Cheryl Dunn: Knockout Shot

The Street Photographer Captures Tyson, Trump and the Blood Soaked Glitz of 80s Boxing

NY filmmaker and photographer Cheryl Dunn reveals a trove of exclusive images from the glitzy heyday of 80s and 90s boxing, featuring heavyweight superstars Mike Tyson alongside legend Muhammad Ali and magnate-turned-TV-personality Donald Trump. Printed in the upcoming issue of graphic sports and culture periodical Victory Journal, Dunn’s photo narrative is accompanied by a vivid oral history, as she recalls the ruthless, high stakes world of boxing. Inspired by the phrase “for love or for money”, Victory Journal’s third issue is editor Christopher Isenberg’s swing at  “the way 60s Esquire would cover sports.” For him these 20-year-old images of fight fashion “are now different enough that you can see the contours of that era at large.” Gaining exclusive access via a club owner with a crush on her sister, Dunn was punching above her weight in the scrum of ringside photographers to shoot legends like Tyson, “Merciless” Ray Mercer, Al “Ice” Cole and Charles “The Natural” Murray. Driving a dilapidated champagne pink Cadillac to exhibition fights at Atlantic City casinos and Ramada Inn ballrooms, the artsy tomboy won the hearts of her battle weary subjects. Dunn also turned her cameras to Trump’s casino ladies and the homespun bling of ring card girls. Here she talks about the guts and glory of it all.  

What’s the biggest difference between how boxing was presented and consumed back then versus now?
At that time, the only way you could view a heavyweight fight was if you were physically there, which was very expensive. You could go to a place that had satellite TV, but it was not really accessible, which made it an exclusive spectacle. It attracted a real array of moneyed people and strange celebrities.

What were your first memories of boxing?
Boxing is very blue collar, you know. My dad and uncles were construction workers. Fights were big. That was his sport. Actually he was a Golden Gloves fighter when he was 19. I’d just hide behind his chair so my mother wouldn’t make me go to bed and try to stay up late and watch these fights with him.

What was it like being with the boxers while they were training?
For that portrait of Roy Jones Jr I went to his place in Pensacola. He had this big farm with a hundred pit bulls chained up and fighting cocks. The whole audio landscape there was completely unnerving. Barking dogs, roosters just going crazy. That’s where this guy lives, that’s where he trains. It’s complete aggression at all levels. He’s absorbing that to do what he does.

Were you battling for shots with other photographers?
What magazines want is a crystal clear shot of a knock out punch, that’s all. All these other guys are trying to get that shot. I was looking at the world with a much wider eye. I was turning around. I was shooting a social document of a scene, of a world.

Did the athletes carry luck charms or have routines before their fights?  
It’s very superstitious and completely ritualistic. Because you could be the best and have a bad night, it just takes one misstep. And if you don’t knock someone out your fate is at the hands of three judges, which can be completely abstract. It’s crooked, been that way forever.

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