I saw my first boxing match in a decrepit train depot in Greensboro, North Carolina sometime in the spring of 1997. I was finishing a degree in Religious Studies and working at an investment firm. In so far as one can pursue widely divergent paths in life, adding fight-fan to my list of aspirations was likely inevitable.
The venue had all the hallmarks that I would later come to understand accompanied most amateur boxing. The canvas was tattered, the beer was flat, the lighting flickered and paint peeled from the walls in humid boils. The fighters emerged from former luggage holding areas that had been pressed into service as dressing rooms. There was smoke in the air and crushed popcorn on the floor. The thick brass bell called the fighters to the ring with the only slicing tone that could penetrate the din. It was alien and poorly organized and just this side of legal but I loved it. I have been a boxing fan ever since.
At the Crystal Palace in Memphis I would eventually see Mike Tyson lay down Louisiana born Clifford Etienne like a side of beef off a hook in 49 seconds. But, my heart was always with the grubby little fights, the Golden Gloves and the young kids trying to scrap their way to something like glory.
Boxing at a maximum-security prison doesn’t hold out opportunities for the same sort of glory that lithe, bouncing men at a Golden Gloves fights crave. This may seem paradoxical to some but it offers the chance to win back a little of the humanity that the penal system wrings from those who pass through its concertina wire topped walls. Anything that elevates a prisoner beyond his life as a serial number with many, many years to withstand can provide the same sort of release.
Maybe these murderers and rapists don’t deserve the whiff of dignity they sense when they are granted some freedom from their daily penance. I have spent enough time at Angola to know that the nature of imprisoned life, punishment and retribution is too tangled a knot to untie in the short space of a blog post. But, I do know that I cannot deny the basic humanity of even those who have grossly violated some part of the social contract. A violent criminal may not deserve to tread the same turf those of us with bloodless hands walk but my every experience with prisoners has been that they are no less human for their crimes or their present condition of incarceration.
These photos were taken in late winter, 2010. All but two have never seen the light of day until now. I held them back for largely selfish reasons. I thought I had good material, the sort of thing that would one day form the basis for a great article. But, some recent emails between Pete Brook of Prison Photography and myself got me thinking again about these shots. So, I thought I would post a few to see what people thought about them. These are not the best of the lot but they give a good idea of what I saw on that cold night at Angola when I stood in a room of several hundred, unfettered inmates. Boxing is brutality and grace, gentleness and unchained animalism. It is as frank a summation of the human experience as I have ever been privileged to witness. Is this changed by the fact that the boxers are all prisoners sentenced to life without the possibility of parole? I wish I could answer that question.