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The Dude © John Cole

The Dude © John Cole

John Cole’s Shadow Boxers

John Cole’s photographic work will be familiar to many Hastings folk through his books about the Hastings fishing community featured in Generations and Sea Dogs, as well as his work being prominently displayed on the net huts around the Stade. He told HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths about a new book he has in gestation called Shadow Boxers, which goes back to the 1970s and ’80s when he spent time in the sweaty boxing gyms and arenas in New York and Jersey.

John, who grew up in Connecticut, moved to New York in 1975 and lived there for over ten years. In 1977, he first entered Gleason’s Boxing Gym in central Manhattan. The truth is, John had never been much interested in boxing, but sensed that there might be a few strong images he could get for his nascent photojournalism portfolio.

Heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney with his trainer Victor Valle at Gleason’s Gym, New York City, 1977. © John Cole

Heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney with his trainer Victor Valle at Gleason’s Gym, New York City, 1977. © John Cole

“When I first entered Gleason’s Gym,” remembers John, “It was like stepping onto the set of a 1950s black and white movie, along with all the deafening sounds and rancid smells. I had gone to the gym thinking I’d spend an hour or two taking a few shots. In the end, I spent almost five years obsessively taking photographs and eventually lacing on the gloves and stepping into the boxing ring myself. But that’s another story.” As a consequence he absolutely does know how much it really hurts to be punched in the head and ribs.

Shadow Boxers is a celebration of, arguably, the last great era of club fighting in New York. The world of the real-life Rocky’s, a hard, unforgiving world, where a man had the chance to fight his way to fame and glory through sheer guts and determination. A world that no longer exists. Although John photographed Muhammad Ali as well as some other big name boxers , the photos in Shadow Boxers are more about the unheralded boxers training in gritty gyms and fighting for a life in grungy, makeshift, filthy, noisy boxing arenas.

Reminiscent of film sets in another era John decided early on to shoot in black and white, in the style of his photographic heroes, Magnum photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Bruce Davidson. “I wanted to capture in my boxing photos those unguarded moments of reality and emotional honesty.”

Freddie Brown © John Cole

Freddie Brown © John Cole

“At first,” says John, “The fighters and their managers pretty much ignored me. But when I kept coming back to the gym to give them prints, they gradually allowed me more access and even agreed to pause for a portrait. There were certainly characters there – and faces to photograph. Renowned trainer Freddy Brown with his bashed in nose, who I suspect never took the cigar out of his mouth. And gym manager Sammy Morgan, with his lined face that told stories of years of being in the fight game.

Sammy Morgan & Jose © John Cole

Sammy Morgan & Jose © John Cole

John photographed him with lightweight fighter Jose Resto, in the basement of the school gym of Power Memorial High School, Manhattan, where a boxing match was held in 1978. The fight was stopped because of a deep gash above Jose’s eye. “When the ringside doctor asked Jose if he wanted an anaesthetic injection before being sewn up, he said No Thank You, and didn’t flinch once as the doctor sewed him up.” John was not so relaxed about it, and couldn’t help but flinch while photographing Jose being the sewn up!

“I especially enjoyed photographing the relationship between trainers and their fighters, the intensity of emotion between them as they worked round after round to reach the point where they could have a shot at the title.”

Shadow boxer at Gleasons © John Cole

Shadow boxer at Gleasons © John Cole

John has captured in his photographs the real feeling of the people and the clubs; the grittiness, the hard life, the dirt and the sheer graft. But there was also empathy and respect. “This old boy, whose name I’m afraid I’ve forgotten, is shadow boxing at Gleason’s Gym, 1979. He was the middleweight champion of the US Coast Guard during the second world and was a regular visitor to Gleason’s. Because he was serious about his training in the gym, he was never teased by the other much younger black and Hispanic fighters and was always given total respect and the space to work out.”

John remembers one stand out figure, The Dude (whose real name he never learned), who was watching a local boxing match at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York City. “He was the coolest character there,” remembers John. “And no matter what was happening in the boxing ring, he remained impassive, forever cool. I felt nervous asking to take his photo, but when I did he seemed to be flattered by my request and was extremely polite.”

The Audubon Ballroom, opened in 1912 was just that, a dancing ballroom. John continues, “When I took this photo in 1980, the building was used for concerts, dancing, bingo, sports events and political meetings. It was in the Audubon Ballroom, very close to where The Dude was sitting, that Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

Unidentified club fighter looking  a little dazed between rounds during a fight at Sunnyside Arena in Queens, NY, 1979 © John Cole

Unidentified club fighter looking  a little dazed between rounds during a fight at Sunnyside Arena in Queens, NY, 1979 © John Cole

Shadow Boxers will be published by the Unicorn Publishing Group, which published Generations. And like Generations, John will be asked to make a contribution to the marketing and distribution of the book, which is standard publishing practice. The Kickstarter campaign aims to raise the £20K needed to bring Shadow Boxers to life.

Donors to the Kickstarter campaign will be given signed copies of the book, packs of postcards, limited edition prints… and undying gratitude.

John will share profits from the sale of Shadow Boxers with The Ringside Charitable Trust (UK), which looks after the needs of ex-boxers, as well as to the Hastings West Hill Boxing Club, where the Kickstarter video was shot.

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Posted 13:00 Friday, May 10, 2024 In: Photography

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