By
The Cycle
updated 12/25/2012 2:47:56 PM ET 2012-12-25T19:47:56

A new book of evocative photos brings you into a strange world.

As soon as you hit the stairwell you can smell it.

The air in Gleason’s boxing gym isn’t so much pungent, as it is heavy. Heavy with sweat, heavy with breath, and heavy with years of people beating the crap out of each other.

I’m sorry, that was less poetic than I’d hoped it would be.

But that’s what Gleason’s is… it’s a gym, in the most archaic sense of the word. Brick walls, old equipment, piles of gloves, and heavy bags–that’s what your membership pays for. And they cater to all levels, from guys trying to get in shape and maybe improve their self esteem–to aspiring heavy weight champions. Don’t worry, you can tell the difference.

Of course, we weren’t there to train. My digits are far too valuable to risk bruising, and Toure… well, let’s just say he ain’t exactly the fightin’ type. 

Our jabs are verbal, maybe literary when we’re feeling inspired.

We were there to talk to Howard Schatz, world famous photographer, and man behind the new bookAt The Fights. It’s filled–cover to cover–with the most beautiful and striking photos of boxing you’ve ever seen, from ringside action shots, to portraits that stop you in your tracks. It’s not just photos of gladiators, either. There’s interviews, and pictures of everyone involved in the business: trainers, doctors, managers, historians, announcers, judges, promoters–the lifeblood of the sport.

But here, in the gym… it’s just fighters and the trainers, moving to their own music. As an observer, I felt the distinct chill of “outsider” as I walked along the grounds. Even if you’re just a weekend warrior, trying to lose weight, you’re being trained–even groomed–for combat. Shouts of encouragement and shame rain down on you as you’re ordered from workout to workout, area to area. Buzzers punctuate three minute rounds, while men and women hit pads, weights, bags, treadmills… and each other.

See, I’m not a fighter, I’m an interloper. So the artistry of it is a little to abstract for me to fully grasp, making me wonder, “Who does this?” And, “Why do they do this?” And again, “Why do they do this?”

Now I know that last question seems redundant, but I have to be honest: their answers weren’t adding up. The ones that wanted to learn some self defense, or wanted to lose weight, or wanted to feel better about themselves–they make sense to me. Those things are logical.

But most of those boxers could probably only be referred to as such in italics, or within quotations marks. They’re certainly not fighters. Those men, the ones that will tell you they like getting hit, they aren’t really excited until they taste their own blood–those are the men I’ll probably never understand. I’ve tried to pick up boxing. I’m no good at it, for the same reason I could never hit a baseball. When I’m in there, even at my most fired-up, all I can think about is getting hit in the face. And if I’m being totally honest: I’d just really prefer not to be.

This isn’t the same as getting into a schoolyard brawl, or a beverage-fueled row at a bar. Those are generally spontaneous, you’re forced into it, or pulled into it by a variety of factors beyond your control: thrown beer, drunken agitators, or somebody reminding you over and over again that your last  name (Tuths) rhymes with “butts.” Hey, sometimes asses just have to be kicked. But that’s not the same as stepping between the ropes, and knowing that somebody is planning on knocking your block off.

In fact, it’s all I can think about when they’re in there. I watch boxing with the same sense of awe that I watch great musicians or great artists, mouth half-agape wondering where the ability comes from: why I can’t do it, and whether it’s born or bred. Or both. Howard’s book shows you fighters in ways you’ll probably never see them again: splashed with ink, and water, and powder, and salt. He flashed strobes in their face, and blurred them, and did just about anything you could imagine.

But the way you should see them, is here in the gym. Where the pounding and slapping of pads and bags sound like a thousand twangling instruments humming about your head. Thumping like a baseline, with the canvas staring into your face… but I’m not a musician or an artist, so all I can do is tell you about it.

Video: Inside the world of professional boxing

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