One day in 1950, little Howard Schatz joined his friends at sports camp. Camp counselors fitted the boys with boxing gloves, then watched as they flailed away for 90 seconds at a time. Eventually, young Howard was struck in the face. He stopped and removed his gloves. It was at that moment the 10-year-old came to a realization: Boxers are different, and he was no boxer.
"They’re different individuals," Schatz says today. "They’re special in many ways. They’re determined, focused athletes, but they’re also different because of that one thing: They’re fearlessly courageous and getting hit doesn’t seem to faze them, and because they can hit somebody else and feel just fine about it. Almost every fight, when it’s over—whether it’s a draw or a knockout or a decision—they hold each other and they say good fight, good work, nice going. It’s really remarkable."
Showing The Range Of Human Expression
It was while Schatz was creating a previous book, Athlete, for which he interviewed and photographed many different athletes in many different sports, that his childhood epiphany recurred. This time it led to a new project: a book devoted to boxing. The culmination of six years of work, At The Fights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing (Sports Illustrated) contains more than 400 photographs, and like all of Schatz’s books, it was a personal project powered by his intense work ethic and an almost manic desire to completely explore such an intriguing human subject.
"They all have machismo," Schatz says, "but they do as a group cover a wide range of human expression, from easygoing to extremely intense, from soft and sweet and gentle to tough customers. They’re all very different, but they all work very hard to make great photos—very much like any great athlete, dancer or actor I’ve ever had. It was a great experience. But it wasn’t particularly different from other experiences in portraiture with well-known and accomplished people."
The whole idea, Schatz says, was to make remarkable images that I could make up from zero, and you do that in the studio with strobes. But I shot from ringside so that I could get the entire, complete world of boxing.
No Holds Barred
The biggest difference, Schatz explains, is that the boxers were up for anything. They let the photographer do things to them, like dousing them with powder or sprinkling them with salt or drenching them in water, especially water. There was lots of water.
"You know," says Schatz, "between rounds a boxer sits there with his gloves on and he’s helpless. He can’t even handle a bottle of water. So they throw water on him, and down his pants and on his head, and they put grease on him and they rub him, and they give him water to drink and a can to spit in. Knowing that—I shot for Sports Illustrated from ringside—and seeing that, I realized I could do anything I wanted."