WAIL!... The CBZ Journal
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November 2002
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Smile. Or Else.
By Robert Ecksel


"When Ernie Shavers hit me, I thought people were taking my picture." (Larry Holmes)

Some things just seem to go together. Night and day. Mom and Dad. The stars and stripes. A jab and right cross. Yet when contrary mediums meet under bright lights at center ring, sometimes the strangest things happen.

Boxing is all movement crashing through time, a blur of nonstop punches. Boxing is faster than the eye can see.

Photography stops time in its tracks. It freezes motion, freezes e-motion, it isolates one instant out of zillions.

Boxing has been around forever. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans loved to punch guys in the face. Whereas photography is a newfangled gadget.

The medium was first developed in 1839 by a Frenchman named Daguerre. Photography was an invention that looked, for the time, like it might change the world. Mankind, for once in his long, ongoing gestation, no longer had to rely on memory. Photography could do the remembering for us.

These two sublime arts, the art of photography and the art of boxing, have a long and distinguished relationship. Edward Muybridge, the master of using a still camera to capture movement, contacted Dominick McCaffrey after his fight with the Great John L. Sullivan in 1885. The incredibly fit blonde-haired man sparring for Edward Muybridge is the boxer Dominick McCaffrey. Billy Edwards "Portrait Gallery of Pugilists" from 1894 set the boxing/photographic portrait standard. That same year, old Tom Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, filmed heavyweight champ Gentleman Jim Corbett trading punches with Peter Courtney.

Most of us cherish our hard-won knowledge of the fight game's eloquent narrative, the sport's greatest fighters, greatest fights, greatest rounds, boxing's greatest hits. We have vivid memories of some memorable moments in the history of the fight game. Even though we're not old enough to have been ringside, there are these snapshots living inside our heads that are as vivid as today and tomorrow.

A stunned Gene Tunney collapsed on the deck, while the ref tries getting Dempsey to a neutral corner.

Rocky Marciano landing a crushing right that distorts Jersey Joe Walcott's face beyond recognition.

Old Joe Louis collapsed through the ropes, his bald spot glistening without mercy.

A taunting Muhammad Ali standing over a nosedived Sonny Liston in a high school gym in Lewiston, Maine.

Anyone who has ever photographed a boxing match will tell you how difficult it is. Everything is moving at hyperspeed. Boxers don't just stand there and do nothing. That's suicide. So it's glide, feint, jab, clinch, jab, dance, throw a right, glide and then glide some more. Trying to capture something meaningful from a stationary object is hard enough. When that baby is bobbing and weaving and shucking and jiving and aching and bleeding the task is even harder.

Then there is the third man in the ring. A welcome but mostly invisible presence on TV and in arenas, for ringside photographers the ref is just in the way. How many great photos have been ruined by the guy in black pants waving his arms? Too many to count. And with photographers crammed together like sardines in a can? Elbow room? Never heard of it.

There's a photographic term which has reflections and echoes in the sunset of the fight game: the decisive moment. The decisive moment in photography is that moment out of many which captures something essential about that moment alone. (It's a crap shoot on one hand, a photo shoot on the other.) We know what that moment is in boxing. It's when one man's fist hits another man's chin and the hardwiring in the central nervous system unravels. As wonderful as these moments are, all around them primps boxing's proud pageantry. Training. The Dressing Room. The Ring Walk. Touching Gloves. The Fight. The Rest Period. The Decision. Hands Raised In Victory. The Fighters. There is so much to hear, smell, taste, touch and see in the sweet science. Photography makes one of these things possible.

And now, view the exhibition!


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