Boxing – Hugh McIlvanney, “Sport In Focus” published 1986.

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THE TRUISM that professional boxing is like no other sport is reinforced by just about every

photograph ever taken of a fighter at work. Desperate moments in other games can, when frozen by

the camera, translate into beautiful abstractions. Even the most violent collision of American football players,

the kind of battering impact that sends an 18-stone athlete cartwheeling several feet above

the turf, can look innocently balletic when the masked and padded figures are suspended in tableau within

a 10 inches by 5 inches rectangle on a sports page. But there is seldom the remotest illusion of

anything ethereal in pictures of fighters. The business of the ring is so relentlessly concerned with the direct

assault of one man upon another’s body and spirit (without any diluting distractions

like a ball or a stopwatch or a measuring tape) that no glimpse of it can ever be totally

devoid of a sense of hazard and apprehension. Clearly, nothing in the assertions just made

challenges the obvious fact that many of the very best boxing photographs are entirely free of violence.

They may sometimes have an almost eerie quality of repose. But they are always dispatches from the front,

always narratives of some sort. The story they suggest may be simply one of pride or hope

but more often the human sagas hinted at in these outstanding pictures from the fight game deal with

pain or vulnerability, with spirits under bombardment or dreams already broken. Whether you are drawn

to it or repelled by it, there is no denying that boxing is in the end the most dramatic of all the activities that

are classed as sport. More than that, it is the hardest – physically and psyscologically. So it is natural,

indeed inevitable, that the most compelling of its images should be poignant and frequently bleak. For proof,

look no further than the photographs of Howard Winstone and Barry McGuigan, of Johnny Owen

and, yes, of Muhammad Ali that  appear on the pages of this book.


Muhammad-Ali-Larry-Holmes   Muhhama-Ali-Vegas-1980   Ali-Float-Like-A-Butterfly





Nobody ever looked through a lens and saw fighters and their trade more honestly or more

movingly than Chris Smith does. He sees them first, last and always as people. Sometimes they are

people doing well, having a good time, as Ali  certainly is in the fish-eye shot of him addressing an

enthralled throng in a hall behind Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas. But more often they are people

under stress, in crisis, as Barry McGuigan so blatantly is in the picture which shows those wide,

attractive eyes pitifully drained of all that  bubbling, mischievous energy that is the everyday currency of his nature.


Now and then the message is less direct but tightens the throat just the same. That is surely the

case with the smiling study of Johnny Owen. It would be both false and insulting to claim that elongated,

alarmingly thin torso, spindly arms and the child-like face perched on the long neck, gave warning of the

horrors  this tragic boy in a grubby, tumultuous arena in downtown Los Angeles. Equally, however,

it is impossible to look on Johnny Owen as rendered by Chris Smith without feeling that this 24-year-old,

who was still a virgin (and not merely in the sexual sense) when he went into the ring to challenge a

fierce Mexican called Lupe Pintor for the world bantamweight championship in September of I980,

never belonged in such hostile company.


The fight ended dreadfully in the 12th round, with the young Welshman plunged into a coma that

led inexorably to death in the first week of November.  A piece I filed to The Observer a few hours after

the knockout has a sentence that reads: ‘There is something about his pale face, with its large nose,

jutting ears and uneven teeth, all set above that long, skeletal frame, that takes hold of the heart and

makes unbearable the thought of him being badly hurt.’ I cannot glance at Chris’s picture without

finding all the anxiety I carried into the Olympic Auditorium on that Friday night welling up anew.

Yet the smile, with its strange mixture of shyness and comfortable acceptance of his revealing pose,

reminds me that Johnny Owen was immeasurably more at ease in the milieu of boxing than in any other

area of his short life. The final few words of that sad report from Los Angeles said: ‘Outside the ring

he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and

self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. lt is his tragedy that he found

himself articulate in such a dangerous language.’


It is natural that several of the boxing pictures in this book should cause uneasy stirrings in someone

like myself who finds the game nearly irresistible, but remains incurably ambivalent about its

ultimate validity in a civilised society. Asking just how civilised modern society (with its soaring

crime rates, corruption at all levels and perennial threat of nuclear annihilation) is supposed to be

may emphasise that the legitimacy of public fisticuffs is a long way from being the most pressing

issue of the day. But it doesn’t neutralise the  disturbing effect of an unflinching though unmistakably

sympathetic record of the ordeals of fighting men.


Some of these photographs are so inspired, so striking that they almost demand to be hung on a

gallery wall but there was nothing arty about Chris Smith’s approach to shooting them.

On the contrary, their power might be traced, in part at least,

to habits and perceptions he developed as the distinguished, prize-winning news photographer he

was before he began piling up awards for the coverage of sport. He is a master of composition

but the flow of feeling through his pictures is almost invariably more important than the deployment of shapes,

human or inanimate. For him, timing is seldom merely a matter of capturing a climax of movement. Frequently,

and particularly when fighters are his subject, it is the moment of maximum intensity, or maximum significance,

he is seeking to imprison.


The stunning series encompassing a decade of Muhammad Ali’s incomparable career — from the

preparation for his first historic and heroic collision with Joe Frazier in 1971 to the miserable occasion

in 1980 when a compassionate Larry Holmes toyed with the leftovers of Ali’s greatness — stresses that

criterion. So does the shot of Colin Jones slumping open-mouthed against a ring post after being

by the devastatingly sharp punching of Curry and, less dramatically but no less tellingly,

so does the beautiful study of Curry at work the speed ball. Shefield’s Herol Graham posing

the background of a steelworks in his home town is a classy example of what Chris would call

3 bit of fun. But the pictures of Howard Winstone (like that heartbreaking moment from the fight that

cost Barry McGuigan his world featherweight title in Las Vegas and destroyed his relationship with

his manager, Barney Eastwood) are all seriousness.



Barry-McGuigan     Herol-Graham-Sheffield-1985  Don-Curry-Miami-1985





In the action shot, Wimstone tries with one good eye to keep track of the harmful intentions of Jose

Legra, who is about to relieve Howard of a version world championship that magnificent Welsh

boxer held for six months in I968. The other shows Winstone, bulging slightly in his waistcoat and

with the dregs of a half-pint of Guinness at his elbow, in a pub reverie about the might-have-beens

of a career in which all the wonders of his technique and the beauty of his spirit in the ring were

thwarted by the superior physical strength of the remarkable Mexican who was the supreme

featherweight of the mid-Sixties – Vicente Saldivar.







It is an irony not untypical of boxing that, after fighting forty-odd rounds against Saldivar and

being unlucky to be denied the verdict in one of their three matches, Winstone should have been

battered into retirement by Legra, who wasn’t in the Mexican’s league. Of course, Howard brought

only the worn remnants of his gifts to that sad occasion at a Porthcawl fairground in the summer of

1958. My friendship with Winstone and his manager Eddie Thomas (two Merthyr Tydfil men

I like and admire as much as anyone I have ever met in connection with boxing) enabled me to

engineer for Chris Smith the privilege of shooting pictures of Howard before he went into the ring

against Legra. Chris appreciated that edge, since the opportunity to photograph fighters in the hour

or so before a contest is infinitely rarer than the chance to train the camera on them after they have

won or lost. He wanted to make the most of his opening and in my anxiety to help him I suggested

that perhaps he would like me to persuade Winstone to stay near the one naked light bulb that

illuminated the champion’s squalidly inadequate ‘dressing room.’


Chris is a polite, even a gentle man but as a working-class lad from Hartlepool he can bring

strong hints of iron to the surface now and again and this was one time when I, having made the

crass error of interrupting his work, was given a glimpse of his harder side. ‘Hugh, I’m very grateful

to you for getting me in here,’ he said, ‘but now would you piss off and let me get on with this.’


Let me stress that I am not usually so rash about poking my nose into the business of other

professionals, least of all that of photographers. The cameramen I have worked with on a regular basis

during my years in Fleet Street have been of a calibre to discourage such folly. In the early days

with The Observer there were Stuart Heydinger and Gerry Cranham, two utterly different men

linked by exceptional talent. And over the last 20 years or so I have been permitted to go about my

job in the company of first Chris Smith and then ,Eamonn McCabe and if that isn’t privileged treatment

I’d like to know what is. In addition to turning out pictures of often breathtaking brilliance

(the kind which, as I have acknowledged in the past, can make a sportswriter feel that his function

is to produce 1500-word captions), Eamonn and Chris are stalwart companions to have on the road

and more than bright enough to enlarge or correct the perceptions of any writer they are operating with.


It is Eamonn who is my Observer ally these days, of course, while Chris is in the opposition camp

of The Sunday Times but anyone who thinks that must make a difference to how Smith and I get

along with each other doesn’t know much about us. It’s not crazy to suggest that Chris Smith can be

used as a sort of litmus test when assessing other people in our trade. If somebody doesn’t like Chris,

or Chris doesn’t like him or her (and that’s a rarity), then I for one wouldn’t be in any rush to head for

the bar with the individual in question.


When Chris Smith and I get together — and since both of us have pitched up in Richmond in south-

west London that’s not a desperately unusual occurrence — the reminiscences of strange working

days shared are likely to come in a flood capable of numbing the minds of family or friends foolish

enough to remain within earshot. The events surrounding my 40th birthday on Haiti (which fell

during a visit to the training camp of the island’s World Cup footballers) can keep us going for a

while. Then there is the tale of an expedition to the small racetrack at Bowie in Maryland to see

Chris McCarron, who was then in the process of making himself the most successful apprentice in

the history of horse racing and has since become one of the outstanding riders in the game, with

dramatic achievements in the American Triple Crown races of 1987 to emphasise that status. Young

McCarron was in splendid form when we met up with him but the same could hardly be said of

Smith or myself. We had flown down from New York after an excessively congenial evening among

old acquaintances in Manhattan and neither the photographer nor the scribbler found it too easy

to make one brain cell connect with another around breakfast time. However, as the day progressed a

semblance of mental vigour was restored and our duties were fairly competently discharged.

But the experience was a stiff reminder to both of us that, quite apart from avoiding the sauce at

all costs while on the job, those in our business are well advised to keep away from it on the night

before anything other than the most trivial assignment. Mind you, it is a relevant fact that in

Manhattan bars the night before can last until 4am.


But the experience was a stiff reminder to both us that quite apart from avoiding the sauce at

all costs while on the job, those in our business are well advised to keep away from it on the night

before anything other than the most trivial assignment. Mind you, it is a relevant fact that in

Manhattan bars the night before can last until 4am. Some of the most pleasant and amusing

memories Chris and I share are drawn from several days we spent around Muhammad Ali in Miami

early in 1971. Ali, recently returned to boxing at the end of the three—and-a-half year exile imposed

on him because of his refusal to be drafted, was preparing for his first fight with Joe Frazier. He

was soon to move to New York to be exposed to the traditional media mob scene but American

reporters and broadcasters, who are even more powerfully influenced by herd instincts than are

their counterparts on this side of the Atlantic, were disinclined to pay any attention to the final phase

of his Miami training. So Chris and I had the genius almost to ourselves for nearly a week.

Often the only other presence was Reggie Thomas, a Black Muslim agent from Chicago who

was acting as chaufieur and bodyguard to Ali at the time. Reggie was quite a presence. Small and light-

skinned, with the deliberately composed features and mobile eyes of the professional bodyguard, he

favoured single—colour ensembles (usually white or blue) from his fiat cap to this pull-on boots.

It was always safe to assume that he was also wearing something metal and highly functional.


In the still hour between five and six o’clock on mornings, Reggie was to be found easing a black Cadillac around the three-mile

perimeter of Bayshore golf course behind the loping figure of his employer. Once while we were in the

car a small dog of vaguely terrier origin suddenly scurried towards Ali with a yelping show

of aggression and the man from Chicago, responding to the imperatives of his trade and his nature,

put his foot on the accelerator with every intention of obliterating the threat.

‘Hey, Reggie, leave him alone,’ shouted Muhammad. ‘He don’t mean nothin’. He just a blufi” dog.’


Soon Muhummad had tired of running, which he invariably did earlier than he should, and began

to scan the pre-dawn sky for signs of the fleet of spacecraft whose unique propensities were at that

time providing one of the more arresting themes of his monologues. These craft were apparently

patrolling the heavens on behalf of the wronged black peoples of the earth, ready to visit a terrible

retribution on the whites if they failed to abandon their persecuting ways. The smaller machines

were, Ali told us, equipped with three-pound jack-hammer bombs that could, if required, burrow

underground and set ofl subterranean explosions that would topple cities. The mother ship of the

fleet could ‘travel at 18,000 miles an hour and turn on a pinhead.’ Even Ali’s imagination checked its

stride momentarily when confronted with that capability.


Muhammad-Ali-Chopping-Wood    Muhammad Ali dawn run Miami 1971





‘I don’t know what turning like that does to the people inside the mother ship but I suppose the

wise men in the east have figured that out.’ A little later he left me just a shade disconcerted by asking:


How much does the world weigh?’ But he Immediately let me off the hook: ‘You won’t know

– you white guys weren’t around when they gave out that information.’

In addition to the simple pleasure of those episodes (the joyful sense of fun with which all of them

were imbued), they were touched with a hint of wonder and mystery – filled as they were with the

magical ambiguity of the young Ali’s spirit, in which conscious mischief and a genuine surrealist

extravagance so compellingly mingled.
Experiencing at first-hand the glorious originality of Muhammad Ali has been one of the enduring

delights and satisfactions of my professional life. And, like much of the best that has happened to

me as a journalist, it has been further enriched by being shared with Chris Smith.

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