reporting, rankings, blogs, chats — (some of them at very early morning hours — Dan is constantly serving and talking to his fans. He has made us matter in the sport.”
Adjusting to doing television wasn’t much of a problem for Rafael.
“We have tremendous producers and other on-air talent that are very helpful for people like myself that are not trained in it,” Rafael said. “But I look at it like this, if you can figure out how to look in the camera and brush your hair the right way, you’ll be fine because I have the knowledge. It’s like if you take a test. If you know the material, you don’t have to worry.”
Rafael wants to keep covering boxing as long as he can. At 44, he has plenty of years left.
He will know when it’s time to step aside.
“I always say to my wife, when I’m no longer excited about being in the arena when Michael Buffer says, ‘Let’s get ready to rumble,’ and you’re sitting 10 feet from the ring and you’re right there in the heart of everything,” Rafael said, “when that moment happens and I’m not happy to be there, then I might look for something else.
“But the freedom that you get to cover sport, in consultation with your editors, of course, and to have the freedom to travel and cover the fights and make a very good living, how could you beat it?”