Boxing and The Image


I am currently in the process of directing a film on boxing. 24 to Heaven, is a look at the breakdown of boxing in urban America. Namely the rupturing of the factory system and its related structures in the wake of World War 2 and the urban crisis that followed suit. These blogs are also the rough drafts of a book, a collection of essays, ‘Postscript on Boxing’ I will be releasing with the film. This specific chapter of the book, chapter 7,  is a collection of my boxing photography, a few of those pictures I included on this blog. 

The image is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of Reality.

| Jean Baudrillard |

Part of this text, as the reader will see upon completion of this chapter, is a small sample of my boxing photography I have captured over the course of producing this work. So from that artistic viewpoint, independent of the boxing theory I have thus developed, I can most appropriately characterize photography centering upon the contemporary boxing community as creative work that centers around the documentation of a collective last rights ceremony where the sick, the living and breathing authentic boxing community, is not fully aware of its terminal condition. In a certain sense, the boxing community does in fact recognize something amiss — uncomfortably aware that some part of its system is clearly afflicted with a social disease — however, it has not yet come to terms with the ramifications or meaning behind the overwhelming dysfunction. So this awkward relationship I have often found myself in, between artist and boxing subject, ultimately puts the artist in the most uncomfortable of positions. For the artist’s task is to chronicle a way of life that is simultaneously dying, as its sick are partially oblivious to the very fact of their sentence, while at the same time trying to aesthetically covey the force of its powerful Life.  The juxtaposition we find in a local boxing gym is hard to fully comprehend: a dying and disintegrating community filled with Life. 

But this is the very dynamic that underlines what is central to the cultural obliteration of boxing in a digital era – a sport that found its significance on the intersection of mechanical modes of production and urban life – that is proving to be an insurmountable foe to the sport: the contemporary crisis of reality itself, the crisis of the human body; a crisis brought forth into the fold from the overwhelming power of the global media, the continued virtualization of the economy, and the hyper gentrification of American cities. What remains of boxing today is either the residue from the past or, as we are now finding in the presence of “yuppy boxing gyms” — non authentic gyms that cater not to developing legitimate prizefighters, but as an exercise method for professional workers — as a reactionary strategy undertaken to push back against the dehumanizing pressures of digital culture. The reactionary measure that such a move ultimately translates to, in terms of boxing, as individuals simply seek out a gym to train, is, of course, to seek out life: the dying boxing gym, either in its authentic form such as Ramalho’s in Lowell, and even in its caricature form as “boxing gyms” in gentrified cities, has become a paradoxical cradle for life.

This very tension, in my reading, seems most pronounced in my photography of the boxing community in Lowell, Massachusetts. For in Lowell boxing still manages to retain some form of cultural significance, as it still represents the lingering association of this mill city to its glory days as a center of industry and how the craft of boxing once ran as a social current along side the multiple working factories along the Merrimack River; the same city whose native son Jack Kerouac once remarked

If you ever see an

amateur heavyweight

whacking away

full-fisted at a sandbag

and making the whole

gym creak, you’ll learn

never to start a fight

with any big boy you

ever do meet in any bar

from Portland Maine to

Portland Oregon

Only an artist like Kerouac can truly appreciate boxing: a highly sensitive and intuitive soul; a street corner intellectual respected by university elite; and simultaneously the type of guy would gladly step outside of a bar with any man and go toe to toe; with Kerouac, if he was drunk enough, we could even see him hopping in the ring with Tyson. But this is why, as a side note, a writer like Kerouac would have been the greatest boxing writer ever. Because Kerouac, at the end of the day, was simply a “neighborhood guy” — a French Canadian kid from Lowell who could scrap in the street, respected the man who worked 9-5 and provided for his family, and believed, paradoxically, in a boxing type of logic. It is no secret that Kerouac eventually came to despise Ginsberg and his ultra liberal politics, his pathological desire to breakdown the very things Kerouac, after all his travels and pain, came to hold most dear — just being an everyday Joe from Lowell.

Re-approaching the dynamic between the contemporary boxer and my photographic work, this same tension is taken to its limit when we abstract a step further and juxtapose the boxer against the image itself.  There is a fundamental tension that now lives where the boxer meets himself as an image: how the boxer now perpetually encounters himself, not as a boxer, but as an image of a boxer. Today, with the rise of networked technology and pervasive digital influence, the image has become a hegemonic force. In 2016, the image functions as the dictator, ironically, of reality itself as it continually asserts its presence as the driving force of both the global economic and social order: we socially act as if we are our Facebook avatars, we economically respond to the incessant streams of advertising and marketing we daily encounter, and on the pixilated screens of the equity trading pits around the globe, the real power of the image is unveiled in its most radical form.

Boxing, in principal, categorically rejects the power and presence of the image within the ring. The ring, a square enclosure of 20 x 20, is the ultimate space where the raw power of reality is displayed: Violence.  Boxing is a sport fundamentally comprised of concrete physiological processes and organic social relations that coalesce into two human beings encountering one another in the form of a prize fight. That very activity — which transpires within the ring in the form of two human beings authentically and intimately encountering one another —  is the point where we can bear full witness to the essence of reality: and in such a moment, what is most un-welcome is the image. It is the height of irony then, that within the scope of boxing’s existence as a contemporary global sport and spectacle, it is the image itself that is the most essential piece for the sport to be effectively branded and marketed: boxing must drink its own poison to function. In a certain sense, I would make the claim that one of the central reasons the sport is collectively disintegrating is for the very fact it’s essential activity is too real for the image saturated world we currently inhabit.

So with that being in mind, I am always aware that every picture I take of the boxer captures a small piece of his or her integrity and power away. Therefore, I am extremely grateful for being allowed to photograph these boxers in their natural environments. I have been continually inspired by their humility, candor, and genuine sense of humanity. To be in an authentic boxing gym in 2016 is somewhat of a cathartic experience, possibly even spiritual. Its contemporary power rests on the ability to bear simple witness to reality itself, to humanity itself unfolding with every landed jab and piece of footwork. My respect of the authentic boxer — the aspiring prizefighter — is due to this precise dynamic: they are the mystics of the modern world, the corporeal prophets who can awaken us to what the body can still do, how it can still labor under excruciating conditions; even in a world such as ours that seems pathologically fixated on eschewing of all things mystical; the very thing that provides reality with its most real dimension.



Professional boxer Javier Fortuna

The legend himself, Arthur Ramalho, carefully watches a Golden Gloves fight.

The legend himself, Arthur Ramalho, carefully watches a Golden Gloves fight.

Aspiring professional fighter, Manny Antonetty, shadow boxes in an empty gym

Aspiring professional fighter, Manny Antonetty, shadow boxes in an empty gym

Former professional boxer Tommy Attardo, L Street Boxing gym, South Boston.

Former professional boxer Tommy Attardo, L Street Boxing gym, South Boston.

Boston based professional middleweight, DeLuca utilizes an oxygen deprivation mask to improve performance.

Boston based professional middleweight, Mark DeLuca, utilizes an oxygen deprivation mask to improve performance.