Boxing photos from the wires
“To me, boxing is like a ballet, except there's no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other.”
Isidoro Gastanaga, Dec 12, 1935
A glance at Isidoro Gastanega is enough to tell you he didn’t pick those muscles up in a gym; down a mine perhaps or on countless Spanish building sites but he has the look of a man who regarded roadwork and training as unnecessary gloss when the point of his trade was to knock another boxer flat. This portrait was taken in December 1935, a week before he was scheduled to fight up and coming contender Joe Louis in Havana. The fight didn’t place. When Louis’ manager, Mike Jacobs flew to Havana to settle final details he was met by six armed men, promptly turned around and caught the next flight back to New York.
Gastanega’s professional boxing career was as patchy as a crash victim in a hospital bed. He beat better men under suspicious circumstances and some of his fights ended in ways that left a distinct odour in the arena. Purses were withheld and investigations undertaken by boxing commissions, but those organizations existed essentially to see the gamblers and fixers maintained a veneer of respectability and their inquiries had a way of quietly fizzling out when no firm evidence of anything came to light. Gastanega’s death was also murky and unresolved. On the night of April 2, 1944, he was leaving a saloon in the Argentine border town of La Quica when a gunman fired off three bullets into him.
Tony Galento, 26/6/1938
Eight years on from the Gastanega non-event, Joe Louis had been the champion for six years and Tony Galento was the next tomato can in the so called “bum of the month” campaign. (You may hate boxing but you have to love its language.) “Two Ton” Tony trained on hot dogs and beer and the morning of the match pointed out to reporters that the proof he was taking things seriously was that he hadn’t had a drink for two days. Watching Galento on YouTube is a revelation in brute logic. Short and fat, he waddled around the ring with his mouth wide open, taking wild swings at opponents who sometimes had the wit to realize that if they only stayed out of danger for another round he’d be out of breath and theirs for the taking. Quite a few didn’t. It may appear astonishing that Galento had actually considered contender material but this photo provides the evidence why. Galento wasn’t a fighter; he was a showman. He bore a resemblance to Bud Abbott and shared his street instincts for timing and hype. This is a great image of a man who knows the odds are against his winning but the glory is in the paycheck and the secret is to get the press to eat out of his hand.
Joe Louis v Tony Galento, 26/6/1938
And here’s the result. It’s the fourth round and Galento has been effortlessly picked apart and punched about by a professional with surgical skills. Well, not entirely effortlessly since in the first round Galento connected and put Louis down for a brief count. Louis was heavyweight champion for twelve years and more than half a century on people may not know the facts or the statistics but they still recognize his name. Here he looks relaxed and unfazed, as though Galento might have fallen over before the fight actually started and he has popped over to lend the referee a hand. This bout marked the high point for Galento’s career, the one he would be remembered for. Later he would appear in a few films (a bit part in On the Waterfront), but he continued to fight, wrestling a reputedly dead alligator and a giant octopus and boxing a bear and a kangaroo. He died of a heart attack in 1979. Those in the press who remembered the 1940s mourned his passing, knowing they’d never get such great copy from a single character again.
Henry Armstrong v Lew Feldman, 30/3/1938
Physically, and somewhat in personality, Galento also resembled the photographer Weegee, both being masters of shameless self-promotion. Boxing photos of the 1940s and ‘50s are usually classified under ‘sport’ but they really belong to the genre of tabloid photography that Weegee exemplified. They share the same graphic quality, particularly in the way the flash bulbs froze and isolated figures against stark black backgrounds, and the photographers operated in the same tribal milieu. The Jewish and the Italian kids battling each other in a small downtown arena was merely a sanctioned version of the violence wrought in the nearby alleyways. The best photographers understood the elemental fascination for the savagery they depicted. In this photograph Henry Armstrong, world featherweight, and lightweight and soon to be welterweight champion, is in the process of finishing off Lew Feldman in a non-contest bout. In a lot of photographs the ropes would get in the way of the action. Here they make it work by dividing it up. They separate the fighters from the reporters, gamblers and fans outside the ring, and from us. They are a reminder that whatever is going on inside their barriers, we are essentially voyeurs. It’s also the ropes that tell us it’s all over for Feldman. In the cramped and claustrophobic territory of the boxing ring he has nowhere to escape to anymore.
Henry Armstrong v Lou Ambers 22/8/1939
The most famous name among boxing photographers of the era was Charles Hoff, thanks largely to a book, The Fights (Chronicle Books, 1996) that rescued his photographs from the storage vaults of newspaper archives. Erecting two strobe flashes at the sides of the ring, Hoff could set the shutter of his Speed Graphic to 125th of a second but capture the action at around 1/20 000 to 1/30 000th of a second. This photo shows Armstrong landing low on Lou Ambers’ trunks. Though The Fights has a photo by Hoff of this bout, the one above is unaccredited so the best we can say is it looks like one of his. High speed flash records at speeds much faster than the eye registers and the results can be deceptive. At this moment Ambers appears to be slouching against the ropes and casually inviting Armstrong to hit low, or at least he looks not so concerned as he ought to. This is one of a few dozen low blows Armstrong would land that night but Ambers was a tough street kid and he’d take them if that gave him permission to land some of his own. He went on to win the decision.
Archie Moore v Joey Maxim, 27/1/1954Finally, a photo that gets so much wrong yet one thing right. Archie Moore is 38. He has been fighting for around 20 years and in a few minutes he will be crowned world light heavyweight champion. Yet, at his moment of triumph, he is obscured by the referee’s voluminous backside, his opponent Joey Maxim is also hidden and the whole composition becomes a study in boot soles. Maybe the photographer was loading film at the wrong time and turned desperately in the hope of capturing something. What he got was the antithesis of the standard boxing photo, no tight framing and no sense of the significance of the moment. In 1954 a new light heavyweight champion was an international news event but here it is just another contest between two unknowns. It is also a reminder that just because boxing is a legitimate sport that doesn’t make it elegant. For photographers like Hoff the mark of a great photo was its grace, the symmetry of two figures locked in a fight and that eloquent space that existed between them. What they might be depicting was one man who had lost self control and was desperately trying to extricate himself from more bloody humiliation, or another being battered to an insensate standstill. Even in the most brutal of Hoff’s photos, when a fighter’s face is grotesquely distorted by a landing punch, the essential perfection of the image neuters the violence. There isn’t any pain in this image of Moore and Maxim but there is a clumsy banality that belies any idea of sporting excellence.
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