Dynamics of Boxing Photography.
By Carl Kuntze
26 Mar 2008
DYNAMICS OF BOXING PHOTOGRAPHY
Sports photography is a highly complex craft in which luck, augmented by technical
skill, plays a great part. Boxing is particularly difficult because of constraints on angling and options that are directed by maneuvers of the boxers themselves. My own initiation was rather promising since the only valid reply to my numerous mailed queries came from a ma-
jor international magazine, Bunte Illustrierte, of West Germany.
The event was The Thrilla in Manila, the third Ali-Frazier match, held in The Philip-
pines, October, 1975. I was elated but a bit uneasy, not having covered boxing before.
The magzine preferred a medium format for their transparencies, which further unsettled me.
I had a pretty neat 35 mm. system, two Pentax bodies, a KX and a K-2, a rapidwinder, and
six lenses, ranging from 28 mm. wide angle to a 200 mm. telephoto. My 6 x 7 was a Lin-
hof 220, with a fixed 95 mm. f.3.5 Technikar triplet produced by Rodenstock. It weighed
3 1/2 lbs, was 3 1/2 " wide and 11 1/2 " high. Its shutter release trigger was on the gun-
stock handle. The viewer was large with accurate parallax frames, an inner one for close-ups.
The split beam rangefinder was easy enough to focus, but both illuminated frames disap-peared when aimed against the light. The built-in exposure meter (visible in the viewer) was superbly accurate for general readings, but I'd be unable to monitor it during fluctuations
of light intensity. All told, it was a bulky piece of equipment not adapted for high-speed per-
formance. I would have preferred to use my Pentaxes, but didn't dare broach this with my
new editor for fear he'd withdraw the assignment. I'd have to explore using flash.
I owned a shoemount Vivtar 283, then developing a formidable reputation for pow-
er and reliability. During fashion shows I covered, I found its light output strong enough to
allow me to close down to f.8 in automatic mode at 12 feet with 100 ASA film. Its 4 second
recycling time was vexing, but it'd probably be adequate for my needs. I took two friends
to Araneta Coliseum, future site of the bout, and positioned them on the canvas, approxi-
mately where the boxers would stand. My tests were disconcerting. From my predeter-
mined post, the flash reflected through the ropes projected "tiger stripes" which could have
obscured the faces of the boxers. Since I had to maintain a stationary posture to avoid anta-
gonizing spectators behind me, I had to rule flash out.
I would have to depend on the fastest film of the time. High Speed Ektachrome.
Tungsten had an ASA speed of 110, Daylight, 160, which would have given me an extra
stop. Would the quartz lighting used in television leave an orange cast impossible for color
separators to correct? The weigh-in on the day preceding the fight would give me the opportunity to check. It was not particularly critical to the assignment. With tungsten film. I
could use an aperture of f.5.6 at a 60th of a second, much too slow for handheld shots. I couldn't open up to f.3.5 because the reduced depth of field would narrow my margin for error. For security, I brought my Pentax KX with a 50 mm. f.1.4 Takumar lens loaded with Plux X film, with which I took my first shots, then swinging the 35 mm. camera aside, exposed the Daylight High Speed Ektachrome on my Linlhof. I could only shoot twelve frames of the boxers in color, then covered the succeeding events with my Pentax.
I rushed off to have the test rolls developed, and was delighted with the results. Flesh tones were warm, but not unpleasant. Contrast was good with subjects separate from the background. Best of all, the orange bleed that would smudge the image in repro-
duction matrices was absent. Some confidence restored, I purchased two ten roll packets
of 120 High Speed Daylight Ektachrome. This niggardly amount would turn out to be over-
optimistic. When the bout was over, I'd finally have exposed two and a half rolls.
As I expected, I was literally frozen in my third row seat on the day of the bout with
my face glued top the viewfinder. When over-excited competitors were brought to their
feet by furious action, angry demands for them to siddown roared from the backrows. Some local bigwigs were reputed to have paid as much as $ 1000 for their ringside seats.
Ken Regan of Camera 35 was the only photographer permitted to post himself within the
ropes. He was at the edge of the west flank with several 35 mm. cameras mounted with
lenses of different focal lengths. I wasn't sure whether he won a pool or had a special arrangement with Don King. Sports Illustrated had a six man team statioined at strategic points of the arena, some with extreme telephotos to isolate the action, others with wide
angle lens to record the panorama. A remote control camera with a 250 foot magazine was
mounted over the ring. The presence of renown regional and international sports photo-
graphers somewhat deflated me. They all came in teams. I was the only one presump-
tuous enough to try covering the event by myself. Across me, I could see Norman Mailer
glowering. He was covering the bout for Playboy Magazine. ABC had several video
cameras and technicians scampering about. They were covering the fight for ABCs Wide
World of Sports, having nailed down the exclusive rights to broadcast internationally on closed circuit TV. Tension was thick.
Just before the opening round, I caught Ali in a quiet moment as Trainer-Manager
Angelo Dundee adjusted his gloves. A young reporter from The Tokyo based Far East
Network, sitting adjacent to me called out: "Think you'll beat him, Ali?" Ali's head snapped
in our direction as he replied calmly. "We're about to find out, aren't we?" This particular shot
exemplifies my own impression of him. Visiting his training site at The Folk Arts Theatre at
The Cultural Center of Manila, I generally came early, well ahead of other sportswriters and
photographers, to note the sharp distinction between the private Ali and his public image
(The Louisville Lip). Since I never goaded him, the only acknowledgement I elicited from him was a faint smile, and a curt nod. The posturing took place later when the limelight was
turned on with an adulating press paying court.
The first skirmish occured in the center of the ring with referee Carlos Padilla frantically
dancing beside them to watch where fists landed to call any fouls. I fired three more quick shots, aware only one of them showed both boxers' faces. The momentum carried them to
the opposite side. The round ended. I still had five shots left. I debated exposing the rem-
ainder of the roll on collateral activity around me, then reload. I decided against it. The bell
sounded for the second round. The boxers didn't wait to clash.
Ali knocked the mouthpiece out of Frazier's mouth, sending it sailing to my position,
spraying blood. While I knew I caught it on film, I didn't have time to focus. I hoped the blur
would still define recognizeable features which could be useable. I suspected they would-
n't. The bell clanged ending the round. I had to reload. I fumbled as I never had before. When I was ready, I'd lost the entire round. I regretted not acquiring spare roll film adapters,
which could be preloaded, but they cost half the price of the camera at the time. I decided
to save my film, shooting only when I was absolutely sure I was focused, and my subjects,
at a favorable angle. I exposed less but was more certain of acceptable pictures.I felt no
conscious nervousness. The persistent roar of the crowd and the clatter of motor drives had a numbing effect. I lost all sense of time. Reacting more reflexively, it still took me an eter-
nity to reload. Through several attacks, retreats, feints, and clinches, I watched for their faces,
tripping the shutter when they charged for my corner. Despite the bulk of my camera, ba-
lance was perfect, easy to stabilize, viewing was continious, without the slap of a retracting
mirror to startle me. My perception was not as acute, but I vaguely saw Ali drop his guard
down and challenge Frazier to hit him. Dundee's warning was sharply clear. "Don't mess with him, Ali. He's still dangerous." There was something bufoonish about Ali's pose. I de-
cided to forego the static shot. A split second later, Frazier accomodated him. I captured
that, but once again, both faces were turned away from me. I was learning about the frus-
tration of sports photographers, and wondered how early ones grappling 4 x 5 Speed Graphics managed to produce their striking pictures.
I was beginning to feel the strain, and strain was also taking its toll on both boxers. Frazier appeared more battered than Ali did. Face swollen, both eyes nearly shut, and a trickle of blood leaking from a corner of his mouth. Similarly, Ali was displaying signs of fa-
tigue in slower reflexes, and wild swings. Both in their mid-thirties, they were old men in their
violent professions. Yet, they valiantly persisted up to the 14th round. Later, I was told, Ali was so enervated by Fraziers endurance, he nearly failed to answer the bell. "He shows no signs of tiring," Ali protested.
"You can do it, Ali!" Dundee urged. "Get out there!" And he revived to carry the fight
to the 15th round when Frazier finally quit. Referee Padilla raised Ali's glove in the universal
gesture of victory, but Ali was not his flambouyant self. He sprawled on his back on the can-
vas as swarms of fans and reporters climbed into the ring, blocking him from my view. I stowed by Linhof away, and picked up my KX, where I'd mounted a normal 50 mm. lens.
set at f.5.6 at a 60th, I snapped one shot as Ali rose, supported by Bundini Brown, one of
his handlers. I'm rather proud of this shot of weary Ali, body glistening with sweat dripping
from his muscular body, reminiscent of paintings of gladiators of ancient Rome. He was after
all, a modern gladiator, whose feats of skill and strength pleased a multitude of fans for years. Mohammad Ali had retained the heavyweight championship crown. This was the
only boxing match I'd ever cover. An airline mixup delayed delivery of my film. Ironically,
my editor had to use Ken Regan's black and white shots. Over the years, some of them
would be used in newspapers and magazines during occasions Ali would reclaim the lime-
light. Lighting the Olympic Flame. Being named Athlete of The Century. During the release
of a new documentary. Granular structure and speed of Kodak High Speed Ektachrome
has improved since then. I could have used Daylight 400 ISO. The color of the shots I took with the "proper" Tungsten version was not faithful, but the corrected duplicates of transpa-
rencies from the Daylight film were richer and sharper. Preparations were crucial to the exe-
cution of the assignment. It helped me pick the right film, and decide to shoot in available
light. The resulting photographs were relatively dynamic as boxing pictures goes.