45 years worth the wait as Shango delivers the juice
The 3,521-strong crowd was buzzing before cameras had even turned on for the televised event. Outside, Mother Nature was prepping us for 12 inches of snow to bless Downtown Minneapolis. But inside the refurbished Armory, things were heating up for the first boxing bouts in 45 years at the establishment.
A drunk guy behind me asks, “Where the rings girls at?” I’m amused at first, but my mind goes back right into the sight in front of me: a boxing ring lit like it’s straight out of a 50s boxing flick. Boxer Caleb Traux sat beside me, bobbing his head to Drake’s “God’s Plan” on the PA system. Traux, a Minnesota native, lost his IBF super middleweight title the previous weekend after a long fight against James DeGale.
But this was more than a coincidence. It, indeed, was God’s plan for me to be taking photos on that historic night. While playing basketball religiously during high school, I fell in love with success stories of athletes. And a big part of those were photographs.
Kobe Bryant’s “Muse” spoke to me more than any other media I have ever come across. Bryant says, “There is power in understanding the journey of others to help create your own.” And as a former athlete who fell in love with telling stories, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing than documenting greatness on a regular basis. Stories are what make us who we are; they’re the backbone of a character.
Journey to the ring
Just like an athlete, the photographer’s day begins early. The plan was to leave for the cities at 2:15 p.m. in a rental car, keeping in mind the 90-minute commute to the Mall of America in Bloomington. After parking the car directly over the MOA Light Rail Transit Station, I would take the Blue Line to the Government Plaza Transit Station, which is a block and half away from The Armory, arriving no later than 4:30 p.m. Doors were to open at 5:30 p.m.
Despite leaving early, I got stuck in a traffic jam on 494 East towards Bloomington. After 30 minutes of bumper-to-bumper driving, I made it to the south parking ramp at the mall. It was drizzling, but I finally made it onto the Blue Line, and headed towards Downtown Minneapolis.
During the 40-minute journey I prepped my gear and wiped the lenses with a cleaning cloth, all while talking to my mom on the phone. It was midnight where she was in Saudi Arabia, but she was happy to know of the new pair of black shoes and jeans I was wearing. While the shoes suffered minor creasing after the long day, the jeans weren’t so lucky.
Given this was my first time going to the cities without using GPS, and the fact that 494 East wasn’t so welcoming, I had considered changing my route and heading directly downtown instead. But then the college student inside me realized I couldn’t really afford $20 an hour for parking expenses. Getting to the Armory and back would only cost $4 on the Light Rail, but an additional 40 minutes each way. It was clearly better than paying the hefty parking costs.
The perfect script
I got off the Blue Line and made my way to a door on the back of the venue while enduring light rain showers. The kind-looking lady sitting at the check-in desk glanced at my Saudi ID, and after going through the lists she had multiple times, told me my name wasn’t on the list. This was bad news.
Surprisingly though, she began writing my name on the back of the sheet of paper she had, and said “You can go ahead, and go in,” with a gentle smile on her face. I was in. Now, I had to get the media credentials which would enable me to get a place ringside, AKA the best seat in the house.
After talking to my contact at the event, and finally securing the credential, I sighed a breath of relief. The only thing left now was to secure a spot for myself. And despite my best efforts to get to the venue early, all the spots were already taken by other photographers, indicating a big media turnout for the event. The only empty spot were the stairs leading up to the ring itself. They were rough, wooden steps. From the moment I sat down for the first bout of the night, my new jeans didn’t take a liking to them.
And being on the stairs meant getting up and moving away so the boxers could enter and leave the ring after every match. Or the camera crew. Or any of the promoters. “Off the stairs, buddy!” shouted a promoter dressed in a sharp, light brown suit. Which reminds me: don’t mess with the promoters.
And before I knew it, the bouts had begun. The non-televised matches did a great job getting the crowd into it, as several Minnesotan boxers like Uriel Lara, Giezwa Hobbs and Celso Ramirez were featured in the bouts.
But the first highlight of the night came when the short, stocky 18-year old Joey Spencer (2-0, 2 KO’s) made his way to the ring for his professional debut, against an older opponent in Ousmane Sylla. (1-3-1, 1 KO) After dodging Sylla, Spencer took his time to study his opponent. The crowd erupted in cheers after Spencer delivered a powerful jab to the face, knocking down Sylla. All this happened so quickly that I missed it, since I was still trying to get back on the stairs after the cameraman’s assistant was coming off the ring.
Sylla got up, visibly shaken from the strike. After the referee cleared them to fight, Spencer charged for Sylla landing a hook and sending him down to all fours. The crowd went electric and it looked like the fight was over. But Sylla got up a second time, trying to stay in the fight. Within seconds, Spencer’s left hand landed on Sylla’s face, and it was all over. The 18-year old just won his professional debut in under a minute with a knockout. It couldn’t have been scripted better.
Soon Edner “Cherry Bomb” Cherry (37-7-2, 19 KO’s) took the ring and bested Dennis “The Surgeon” Galarza (16-3, 9 KO’s) in the co-featured bout of the night. A high volume of strikes and punches were exchanged between the two. But Cherry emerged victorious, throwing his hands up in the air in a state of joyous relief, while clearly emotional as soon as the results were announced.
Bloody sweat in the air
The main event featured Minneapolis native Jamal “Shango” James (23-1, 10 KO’s), ranked No. 4 in the world at his weight class, against Phoenix’s Abel Ramos. (18-3-2, 13 KO’s) Despite being a 10-round bout, it felt like it took forever. Like the previous few fights, this one started strong as well, with a number of punches exchanged between the two boxers. But there was something different about the main event bout.
It took me a couple of seconds to take it all in, but I was quickly brought back to the venue after feeling a mixture of sweat, water and blood spray in the air over me, landing directly in front of me and bracing the side of my face. This was what I had always seen in iconic, legendary boxing photographs: the victorious boxer delivering the winning blow, with a shower of sweat and blood emerging from the other boxer’s face. In a moment of photographer’s intuition, I anticipated a strong cross from James, and so I pressed the shutter. The third frame was when the cross landed on Ramos’ face, setting up James for a victory.
Emotional, but weary, James didn’t celebrate much after winning the headline bout with a major decision victory, moving one step closer to any boxer’s dream: getting a shot at the title match.
Despite this being my first boxing event ever, it was definitely one of the most surreal experiences in my short career at the Reporter so far. And for that, I will forever be indebted to them. Utilizing this platform has enabled me to realize my passion, and helped me chasing my ultimate goal: to become a storyteller. I’m excited for my future ventures with the Reporter, telling stories, one frame at a time.
For more photos from the night, check out the gallery here.
Header photo: Jamal “Shango” James delivers a cross to Abel Ramos. (Mansoor Ahmad/MSU Reporter)