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The Fighters

Dan Quinn’s Falcons aren’t just watching Patriots game tape — they’re studying boxing film to find some Super motivation

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Atlanta Falcons have plenty of film to watch before they play the Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday. They’re studying New England’s wide-open offense and bruising running game, and thanks to a season-long strategy, they’ve also parsed the 1985 boxing match between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, widely considered one of the most energetic and brutal fights in boxing history. “Coach [Dan] Quinn showed us that fight right before we came here,” tight end Austin Hooper says. “Those guys were throwing blows, just standing in the middle of the ring. That was the most explosive fight that we’ve seen all year and that’s because this is the most explosive game.”

Quinn, the second-year head coach who has led Atlanta to its first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years, has built an unconventional weekly motivational tactic around the sweet science. Every Wednesday, he shows his team the beginning of a classic boxing match in order to pinpoint a takeaway that pertains to the Falcons’ match of the moment. “Before it, Coach Quinn paints a perfect picture on how it relates to the game,” says linebacker LaRoy Reynolds. It’s part teaching moment, part raw entertainment. Plenty of coaches around the league put individual stamps on their motivational messages, but few seem to lock in their players as well as Quinn.

For instance, running back Terron Ward says that earlier this season, before the Falcons had cemented their status as one of the league’s best teams, Quinn showed his players Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield’s first matchup. Ward notes that the Falcons entered the season with two nationally televised games on the schedule; they weren’t a particularly hyped club initially. It didn’t take long for Quinn’s players to see the parallels in the fight. “Mike Tyson had all the fame,” Ward says. “Holyfield went into his training camp and said, ‘Everything I have is going into this fight,’ and he trained like that, and while he was training he was seeing himself beat Tyson. And so [Quinn] was teaching us about putting all of our effort into practice and visualizing beating these [bigger] opponents.”

Ward says that the weekly fight viewings have become a bit of a phenomenon among the Falcons, especially, as assistant coach Marquand Manuel points out, because many of the viewers are so young that “there are a lot of championship fights we haven’t seen.” Quinn has turned that lack of knowledge into a coaching tool: “He shows us the beginning of the fight on Wednesday,” Ward says. “And we’re watching the fight, we’re really into it, and then he’ll stop it. Then he’ll say, ‘Wanna know who won?’ and we all yell, ‘Yes!’ and he says, ‘You’ll know Friday.’”

The suspense builds. Players theorize. There’s an unspoken team rule not to look up the result. “Google would take the fun out of it,” Ward says. “On Friday, we sit down and everyone is looking at the guy next to them saying ‘Who do you think won?’ ‘What about you, who you think won?’ ‘Let’s bet 10 push-ups.’”

Quinn is a certified boxing obsessive who says he “loves” the sport. He also loves to jam as many motivational tactics as he possibly can into the week. (Manuel says that Quinn has made five different T-shirts with motivational sayings in the past five weeks.) He’s shown the team Ronda Rousey fights and Usain Bolt races on occasion as well, though that doesn’t interfere with the regularly scheduled boxing viewing. That’s much to the lament of assistant coach Doug Mallory, who’s an MMA fan and wishes Quinn’s sport selection was slightly more diverse, noting that in addition to the tactic serving as an effective way for Quinn to get his point across, it’s another opportunity for him to watch the sport he loves.

Defensive lineman Joe Vellano says that during the team’s playoff run this winter, Quinn wanted to keep the players focused for whatever would come their way. “We had times [this season] where we had to switch hotel rooms, or other changes, and it was just like, ‘It doesn’t matter where our meeting room is.’” To that end, Quinn showed the team the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that was fought in Zaire at 4 a.m. local time due to American broadcasting demands. “So the message was: any time, any place, anywhere,” Vellano says. The fight proved so impactful that the Falcons’ defensive backs bought Ali jackets.

Wide receiver Eric Weems identifies another Ali fight as his favorite. Near midseason, Quinn showed the team Ali vs. Floyd Patterson, a bout famous for Ali’s insistence on keeping the fight going and passing on a knockout so that he could continue punishing Patterson. The Falcons were in the process of establishing themselves as one of the NFL’s best teams when they watched this fight, and the message, Weems says, was to keep the intensity up throughout the entire campaign.

In October, after a tough loss to the Chargers and before a huge game against the Packers, Quinn showed the team two fights: Hagler against Vito Antuofermo, which ended in a controversial draw, and the rematch two years later in which Hagler destroyed Antuofermo in four rounds. Quinn explained to reporters in October that the point was to show that even after disappointment, no one controls the results except you.

Not every fight Quinn screens is a classic, but every choice is purposeful. Players have become bigger boxing fans as a result of the practice: Lineman Chris Chester says he’s found himself reading more about boxing, and he even did a deep dive on Hagler-Hearns, discovering that Hagler could taste blood for most of the fight. And every player has a preference. “I like the heavyweights,” says offensive lineman Ryan Schraeder. “I like to see them slug it out, especially Mike Tyson because he’s the only person on the planet I am legitimately scared of — literally the only one.”

While the method can occasionally be an over-the-top way to highlight and preach certain themes, the players say it works. “These are guys pushing themselves to the limit and it helps us learn to compete,” says Chester.

Quinn has shown Floyd Mayweather fights and “talk[ed] for a long time about all the hours that go into the preparation for one of his fights,” says linebacker Paul Worrilow. He’s shown Manny Pacquiao’s matches. He’s shown the Arturo Gatti–Micky Ward trilogy to highlight grit. “It was like a Rocky fight,” linebacker Brooks Reed says of the Ward-Gatti series. “It was two guys who didn’t even care about getting hit. And that’s us.”

Most of the players sampled in Houston say that watching Hearns-Hagler a few days before arriving for the Super Bowl was the most impactful — and provided the most obvious parallels to the game at hand. “They came out swinging, they were two competitors — you know, Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots,” says safety Dashon Goldson. “They came out swinging from the beginning to the end, until one guy got knocked out. It means it’s going to be a tough match. We have to slug it out.”