I managed to navigate my school years without getting into any serious fights. I was a skinny kid with no obvious fighting ability, and though my school was an averagely rough Surrey comp, I largely (luckily) seemed to go unnoticed by the school bullies. I did reasonably well in my subjects, with the exception of my maths class which, being the lowest set, felt more like a jail holding pen than a classroom. I never put my hand up, failed maths, and have relied on a calculator ever since.
Like many boys growing up in the 70s and 80s I had a fascination for boxing and karate, and dreamed of one day being able to do one or both. I ended up doing neither, but the fascination remained, especially for boxing which, as I got older, seemed to me to be increasingly inconsistent with modern life. As a kid, I’d been taught to solve arguments with words and not violence. People didn't hit each other in my world, at least not at art school. So when I returned to college to study for an MA in Fine Art Photography a decade ago and needed a subject to get my teeth into for a couple of years, I chose boxing. It was a chance to finally see it up close without getting hurt.
I began by making contacts at boxing gyms in and around London. First I’d take reportage shots of the boxers training and in action to get to know them and for them to get used to me. It was a subculture I'd never been exposed to, they seemed to accept me as a curiosity. The person who helped me the most was Kellie Maloney, who I met before she transitioned. I remember her mother was always the one on the ticket desk, a ferocious, tiny lady with a broad Irish accent.
The aim was to eventually have the boxers pose for individual portraits, to photograph them immediately after their professional fights.
I discovered a number of things. Firstly, that boxers are incredibly disciplined; what may appear to be uncontrolled violence is, for the most part, measured and skilful and full of respect for their opponent. The pros train extremely hard, don't drink or smoke, and follow their trainer's instructions without question. So, when the trainer said they were having their photo taken, they did it.
Secondly, they're not shy; they're perhaps even a little vain. Boxing photography is almost as old as photography itself, predating the Queensbury rules*, and there's a long tradition of boxers showing off for the camera. The boxers I met were happy to be part of that tradition.
So began months of attending training sessions and following the fighters to professional fights around the UK. My friend and assistant Lucy and I would sit hidden from the audience in a little portable studio set up between the ring and the dressing rooms. At the end of the matches, and as the cheering echoed around the auditorium, the boxers would come past and give us a few minutes. The exchange would follow a familiar pattern: I'd peer down into my big Mamiya film camera and ask them about the fight. Sweaty and breathless, they would hold their head lowered and arms up in traditional boxing pose. Then, gradually, their arms and shoulders dropped as the exhaustion took hold and the adrenalin ebbed. That was when the more interesting shots were taken, when they were unguarded, a little vulnerable.
In the darkroom I noticed a common expression in these photos, a weariness that bordered on a look of despair; mouth ajar, eyes often looking into the distance at no fixed point. It was an expression I'd seen before: in the Icons rooms of the National Gallery in London, the saints in their torment, fatigued but joyous, transcendental. It might be simply that the boxers were replaying the fight in their head, and there was no way of telling if they'd won or lost from their expressions. Often it was the Romanian who'd been flown in with a few days’ notice to fight a local guy on his way up who was the more cheerful. The local guy had a win to his name, but the Romanian had £300 in his pocket and his flights paid.
The image of wounded masculinity predates Christianity to Classical times and has been a recurring theme throughout recorded history. From a blinded Samson through to Saint Sebastian shot with arrows, to contemporary movie characters, Rocky Balboa, Die Hard's John McClane. The idea of the powerful warrior brought low still holds power and has become a boxing movie staple.
There's joy and tragedy in all sports but never as poignant as they are in boxing, and they’re lent an extra pathos after the fights when the boxers pack up their things and leave the building. For all the adoration the boxers receive in the ring, they still have the practicalities of getting to and from the event and, at this level, there is no limo waiting for them.
One evening, on our way back to London, we encountered a bruised but victorious young David Hayes eating alone at a motorway service station. When I saw him he was quietly staring into space. We joined him for dinner that night. Lucy and I didn't imagine he would one day reach the top of the sport, and if he did, he wasn’t letting on.
JAMES TYE is a British photographer specialising in travel and portraits. His work spans shooting travel stories and guidebooks around the world, to snapping colourful characters in his own East London neighbourhood. He has photographed Colombian wrestlers and Indian martial artists and was once deported from Cuba. He is never happier than when riding a rental scooter at dawn with a camera around his neck. Recent travel and street photography can be found on James's Instagram and Website.
[Images (top down, L-R) Munyai, Vladimir, Harding, Pacy, Sugar, Al, Twin, Nikita, Dezzie ]
* the Queensbury rules (1865) denote the start of modern boxing, and the end of bare knuckle brawls.