I boxed in the Golden Gloves when I was 14. My dad had taught me, and I thought I was pretty good. So I spent a summer training in an old house in Avondale, a black neighborhood in Cincinnati. The attraction of this gym was a fighter named Johnny North, whom I had seen win the Cincinnati Golden Gloves the previous spring. He went on to finish second in the U.S. The master of the house was an old trainer, a sort of black Burgess Meridith, who paid no special mind to a slow-handed white boy — after a couple of weeks, he just put me in the ring with Johnny. I threw a couple of spaghetti jabs, and Johnny smiled. When the buzz saw hit, the swarm of wasps, I knew enough to cover up, but it was astonishing that anyone could throw punches so fast. Old black Burgess Meridith in the background said “Don’t hurt him, Johnny, he just a novice.” Johnny smiled and stepped back.
A novice I remained, but with an appreciation for the skill set. It was the age of great boxers: Cassius Clay on his way to being Mohammed Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Sugar Ray, Duran, Hit Man, Tyson and Hector “Macho” Camacho, whose flamboyance and stage presence nearly over-shadowed his cheetah-like agility and croupier’s hand-speed. When he entered the ring with that stupid little spitcurl in the middle of his forehead, I wanted his opponent to hit him with an anvil. Over the rounds, though, his boxing talent converted me every time I watched. But it was not a real surprise when he got shot in the face outside a night club in the P.R., a baggy of cocaine in his lap. It was sad.
Boxing is difficult to photograph. The light is low, making high-speed film or low aperture a must. The action is fast, and the instants we recall so well in memory past instantaneously in fact. The ropes and corner posts and referee are always in the way: you have to shoot between the ropes, which reflect flash and cast shadows. Or you take low angle shots, camera on the canvas aimed upwards, which produces glaring backlight. Or you seek a high vantage and shoot down, like in the famous Ali knockout picture. These technical challenges explain why there are so many good knockout pictures and so few good action pictures in boxing.
I keep on going to the Golden Gloves. These pictures were taken on March 6, 2004, at the Cleveland tournament. One of the immortals – Jimmy Bivens – was there, graciously signing autographs, as he always did. Bivens was the greatest fighter never to win a regulation title. A mere 5′ 9″ he fought in the light-heavy and heavyweight divisions during W.W. II when all titles were put on hold. He knocked down Ezzard Charles six times and Archie Moore seven in defeating them. After the war he lost to Joey Maxim (another Clevelander) and Jersey Joe Walcott. He beat eight future world champions. In 13 years in the ring, he fought 112 bouts (86 wins, 25 losses, 1 draw). Do that math! He died on the 4th of July this year, aged 92.
“The only thing is, I fought my heart out and didn’t get no pay,” he told The Plain Dealer in 1994. “Now, guys go for two rounds and come out a millionaire. They couldn’t wipe my nose. That’s the way the fight game is.”
Hector, wherever you are, Jimmy is talking to you.