Whitehot Magazine

Anthony Haden-Guest and Legendary Photographer Harry Benson Gather at "Champions" an art exhibition at Brooklyn's Gleason's Gym

Our roving author Anthony Haden-Guest vs David Leslie, boxing match, at the exhibition "Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023



   Harry Benson’s shot of Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, mock-punching the Beatles is a strong image and it has a strong back story. ‘It was Ali’s idea” Benson says. A Scottish photographer, Benson had begun as a paparazzo and was soon getting his work into Life and gallery shows, and in the 60s he was working closely with the Beatles, and approached them with the boxer’s brainwave. “And John Lennon said to me in front of the other three: Oh, I don’t know, Harry! He’s a loudmouth. And he’s going to get beaten. Sonny Liston’s going to beat him!

Anthony Haden-Guest and Harry Benson at the exhibition "Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July 2023, photographed by Marco Girelli IG: @marcogrl

  “So, I said okay, I’ll try Sonny Liston. I go to Liston. He says I don’t want to meet those bums! I go back to the Beatles and say it’s all fixed up.” Benson took them into a gym in Miami Beach, Florida, where they thought they were to meet Liston but they found themselves faced with Cassius Clay. “He understood that it was a good picture,” Benson says. “He controlled them! He told them lie down! Say You Are The Greatest! YOU ARE THE GREATEST! He dwarfed them. And they are doing this! It went on and on for half an hour. I got good pictures. Afterwards John Lennon said this man is going to get beaten and he made us look like fucking idiots. And it was your fault, Benson! They were so mad.” The Fab Four returned to London, Benson went on a Bond movie assignment at Goldeneye, Jamaica. By the time he got back the Beatles were mad no longer and continued to work with Benson. Who notes “Ali had won the fight.”

Harry Benson's work at the "Champions" Exhibition at Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023, photographed by Marco Girelli

   Benson’s shot would indeed have been just another good boxing image if Liston had won. It was the victory of the 9 to 1 underdog that made it an icon and, as such it exemplifies the relationship of art and boxing, which is unlike art’s connection with any other of today’s sports. Boxing is about the heart, the will of two combatants in a small, square space, who can be felled and rise again during a conflict. The giving and getting of physical damage are not just accidents such as occur in many sports, but are the rules of the game and leave many boxers with lifelong damage. Which is why Champions, a show - profits of which are going to boxers now fallen upon hard-times, was born.

Art by Layla Love with Champions and attendees at the exhibition "Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023 photographed by Marco Girelli

  Mambu Bayoh, the Sierra Leone-born photographer, has been documenting the development of the project. He sources it to Donny Lalonde, the Canadian boxer who became a world champion Light Heavyweight and has been inducted into three separate Boxing Halls of Fame. “He said how can I give back?” Bayoh says “This was his dream, what he wanted to do”. Bayoh met with with Bailey Lalonde, the boxer’s artist daughter, and suggested the project become a show of art and boxing. Bailey also had a crucial meeting with Sugar Ray Seales, an Olympic Gold Medalist who had been inducted into the Indiana Hall of Fame the same year as her father. “A really nice man’” she says. “And then I found out that he was living in a men’s shelter. He had won gold for America. That disturbed me, so I did a painting inspired by him. That was the first piece in this Champions series”.

Art by Bailey Lalonde, Brandon Tellez, Cosmo Mullican, Trevor Mansfield and Vera Nederlof at the exhibition "Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023. Photographed by Marco Girelli.

   So Champions, the show, was born, got the support of the WBC, the World Boxing Council, and became the launch for Taking Kare of Our Own, TKO being a boxing acronyn for Technical Knock-Out.  Bailey brought me in as co-curator and Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s Gym on Water Street, Brooklyn, offered its use to install the show. It’s a loaded space. One wall is plastered with yellowing photographs and press cuttings, another is inscribed Team Animal and has been signed by fighters. Indeed the walls are so impregnatd with history that hanging art there would clearly create distractingly mixed messaging. The answer was in our faces and we centered most of the art around the five rings at Gleason’s, hanging much of it on the ropes.

  The three dozen artists and photographers in Champions were drawn to boxing for different reasons. Julia “Jelly” Morrison, who has several pieces in the show, first came to artworld attention for turning sex messaging that referenced cannibalism and sexual slavery that she got from Hollywood predator, Armie Hammer, then an actor, into an NFT. “Boxing is a genre I am naturally drawn to because every time I got knocked down I got back up again” Morrison says. “I quote the bacteriologist, Oswald Avery. He said every time you fall, pick up something. Boxing is like art, because every time you fall you pick up something. I have overcome stuff like sexual abuse from a very young age”.

Artist Julia Morrison with Anthony Haden-Guest photographed by Eduardo Donoso.

   Bailey Lalonde showed ten joyously brushy canvases, and some of her work has a parallel back story. “Like many artists and fighters, sexual trauma is something I've experienced throughout my life” she says. "Art is a powerful healer. My dad taught me by example about the power of resilience and that Champs are made in the ring." Boxers she painted and who were amongst the eight world champions present at the show included her father, Donny Lalonde, Michael Spinks, Tim Witherspoon, Vinny Pazienza, Iran Barkley, Heather Hardy, Junior Jones and Doug De Witt, with who I had trained many years before for a White Collar bout.

Julia Morrison, Art Fer Mr. Soc Autonomous Collective, 2023, 14 x 17, yellow, ink and acrylic on paper.

   Layla Love, the Hawaii-based artist, whose work is unafraid of beauty, adventurous with textures, and usually photo-based, showed seven powerful pieces, including a wood block with a 24k gold leaf base of a young woman walking a tigress. The woman is painted blue depicting a living avatar, making it appropriate for champions; fighters, warriors, avatars, and gods of the ring.

  Love’s directly boxing-based painting depicts Muhammad Ali, mid-wallop. She had made it way before Bailey Lalonde thought up this show. Just why had she made such an uncharacteristic image?

  “Because he’s the greatest,” she said, merrily.

  Not every artist in Champions is a boxing fan though.

 ‘I don’t like it,” says Mambu Bayoh. “I’m pretty much adamantly opposed to sports that are violent.” Indeed he remembers visiting a cousin who had a boxing match on the TV so going to the other side of the house. “And I hear everybody go Ooooohhh!” he said. “So I rush into the room. Then comes the replay where Tyson is biting Holyfield’s ear off and spitting it onto the mat. I think that was my first time watching full-fledged boxing.”

Musicians (left to right) Nigel Inniss, Absyte, Malik Hammond and Ian Forde performing at "Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023

  So why was Bayoh here at Bailey’s side?

 “A lot of these guys sacrificed themselves,” he said. “So my attraction is finding them the advocacy that they need to bridge the years that they sacrificed for mass entertainment and gave everything that they physically could. So what attracted me to boxing, is the holistic part. Boxing came to me and I accepted it.”

   Most of the artists in Champions clearly feel more positively about boxing. Indeed some are very much part of that world, like Tony Nasa and Pepe Sulaiman Saldivar, brother of the president of the WBC, who showed a film he made about boxing. Shraddha Borowake, the Indian photographer, who has documented the history of women's boxing using blockchain technology, has included an image of a hanging heavy bag, which appears to have sprouted feet. And there is work by a couple, Francesco Bertola and Jeanine Intriago, a movie from Bertoia and Intriago, a couturier, showed the red silk robe that was worn by the Lightheavyweight Champion, Malik Zinad. 

Installation view of works by Tony Nasa, Bailey Lalonde and Cosmo Mullican, "Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023

  Tod Monaghan, an Ab Ex, who has done martial arts his whole life collaborated on a piece with Bailey Lalonde. Linus Coraggio, the inventor of 3d graffiti, has a punchbag and a heavy bag in his studio and his work in the show included a small painting of an upset victory of Holly Holm over Rhonda Rousey in a boxing/mixed martial arts bout in 2014 and an assemblage which prominently features a boxing glove. My boxing glove. I rent studio space from Coraggio and I found that the glove, which I had worn in a white collar bout at the Overthrow gym on Bleecker, had become part of an involuntary collaboration.

"Champions" Gleason's Gym, Brooklyn, NY July, 2023

 Which brings me to my bout at Champions, which was billed as performance art, but only half correctly so. David Leslie, my opponent, had told me not to hold back. So I didn’t. I was not performing. Leslie though is a performance artist aka The Impact Addict, and he is the creator of the boxing as performance art project, Box Opera, who fought three rounds with the heavyweight, Gerry Cooney, in Box Opera 3. And Leslie was performing.  He could have taken me out in ten minutes. After I left the ring Leslie fought Donny Lalonde. So to Bailey, who is in talks with various parties about further iterations of Champions, of which you may get updates shortly.WM


Anthony Haden-Guest


Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.




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