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Legendary photographer Charles Hoff made boxing look like art

Charles Hoff
Steve Bunce on master snapper Charles Hoff

THERE is a famous black and white picture by the great boxing photographer, Charles Hoff, of Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles exchanging left hooks.

The photograph and nearly 40 others are collected in the book, The Fights: Photographs by Charles Hoff. It is one of the most overlooked boxing books in a market swollen by hype, babble and endless self-importance. Hoff worked ringside from 1933 to 1966 for the New York Daily News.

In the picture, which looks posed, Louis is the size of Nikolai Valuev compared to the tiny, light-heavyweight dimensions of Charles. The physical disparity is so obvious that I thought it must be a trick of the light, a distortion, some type of photographer’s black magic. It is not, Louis is about two inches taller, but 34 pounds heavier – Charles weighs just 184 pounds (13st 2lbs) for the fight; Charles won over 15 rounds to gain widespread recognition as the world heavyweight champion.

The picture is perfect, the balance of both men exactly right, the detail is stunning. Charles has stepped in, pushed off his right foot, which is buried deep and his left foot has just left the canvas. Louis, meanwhile, is shifting his weight from the left to the right as the punch connects. Charles lands as the shutter snaps closed on the picture and Louis has connected with his mirror left hook a fraction of a tiny second earlier. It is perfectly balanced, the silvery bursts of light from their gloves hold the eye.

Charles looks the more hurt, Louis, his lips and chin shifted by the punch, still keeps his cold eyes on Charles. Time both stands still and flies in the picture. Their shiny satin shorts looks so fresh, their black boots are so polished and their perfect white socks look like they have just been adjusted so that they rest on the same line. It is glitz, it is glamour, it is the big fights in the Fifties. I wondered if it was round one, they are so clean.

Sugar Ray Robinson looks like a matinee idol in a Hollywood publicity shoot when he connects with a right cross against Bobo Olson. It looks like poor Bobo is going down in their first fight from 1950. Olson’s left leg buckles, the bulky muscles in his legs all seem to freeze. Olson is wearing risqué white boots – Robinson is wearing black leather boots with 14 eyes for his pristine white laces. His white socks end in a perfect line with the extended black tongue from the boots. His right foot is generating the power and Sugar Ray seems to be sending the punch in, and Bobo down, with some kind of word or scowl. Ray looks like a very bad man in the picture.

There are other pictures of Robinson in the book, but this one makes him look like Hollywood’s greatest actor-fighter-hero, a star and a man with the power to take you out with just one punch. How did these fighters look so poised in moments like this? The pictures capture more than the emotion, the pain, the punch – there is enough blood and despair – they also capture the brilliance of the finest men in the frames: Louis, Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Jake LaMotta, Kid Gavilan, Dick Tiger, Willie Pep, Jersey Joe Walcott. Study the photographs, see the poise, look at the feet, watch the eyes, note where the hands are. So many times, so many times, it is just perfection. Muhammad Ali left us with the same images, his portfolio is mostly colour, but the art is the same. The Hoff book, which was published in 1996, also has features written by AJ Liebling, Jimmy Cannon, Mark Kram and James Baldwin. As I said, it is a lost masterpiece. I checked and there are second-hand versions available for £5.16. That is boxing’s greatest ever book bargain.

And then there is Tony Galento with his head resting on the top rope as he takes the full force of a right cross from Max Baer in their 1940 brawl. You know the one, the bloody and filthy one.

Galento looks like Galento in the Hoff picture, all punched, defiant and stocky, his mouth black with his blood, his eyes stuck on Baer’s face. Galento’s mouth had been injured that day in a fight at his bar with his brother. Galento was cut with a bottle, it needed stitches and then later that night he met Baer. In the photograph, Baer is committed to the right, flying forward, the punch has landed, his right foot is six inches off the canvas. Galento is shaken, still, hurt. He would not come out for round eight.

On the boot front – Galento’s are neatly tied, a white laces and black leather combo, but Max has gone for the black laces. Both have improbably perfect white socks, identical in their sharpness.

And then there is genuine despair and drama in one picture that has so much going on and yet the boxer at its very centre has just been knocked out. It is the end of Ingemar Johansson’s rematch with Floyd Patterson in 1960. Ingo is being helped up, one cornerman has a hand on his back and another hand trying to untangle his legs. Ingo is still limp, barely able to focus on his chest. Another cornerman is stepping through the ropes, a magic sponge in his right hand and a swollen swab hanging from his lips like the most inappropriate cigarette in history. Perhaps the swab is soaked in smelling salts. It is a tableaux of utter loss.

At ringside, framed perfectly by the boxer and his handlers, are a few men laughing and glad-handing each other. There is a smiling policeman and one concerned man gazes up from just below the canvas line. It is rare in a Hoff picture to see anybody other than the two boxers and perhaps a referee’s hand. There are no distractions in a Hoff picture, just the facts. The rest of the background in the end-of-Ingo photograph, like all the images, is pitch black, a vast void on the other side of the ropes. It is the black-drop that makes the photographs so vivid and real.

It is was a simple time in the ancient sport, a time filled with giants and in these elegant photographs they live on and on.

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