Let’s kick it old school—Golden Girls style.
Picture it. Boxing. 1995.
The sonic sledgehammers of Wu-Tang, Biggie, and Nas sluiced the streets. If you had a cell phone, it was of the Zack Morris variety. Forget about the internet.
Fighters like James Toney, Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Pernell Whitaker, Ricardo Lopez, Roy Jones, Jr., and so many other exceptional fighters of the day, could be seen gracing the squared circle with such excellence to rival any other era in the sport.
I was a young man then, in front of the blaze of my parents’ television, turned on to the sweet science for life.
And how lucky is the boxing community now to have Gaylen Ross’s documentary Titleshot capturing that time period in the sport.
Ross’s film chronicles the journey of Godfrey Nyakana, the then junior middleweight contender from Uganda, looking for his title shot under the tutelage of former light heavyweight contender, “Irish” Bobby Cassidy.
Drawn to the characters she encountered in her previous documentary on the diamond district of 47th Street, Ms. Ross came to Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn in the mid-nineties to find out what boxing was all about.
And so she did. She learned it’s about loss.
You see, Mr. Nyakana, a young man who travelled three hours from his East Bronx basement apartment every day to train in arguably the best gym in the world and to live the American dream, never got his title shot, suffering a second round TKO at a crucial moment in his career.
Ms. Ross thought her project may have faced an insurmountable opponent—defeat. But that was until she spoke with sports journalist Jerry Izenberg, who opened Ross’s eyes to the true frame of her story and to the reality of the sport: that there are many more fighters that don’t make it than those fighters that do. Mr. Izenberg aptly described this reality of boxing as the “funeral of a dream.”
“When you have this massive failure in the public—and this is what makes boxing so amazing—it’s about getting up from that. That’s boxing, as Bobby Cassidy said,” Ross explains.
But can someone come back?
Real life and real boxing do not guarantee the phoenix-rising-from-the- ashes myth we often see in featured films on boxing, Ross tells me.
There will be no going the distance in Titleshot—no falling to the ring apron blood-soaked and exhausted aside Apollo Creed, no, “Yo Adrien—I did it!” No false promise that effort alone will secure victory. Perhaps, as I think Ross’s documentary will prove, it is the effort itself that is the victory.
And as such, defeat, as tough as it is, is made noble and compelling.
You go to any gym, any time, and you will see the same pugs, with the same dreams, perfecting the same movements of the sweet science. And yet to peek into Gaylen Ross’s 16MM documentary is to see another world entirely, a world not dominated by the pixilated cheapening of digitized video, and one in which the fluidity of film tells the story of a fighter chasing after a disappearing dream.
When I ask Robert Cassidy, long-time boxing journalist and son of “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, about the state of boxing today, he says boxing is still thriving, especially in the metropolitan area, but the sport is now a reflection of the one percent—ninety-nine percent economy that most industries suffer under.
Ross herself believes that just as boxers today are desperate to make a living, that boxing stories themselves “beg” for film, for the graceful way film upholds the dignity of the sport.
Having the footage of Titleshot in the vault for twenty years, Gaylen Ross now looks to update her footage and complete her project. She is in the midst of her Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign (http://bit.ly/1Wwt26P) to raise money for her film. One of the rewards is tickets to a December event held by Ring 8, a nonprofit organization in NYC that helps ex-fighters with financial, housing, medical, and funeral assistance.
To contribute to the making of the film is not only to pay tribute to boxing, but to New York City itself. He’s been the Gleason’s Gym owner for 35 years, and Bruce Silverglade explains: “Boxing has always been a reflection of the city.
“Back then it was not uncommon to see Arturo Gatti, Kevin Kelley, Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson, and Junior Jones at Gleason’s training alongside drug dealers and wise guys like Sammy “the Bull” Gravano and his henchman—all the while the Feds hitting the bags looking to bust them all.”
To say the least, Silverglade notes that New York and Brooklyn have changed. You’ll see gyms (those that still exist, that is) now more populated with white-collared types, women and children, than you will with competitive amateurs and pros. Though business is better than ever, Silverglade admits, he says it’s not as fun as it once was.
Yet Robert Cassidy says the dream is not dead. Yes, the cemeteries are nearly full but the Long Island journalist makes mention of local kid made good, Chris Algieri. When Algieri was coming up, Cassidy covered him extensively, and although the fighter from Huntington was gaining notoriety fighting at local venues like The Paramount, he had little in the way of money to show for it.
“He was almost at his wits end,” Cassidy tells me over the phone. “He was about to look for something else to do, but then he broke through.”
This is the power of boxing and the power of Titleshot: that even in the face of losing, of seemingly insurmountable odds, the fighter enters the ring despite this (perhaps because of this).
“There will always be a Chris Algieri for the next group of young fighters. Chris was in the same situation many of these kids are in today until he finally broke through. And that’s the dream—that’s what these guys are still chasing.”