This Is What a Boxer Looks Like in 2020
Photographer Michelle Keim shares her intimate portraits of a sport that is down, but not out
Boxing was never lawn tennis. It’s always had its share of unsavory characters, in and out of the ring. Once a staple of network television, the sweet science went pay-per-view long ago, and between the media hype around high-profile bouts and mind-blowing purses, a fight became as much about spectacle as sport. And while the cold, hard reality of brain trauma has cast a chilling shadow over the sport, banishing it to the margins of mainstream consciousness, it ain’t dead yet — just think of Fury II, the epic Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury rematch this past February.
In 2020, Boxing may be a niche attraction and patently risky business for anyone who picks up a glove, but it retains a grip on plenty of young (and not so young) athletes. Michelle Keim is the official photographer of Chicago’s Golden Gloves, the amateur tournament founded in the Windy City in 1923. A mixed martial arts participant who was UFC fighter Felice Herrig’s personal photographer for three years, Keim doesn’t wax poetic about the beauty of a well-executed check hook, and she certainly isn’t blind to the damage inflicted inside the ring. “In MMA they’re punching, but they’re also kicking and wrestling on the ground, and so the strikes are distributed throughout the body. Boxing is much more brutal. The goal is to knock somebody out.”
While Keim’s eye registers the primal violence of the sport, her heart connects with the deeper human drama that lies beneath. “I have met a crazy amount of people in combat sports who carry an enormous emotional pain,” she says. “And carrying that pain can make someone feel bulletproof in the ring. It’s like, ‘I’ve been hurt so badly, you can’t hurt me just by throwing your fist in my face.’”
Scarred or not, boxing is one hell of a way to test one’s psychic and physical endurance. Only those who’ve taken the blows can understand the satisfaction. “There’s an expression in boxing — there’s no losing there’s, only winning and learning,” notes Keim. “It’s never about this guy just got knocked the hell out. That’s never the end of the story.”
Below, Keim shares portraits of five of the fighters who were scheduled to compete in the 2020 Chicago Golden Gloves tournament last month, alongside a statement from each on what motivated them to step inside the ring in the first place.
Angel “Gatito” Barrera, 19
Started boxing age 9
“I have never been scared of any opponent. I enjoy the feeling I get when I know I’m facing a talented, skillful fighter. I tell myself, ‘Nobody works harder than you. He won’t beat me.’ Boxing to me is more than a sport, it’s my life. My goal is to win another national title. After I accomplish this, I will be taking my skills to the professional level with the end goal of becoming a world champion and rank myself among the best pound-for-pound fighters in history.”
Jakub Lesny, 17
Started boxing age, 14
“After being in Tae Kwon Do for about seven years, I felt my progress and love for the sport just started to slow. My mom began to work out at Hyper Fight Fitness and came up with the idea for me to try out boxing. I was a little hesitant at first, but after the first week I was excited about going each day. The training was much more physical in a way. Boxing demanded my body to become stronger and faster, rather then calm and focused like in Tae Kwon Do.”
Felix Gonzalez, 19
Started boxing age 9
“My dad started boxing when he was a young boy in Puerto Rico and did 50 amateur fights when he moved to Chicago. So I guess you can say I wanted to be just like my dad. Boxing is an amazing sport that has brought me to many beautiful places and has enabled me to have many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s not for everyone. But it’s brought a sense of discipline into my life and has taught me what hard work really is. Once you’ve done boxing, everything else is easy.”
Deion Kidd, 25
Started boxing age 18
“My Uncle Tavares turned me on to boxing. I was a big fan of Floyd Mayweather. I just didn’t expect that I would ever get involved with it. The hardest thing about boxing is the mental part. It’s mind over matter in life, period — but definitely in boxing. Boxing keeps me occupied in a positive way. It teaches me how to persevere and keep going, because there are a lot — and I mean a lot — of things that I have to deal with outside the ring.”
Mayor Joe “Boom Boom” Mancino, 54
Started boxing age 51
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. It was in the first 15 seconds of my first ever fight. I had a plan for all three rounds. I practiced it. I memorized everything I wanted to do in each of the three rounds. Then 15 seconds into the first round of my first fight, I walked into a straight right that made my ears ring and bloodied my nose. I learned that you may be called on to improvise, even when the lights are the brightest and the pressure is the hardest on you. And then I learned that when you have a good foundation — road work, sparring, drills — you can improvise and be successful, just like in life.”
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