Exclusive Interview with Boxing Photographer Tom Casino (Rare Photos Inside!)
“In every Tyson fight you could feel the electricity in the air” – Tom Casino
Exclusive Interview by Geoffrey Ciani – I recently had the opportunity to have a very nice discussion with one of the best boxing photographers in the business, Tom Casino (pictured alongside Mike Tyson circa 1985). A master of his craft, Casino has captured the imagination of boxing fans for almost thirty years, bringing the action up close and personal while freezing single moments that shall forever live on in the annals of boxing history. Casino spoke about his experiences as a photographer and also shared some of his views as a fan. At the conclusion of the transcript, Tom has provided readers with an inside look of some of his work over the years, including images of Mike Tyson, Arturo Gatti, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Carl Froch, James Toney, and more! Here is a complete transcript from the interview.
GEOFFREY CIANI: Hello everyone. This is Geoffrey Ciani from East Side Boxing, and I am joined here today by one of the elite photographers in all of professional boxing, Tom Casino. How’s everything going today, Tom?
TOM CASINO: Very nice Geoff, thank you, and I appreciate that introduction. It was very nice of you.
CASINO: Well I’m from Jersey City, and I went to Jersey City State College. They call it “Harvard on the Boulevard”, as we used to call it. They didn’t have a photography major there. You had to be an art major, so I was taking all of the photography courses as well as other courses, even like science and stuff. I was taking human biology, practical nutrition, and I didn’t know if I could make a living in photography. But a buddy of mine, my cousin Pete lived upstairs from us, and he was hanging out with a guy named Mark Medal. And he happened to be the first junior middleweight champ of the world, IBF when the IBF started in 1984. He was hanging out with my cousin Pete, and his family was always around the house. They said Mark’s a fighter. They called him “Mikey”. I guess he was a four-rounder at the time, when I was going to college.
Then I kept seeing him, and they said, “Oh, Mark’s going to fight for the title! Would you photograph the fight?”
And I said, “Sure”.
So I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, but I did it and he won the title. He was the first IBF junior middleweight champ of the world. It was in Atlantic City at the Sands Hotel.
I was doing all sorts of photography trying to figure things out. It’s a very tough profession to make a living at full time. But I was doing all sorts of PR stuff, and I was bartending in Jersey City, and a lot of the guys in the bar were getting me jobs, gigs here and there, PR jobs. I shot some Nets games when they were in Piscataway.
Well Mark, I don’t know how many months later, had the first defense of his title and he called me up and he said, “Will you come to the press conference with me?”
It was at Madison Square Garden. The fight that he won the title was in Atlantic City, but his defense was at the Garden. I went up to the Garden with him, and there was an editor there named Ron Scott Stevens that was doing a story. Ron later became the Commissioner of Boxing in New York. He was doing a story on Mark. He asked me for photos, and I gave him the photos. He liked them. He said, “You know there’s a magazine called Boxing Today. Would you shoot for me? I got an issue coming out and I don’t have a photographer. I could pay you, but not that much”.
I said, “Alright”.
You know I was doing all sorts of stuff, so I did it. He said, “We got to go photograph this young kid named Mike Tyson”. We did that. We photographed Evander Holyfield. I did a lot of stuff for Ron, and just when the magazine was supposed to come out it folded! It went out of business. It never made the light of day, so none of that work was seen.
But in the interim I met a guy from Boxing Beat magazine, and they were just starting out, and he asked me if I would do some work for them, and I did. They said, “It’s going to be published all over the world, and we’ll get you a photo credit. We can pay you a little bit”. That’s typical, ‘We’ll pay you a little bit’. Back then it used to be they would give you a photo credit. Unfortunately people still say that to me now almost thirty years later. But anyway, I did the Boxing Beat magazine.
Then I started getting calls from all over the world. A guy called me with a British accent. I thought it was a prank. Then a guy called me with a Japanese accent, “We need pictures from the US. We see your work in Boxing Beat”.
Then the first time I went up to Mike Tyson and introduced myself, which was early on probably I guess in ’84 or ’85. That’s when I started. I said, “Hi Mike. I’m Tom Casino”.
He said, “I know who you are. I follow your work. You do great work”, which I was blown away that Mike Tyson knew me at the time.
CIANI: Now Tom, I have to ask you, before that point when you started getting into the boxing aspect of photography, were you much of a boxing fan prior to that?
CASINO: Yes! I was always a boxing fan. I was fascinated by boxing. I kind of grew up, you know my Dad used to talk about Rocky Marciano and used to tell me that he used to hit guys on the arms and break blood vessels. He would just beat the guys’ arms, and their arms would drop and get heavy, and then he would come around and clip them on the chin, and I was like wow! That’s unbelievable. Then the Muhammad Ali era came around, which I would watch the fights with my Dad as a lot of people do—the Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers. With those guys it was like an incredible era for boxing.
Then shortly after that, which I caught the tail end of Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns. I got to know and work with those guys, you know, not that well. You see my era was right after that—the Mike Tyson-Holyfield age. So that was mine. You know with Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns, I shot a couple of Ray’s tail end fights with Terry Norris and I think Hector Camacho. I did a couple of Roberto’s fights in Mississippi, a couple of Tommy’s fights. I shot Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler, and that was the last fight Marvin had I believe. So I got to know those guys a little bit, but then my era was more Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Arturo Gatti. Arturo came later on in ’91 so I think I’m getting ahead of myself, so next question. (laughs)
CIANI: (laughs) Tom I’m curious, two part question here: One, what type of camera and lens did you use back in those early days when you first started doing boxing photography, and what type of camera and lens do you use now having done this profession over the course of the transition from traditional film cameras into the digital photography age?
CASINO: Well that’s an amazing and a good question. I started with an AE-1 Canon. I also worked in a department store, and I worked in the sports and pets department. I used to walk by the camera display. It was ‘Two Guys in Jersey City’ was the name of the store—two guys from Harrison, but the store was in Jersey City. It was a big, big department store near where I lived. I just used to walk by and I was fascinated by the camera department. I went up to get a camera, and I used to look at them. The girl working there was like you got to feel it and see what’s right in your hands, because everybody was into Nikon at the time. Canon was this new upstart company, but I went with the Canon—the Canon AE-1 with a 50mm lens.
When Mark fought for the title I knew I needed a better camera than that. So I was able to get an AE-1 Program, because it was able to hold a Motor Drive, which shot I think like four frames a second. So I had to upgrade and work my butt off to get the money to get the Motor Drive so I can shoot a fight, because for what I was doing I didn’t need a Motor Drive. The Canon AE-1 I believe didn’t have it at the time, so I had to get the AE-1 Program, which was a whole new camera with a 50mm lens.
See there are two schools of thought. A good photographer should be able to make do with the equipment that he has, but then in certain sports you need equipment to make do the pictures. Plus when you don’t have the pro equipment when you’re like at events, people look at you like you’re an amateur, which I was, and which I didn’t care at the time. Then I slowly started upgrading equipment. I can’t even remember. The camera might have been like $289. Now I use a 1D Mark IV, which is $5,000. The main lens I use to shoot boxing with is a 28-70mm, and I think that’s a $1,500 lens. Then I have backups. I have the 5D Mark III. I even get confused with the names. The 1D Mark III, the 5D Mark II, all Canon, and all of these cameras are over $3,000, and the lenses are all over $1,000.
I have all of the equipment now that’s needed to bring the action up close and personal, but still it’s not the camera that makes the photographer. You should have a little bit of skill and know how to work it. I was fortunate that I came up in an era where I developed film, and I know f-stops. Somebody came up to me ringside one day, and like at the top of the Canon cameras, more for like the not top of the line cameras, they got the little guy skiing. I think it’s for action. They got a little silhouette on the little dial up top of like people. That’s for group shots. They got a flower for close-ups. So somebody came up to me and looked and said, “What do you got your camera set up for the fight?”
And I jokingly said to him, “Well don’t you have a little boxing ring on your dial?”
“No! I don’t have one, do you have one?”
I go, “Yeah! Just set it on the little boxing ring”.
I was kidding of course.
CIANI: Now what was that like back in the day taking pictures, especially during some of your earliest shows, and not having the modern day advantage of knowing right away whether or not you were getting good shots or not? Having to wait until that point where you went and developed the film and had everything processed and what not, was that more challenging in a sense back then with that regard?
CASINO: Well yeah, I mean I guess. But see the thing is, and you forget, we only had 36 pictures per camera roll. There were only 36. Now I put in a digital card and I can get 1,000 photos. I don’t even have to change memory cards for a fight. I can put in a memory card and shoot the whole fight and not even worry. What it was like is, when you clicked you weren’t sure with boxing if you wanted like the defining moment, which is usually what we shoot, you know like the punch, the knockout punch, or a punch landing on the chin, or a knockdown when you’re shooting the action. When you clicked, you weren’t sure! You had to wait until you got to the lab, and at the time we had nothing to compare it to because there was nothing else out there. You know now looking back we can say, “How did we did we do that?”
Now a lot of guys get caught up in a pitfall of looking at their monitor to see if they got the shot that just happened. But what happens when you do that is you miss the shot that’s coming up. So I don’t know if you want to call it experience, but it’s a pitfall you can get caught up in. I used to go to the photo lab and spend all day at the lab. You know we’d shoot a lot of rolls per fight. I would just sit at the lab, read the papers, and go get lunch, and do a test. You had to test the roll to see if your exposure was right. It’s so much more convenient, but then the other thing is now anybody who buys a camera and has cards printed up, they’re a photographer they think. You know what I mean? The thing that separates the skill I believe is consistency. Can you do it every time you get up to bat? You got to come up with something decent or real good.
CIANI: One of the things I’d like to ask you, with all of the fight cards you’ve covered over the years, in terms of the events themselves, what are some of the more memorable events for you personally that you’ve worked over the years?
CASINO: The Tyson fights were unbelievable, and it was consistent. In every Tyson fight you could feel the electricity in the air, and the Gatti fights. That comes right off the top of my head, because the electricity was in the air. It was just on different coasts, although Mike did Atlantic City in his early career, too. Then everything moved out to Vegas. Then it was Arturo back in Atlantic City. It was just unbelievable! The electricity, everybody’s talking about, everybody’s psyched. It crossed over from a boxing match to an event. Don King used to say when the people in the barber shop, at the bus stop, and in the bakery are talking about the fight then it’s an event, and that’s what it was like.
CIANI: Now what were some of your personal favorite photos you took over the years, and is there by chance a particular one that you would call your favorite of all the photos you’ve taken over time?
CASINO: No. No, it’s hard to have a favorite. I try to get a favorite every fight, like at least like a Sports Illustrated double page shot, which meant the defining moment of what I strived for in a fight, and then anything else is gravy. Then you add on to that. Occasionally, and a lot of times you don’t have the angle, you catch the actual punch that knocked a guy out. It’s very tough, because not only is it so fast, but you’re only on one side of the ring. So you could catch it and it could be from the wrong side, or you don’t have a good angle, or it doesn’t look as good on film as it does on video. But I try to create a favorite every time, so there’s so many that I like it’s hard to say. People ask me what was your favorite fight. That’s very difficult to say, too, because there were several. There were a lot of them, you know.
CIANI: One of the more recent events that I know you covered quite a bit was the Super Six Boxing Classic, which was one of the more interesting things and unique things that has happened in boxing in awhile. I’m wondering if you could tell the fans out there a little bit about your experiences covering that tournament which stretched over two years?
CASINO: Oh it was great! The experience, going to Denmark, and to England, and even to parts in the US, it was just like an international tournament. We flew around the dust clouds to get to one of the fights. I think it was Froch, and from Denmark, Kessler. We flew around that dust cloud. All the flights were being canceled, so we flew. I had to get to Kennedy. They told me, “Saddle up. We’re going”.
I had to get from Newark to Kennedy Airport, and I was hearing all of these horror stories of people getting stranded in Europe. Well we were flying into the airports as they were opening. We flew from Kennedy to Vienna, we had a five or six hour layover in Vienna. Then we flew I think to Copenhagen, and then Kessler’s people had us picked up in a van for a three hour van ride and we made it. Plus, for anybody who thinks it’s glamorous, I was in a middle for the eight hours. Oh it was awful! I mean occasionally from flying a lot I get to upgrade when it’s available, but I was in the middle seat for that flight. It was beyond brutal, but that’s the life of a photographer, especially in boxing sometimes. You know?
CIANI: Now what advice, Tom, would you give to any aspiring photographers out there, people with an interest in photography? What advice would you give to people who have an interest in boxing and photography, about taking better photos when they have the opportunities to attend events and they have access to taking the type of pictures that you’re so good at taking?
CASINO: Well it’s tough. I mean first of all, know your trade. Know your equipment. It helps when you know your sport, and you got to hone it like anything else. You know practice. That’s the thing. People think okay I got cards printed, and with the modern technology you’re probably going to get a shot or two. But do you want to do it on a consistent basis? I mean it’s very competitive out there and a lot of people are trying to do it. It’s a very tough, tough profession. I’ve been doing it now for 28 years. You know if you have, I don’t want to call it a knack for photography. If you like photography you got to know your equipment like the back of your hand, you got to know a little about lighting, and angles, and stuff in boxing, and persevere.
CIANI: Tom, I have two more questions for you. For any boxing fans out there interested in seeing some more of your work throughout your career, is there a place they can go to see some of your body of work?
CASINO: Yeah a lot of it is on. If you google “Tom Casino” on the computer camera clicks, it’s been five or six years I’ve been paying for the domain name about my own website. But sho.com—Showtime’s website. The last twenty years I’ve been doing most of my work for Showtime. So Showtime has a website, “S-H-O.com”. People make the mistake “S-H-O-W”. So you got to sho.com, you go to ‘Boxing’, and then you go to ‘Photos’. I do a fight night gallery after the fight, which we get up as soon as possible. We get some quick pictures up there to wet the appetite for our fans, to quench the thirst a little bit and try to get some good shots up quick. Then I do like a fight night gallery, and try to give you a feel of what it’s like being in the dressing room. Sometimes I go outside and photograph the arena to give you the sights and sounds, as well as the action, because I think it looks a little different when you freeze it. Even though you show the video and have the great coverage on Showtime, I think people like looking at stills, and then I do have some fans that want to see what I get. Like, “Wow! Holy crap! Tom caught that one!” Not all the time, but I get lucky sometimes.
CIANI: Tom, for my final question for you: Is there anything else that you would like to say to all of the boxing fans out there and all of the readers of East Side Boxing?
CASINO: Well I appreciate the fans. I’m one myself. It’s hard work. I work my butt off, and like the fighters, Arturo Gatti used to say, “I want to keep my fans happy”. And if I have any, I want to keep my fans happy and do the top work humanly possible that I can do. It’s a lot of hard work and dedication. I’m going to keep cranking it out. I hope people like it. I want people when they look at my work to say, “Wow! Holy sh*t!” you know, good compelling boxing stuff. We need the fans and we need the little boxing clubs, and the gyms and all. We got to support all of that stuff. I love the fans when I see them going crazy at the fights. You know that’s the people we need! We need the young up and coming guys to perpetuate the sport, we need the good trainers to keep coming, and in my little part of the world I’m trying to do the best I can, not only for myself, but to keep the fans loving the stuff, to keep an interest in boxing, and this is our sport!
I’m a big fan of the site. I’ve been looking at it for a long time. You guys have been displaying my work really nice, and I appreciate that and I appreciate being able to do this for so long, and I’m going to continue a day at a time until hopefully, “Who’s that guy they just carried away from the ring?”
“Oh! That’s Tom Casino!”
Hopefully that’s in about thirty or forty years.
CIANI: Well Tom, it was an absolute pleasure getting the opportunity to speak with you here today. I thank you very much for your time. I always enjoy seeing your work after the fights, and I look forward to seeing your work for many fights to come in the future. Thank you very much.
CASINO: Thanks Geoff! Have a great night.
© PHOTOS BY TOM CASINO
PHOTO SUBJECTS (in order from top to bottom)
Carl Froch vs. Mikkel Kessler
Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward III
John Litzau vs.Verquan Kimbrough
Sugar Ray Leonard
Mike Tyson vs. Andrew Golota
James Toney and Jasmine
Arturo Gatti vs. Jose Gonzalez
Jose Luis Castillo vs. Diego Corrales
Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns
Mike Tyson and Spike Lee
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