Boxing – The Photographer’s Eye

Matthew Hurley: There are countless iconic moments in sports caught for posterity by a photographer’s camera. Moments that capture the thrill of victory are usually those that find their way into frat houses, bar rooms and the walls of every sports fan who has a favorite team or athlete that enchanted them. But it’s those moments of despair on the playing field that resonate more completely because it is both a more common sight and a more empathetic emotion..

Whether it is Giants quarterback Y.A Tittle, weary, bloodied and resigned on his knees after a loss to Pittsburgh in 1964 or Carl Yastrzemski’s legs buckling in left field as he watched Bucky Dent’s bloop home run drop into the netting at Fenway Park in 1978 ultimately leading the Yankees to the pennant, the image of defeat encompasses a universal acknowledgment of truth.

Boxing is littered with haunting images of fighters reduced to their humanity. In no other sport can the essence of physical struggle be so clearly defined by the camera’s lens than that of the boxer. In 1965 Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer captured one of the more memorable ring moments when a taunting Muhammad Ali stood over a prone Sonny Liston after the former champion fell from the now infamous ‘phantom punch’ or, as Ali nicknamed it, the ‘anchor punch’ in their rematch in Lewiston, Maine.

The boxing photographer can also express the physical torment a fighter suffers through when the fisticuffs have ended and the weary fighter sits alone or among his entourage in stoic contemplation. Brian Blaine Reynolds, also known as Hy Peskin, took a now famous through-the-ropes photo of an onrushing Carmen Basilio, his face smeared with blood, his eye swollen shut, at the very moment he lands a right hand to the jaw of his nemesis Sugar Ray Robinson. Later, in his dressing room, Basilio would be captured in black and white sitting on a table, his taped hands between his legs, staring straight ahead, his left eye looking like a fresh ripe plum. The image speaks to both his torment and his resiliency.

Ali became a central figure in the world of sports photography right up to the very end of his fistic career. So charismatic and photogenic was the ‘Louisville Lip’ that he could lasso one’s attention even when he when standing beside other iconic figures such as Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra. But it was his ring moments that truly tantalize the eye. In February of 1978 Time Magazine put a weary Ali, slumped on his stool, looking down to his right, his arms draped along the ropes beneath the headline “‘The Greatest’ is Gone” after his loss to Leon Spinks. The image not only defined what had gone on through the ropes that night but what Ali the fighter had suffered through during a career that had gone on to long.

Unfortunately, as time moved on the still photographer’s art became somewhat pushed aside as television cameras captured events in motion rather than in individual defining moments. Still, boxing leant itself handsomely to those instances of human frailty. The ten seconds where Alexis Arguello sits at referee Richard Steele’s feet, allowing himself to be counted out after being once again reduced to the canvas by Aaron Pryor in their 1983 rematch is a testament to the brutality of the sport. So too is the brilliant camera angle that captures a dazed Thomas Hearns being carried back to his corner by a handler while over the man’s tuxedoed shoulder Marvelous Marvin Hagler is lofted in the air after successfully defending his middleweight title in 1985.

The immediacy of television is a sports aficionado’s favorite companion but the photographer remains the true visionary when it comes to crystallizing a fleeting moment that defines an entire event. That holds true for any artistic endeavor the photographer undertakes and in boxing, a sport that speaks to our very human nature be it both brutal and beautiful, the still photo romanticizes and defines the very essence of pugilism in color and in stark black and white.

{The author highly recommends Tim Dahlberg’s Fight Town, which chronicles the boxing scribes years of covering bouts in Las Vegas and includes dozens of classic photos. Also recommended is Howard Bingham’s Muhammad Ali: A Thirty Year Journey, a photographic journal of the fighter in black and white.}

Article posted on 05.02.2008

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