Teddy Blackburn's Pictures of Boxing

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Today it is hard to recall the youthful promise of "Iron" Mike Tyson. Now he's a relic, a man crashing into middle age as a cheap thug with serious emotional and mental problems. But once he was looked on as the great black hope of the ghetto. A noble savage plucked out of a juvenile detention center to be groomed into the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

This street myth of Mike Tyson?and some of it was true?was that he was rescued from a life of crime off of the mean streets of Brooklyn and brought up to the bucolic Catskills to work with a kindly old trainer named Cus D'Amato. There he was turned into a reformed young man who was fine-tuned into a fighting machine, schooled in all the history and glory of former boxing greats.

I recently talked with a salty veteran court officer?who asked not to be named?in Brooklyn who had some memories of the young juvenile delinquent that was Mike Tyson.

"At 13 Mike Tyson could kick most anyone's ass. He had a strong man's body with a kid's face and a girl's voice. He was over 200 pounds and it was all muscle. Believe me, I know. I had to take him out of the pens and bring him before the judges in Brooklyn Family Court. He was big and tough back then, but you know what? He seemed like a nice kid. Soft-spoken and compliant. Never gave me a problem."

In 1985, at 19 years old, Tyson began boxing professionally, and with a flurry of quick knockouts he caught the boxing community's eye. He was a throwback?and that's a word that most sportswriters generally reserve for white guys. Tyson came off like a boxing historian. He wore the old-fashioned black boxing shoes with no socks like his idol from the 1920s, Jack Dempsey. He even fought like the old guys. None of that fancy dancing that Ali brought into vogue. Tyson was old-school all the way. Duck and punch with a fury and keep coming at you until your will is broken and you fall to the canvas happy the fight is over.

As his knockouts continued, his fights would be advertised around New York with signs that read: "Louis?Marciano?Ali?Tyson?" The media was ready to make him the crown prince of a suffering sport. Heavyweight boxing wandered through the desert of the Larry Holmes years, and the sport needed Tyson as much as he needed boxing.

Tyson did fulfill his early promise and became the first unified heavyweight champion since Ali. But then he started to come apart. D'Amato died, and Tyson dropped his old team. He went through a bad marriage and hooked up with gangsters. Even though he was considered one of the best heavyweights ever, the bloom was off. The media decided he was nothing more than a ghetto fool and not worth any more accolades.

Then chubster Buster Douglas knocked him out in 1990, and in 1991 Tyson was arrested for rape. At his trial in 1992 he was found guilty and sentenced to an Indiana penitentiary. Most people felt safer with him behind bars.

In 1995 he was out of jail and resumed his boxing career. Now he was damaged goods?although still a fighter no one wanted any part of. In 1996 he was still considered the heavyweight to beat. That year he was a Las Vegas opening 25-to-1 favorite to beat Evander Holyfield and become the heavyweight champion of the world once again. Holyfield beat him in 11 rounds.

"That was the biggest heavyweight fight of the 90s," Teddy Blackburn, 42 and a boxing photojournalist from the Bronx, was telling me recently. "That fight was the end of Tyson. Tyson had only been on the canvas once before, in the Douglas fight in 1990, and that was considered a fluke. So I was in the right place at the right time when I caught him down."

Blackburn's striking photo of Tyson flailing on the canvas ran on the front page of the Daily News. It became his signature work. He liked the picture so much he put it on his business cards.

With a clipped voice that combines a Midwest accent with a little Bronx patois, Blackburn spoke about how he got into boxing. He grew up in Ann Arbor; his older brother worked for an Ann Arbor newspaper, and would take Blackburn down to the Kronk?a legendary Detroit gym, and what an excellent name for a boxing hall?that was home to the great boxer Thomas "Hitman" Hearns. It was there Teddy Blackburn fell in love.

"I loved the place from the first time I went into it. The Kronk was a legendary gym. For a small city like Detroit, the Kronk produced 27 champions. That's something. But it was Hearns who put the Kronk on the map. I was so impressed with all the fighters that I wanted to box. Take a shot at it. I didn't last too long. I was a white guy who couldn't take a punch," Blackburn said with a small laugh.

Instead of boxing, Blackburn picked up a camera and began a hobby of shooting boxers.

"It was just something I enjoyed doing. You can't beat the intensity of a boxing match. You have the lights blaring down, blood squirting, sweat spraying, teeth and mouth guards flying. You can always get a good shot at a fight. All that emotion of two men punching each other makes for great photography. Actually, the best sports photos are boxing photos. You take a football shot and the guy's wearing a helmet. In boxing, Man is in his pure element. When you see a good boxing picture, it's a photo that you notice."

When he had a decent portfolio together Blackburn began to show his photos around and was told how good they were.

"I decided I could make a living out of this, and I have. I decided to follow my passion. I loved photography and boxing, so I became a full-time freelance boxing photographer. I moved to Atlantic City, down on Iowa Ave. There was three nights of fights down there, so there was plenty of action. But if I wasn't at a fight there wasn't much down in AC. That's a pretty lonely town. I go down there now and I wonder how the hell I ever lived there."

Thirteen years ago Blackburn came to New York and decided to settle in the Bronx. He still lives in the same apartment near Webster Ave. and 204th St., just west of the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

"I love the Bronx. You'll laugh, but it was a real step up from Atlantic City. You know, I been here 13 years and never had a problem. In Detroit I was mugged three times for being a white guy. Here, in the Bronx, you got white, black, Latino, everyone, and no one has ever bothered me in all my years here. I'm a half-hour from midtown. It's been great living up here. I travel the world and cover fights, and when I tell someone in Mexico or Europe that I live in the Bronx they just stare at me and say, 'But isn't that place dangerous?' The Bronx has a bad reputation worldwide. And I never found it dangerous at all. Not for me. Detroit was dangerous."

For all of his love of boxing, Blackburn does see the dark side of the sport. He became friendly with a boxer, Gerald McClellan, who went on to become middleweight champ. In 1995 McClellan fought Nigel Benn in London and was knocked into a coma. When he came out of it, he was blind.

"It's a shame. Gerald will never see his kids play football or dance. I knew him well, and it's tough to get close to someone and admire him for being a world-class athlete, and then go visit them when they're blind and they have to hold your hand to get around. That is something I'll never forget."

To help his friend, Blackburn is publishing a book of boxing photos, In The Other Corner: A Tribute to Gerald McClellan. All proceeds from the book go to the McClellan family.

"I tell you, it makes me wonder about my love of boxing when I see him sitting there blind. I wonder to myself, why do I love a sport that did this to a friend?"


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