York Hall, Bethnal Green. © Alex Hocking 2011.
I had never been into boxing. My granddad had been (“The fairest sport in the world,” I remember him saying), but my dad wasn’t and my mum thought it was brutal. I’d never really been into boxing films either. Rocky was too silly, with Stallone too incomprehensible and the outcomes too predictable. I preferred Raging Bull’s storyline, but didn’t consider it A Great Film because it was about boxing, a sport I wasn’t interested in. I came to see the appeal of boxing through the viewfinder.
Although I turned up at York Hall in Bethnal Green for aesthetic reasons I left with an appreciation of the sport and the atmosphere a good event generates. From the edge of the ring, camera jutting between the ropes and elbows on the canvas, one can hear the difference between a body shot (hollow) and a punch to the face (quieter but sharper, slappier), one can feel the canvas move as the fighters advance, stumble or collapse. I saw blood drip from an eyebrow, land beside my camera and get smeared by a boot. Between matches, fights break out among the crowd and heavily made-up girls look on approvingly.
Fans spilling out from the neo-Georgian building’s small bar are ushered to the sides to make way for the boxers as they approach the ring, twitching and keyed-up, surrounded by coaches, medics and hangers-on looking for vicarious thrills. The crowd cheers or boos the glittering pantomime as they try to gauge the fighters’ disposition and energy. Is the outcome portended by the manner of slipping between the ropes? The small flurries of punches cast into the air as the music diminishes? The shimmer of an eye or the angle of a chin? Sometimes they walk nonchalantly, eyes untelling, others swagger top-hatted and confident.
Some fighters have a routine they go through before a fight, every step and gesture recreated so as not to risk offending the fates. Bounce off the ropes, dance to the centre with fists high, turn once then twice, pass the cloak to the trainer, skip on the spot to warm the feet.
Up on the balcony, flags are unfurled: Albanian Eagles, Irish tricolours, slogans of support and abuse. The music ebbs away, lights drop, fighters bounce into their corners for a last minute pep talk. Gumshields go in. gloves are checked. By this point, some fighters will already know the outcome and are bracing themselves for noble defeat. Suits and sovereigns worn over crisp white shirts in the front rows, hushed predictions, t-shirts and last minute taunts from the cheaper seats, then a moment’s reverence before the cacophony that accompanies the first bell.
Watching boxers pummel each other made me feel a mixture of blood lust (I think I shouted for one guy to kill the other) and a kind of giddy revulsion, an awareness that I shouldn’t be getting an illicit kick out of someone taking punches. It’s brutal, but also fair and an accurate distillation of what all sport is at its core: opponents using everything they can to win, whether it is speed, composure, anger, fear, technique or strength.
Most interesting to me are the slower moments of pathos where the fighters slump into each others’ arms, sometimes in no hurry to extricate themselves as they agree to take a breather, or where a fighter sits sullenly in a corner, advice bouncing off him as he readies himself to go back for another painful round of inevitable beating. It’s in these moments rather than the sporty moments of competitors hitting each other that boxing gains its power and epic proportions.