Brian, how did you get interested in boxing?
My dad and my older brother Pete were both fans of Floyd Patterson. He was from Brooklyn as we were. Pete took me to see the first Patterson Johansson fight which was I believe in June of ‘59 and Floyd got knocked out and I was really upset and started crying because I had been a fan. I had just turned 13. Well that summer I started to hang around with a bad crowd in Brooklyn and Pete was kind of worried about me and he wrote Floyd Patterson a letter and this was before Pete was a reporter. Pete didn’t become a reporter until 1960. Floyd invited Pete and me to come up to his training camp because he was starting to train for the second Johansson fight in Connecticut. And we bonded with Floyd Patterson. Floyd would call me to the side and talk to me about how he had gotten in trouble because he ran the streets in Brooklyn and he didn’t want that to happen to me. I stayed there for a couple of days and helped clean up the gym, set up the chairs for training and it was a big deal. When the rematch with Johansson came around we had ringside seats. Floyd gave them to us and he won spectacularly. He knocked Johansson out in the fifth round and we went into his dressing room afterward and at one point he put me on his shoulders…and I do remember seeing Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher in the hallway and they were very upset because they were Johansson fans. so that was my first taste of it and then Pete told me about Cus D’Amato and the gym on 14th street.
So how did you first meet the famous boxing trainer Cus D’Amato?
So one day I took a subway over to the Gramercy Gym and I went up the long rickety wooden stairs to the gym and I looked around and I had seen pictures of Cus D’Amato in the newspapers and read some pieces about him. He was talking to some fighters and after about five minutes he walked over to me and Cus said “What can I help you with?” and I said “I want to learn how to box.” and he said, “where’s your dad?” and I said “where’s my dad? he’s back in Brooklyn.” He goes, “you came here by yourself?” I said, “yeah.” he said, “oh good…that’s a good thing…you’ll learn how to box.” I learned later that he discouraged dads from bringing kids into the gym because it was usually more the dad that wanted the kid to become a fighter. So, he and I became friends. I remember him saying to me once, “the thing about boxing is if you don’t think you can be champion of the world there’s no point continuing on in it. “ I had a couple of amateur fights which I won. I started boxing and I went to the gym all the time and I sort of got away from the tough crowd I was hanging out within Brooklyn and I’m glad I did cause most of them are dead or went to jail or died early. But I always stayed in touch with Cus. I trained for a couple of fights which I won and then at one point I had to decide what I was going to do and so I decided I was going to go to college. I asked Pete who bought me my first camera when I was 16 if there were any schools for photography. Pete thought my photos even at the age of 16 were very good. Pete was an artist before he became a writer so he had a good eye for composition based on his art training. Anyway, I ended up going to RIT to study photography.
How did you first become friends with and photograph a young Mike Tyson?
Cus (D’amato) calls me and he tells me about this great fighter he’s got…” you got to come up and you got to see him in training”, he had already moved to Catskill I said “alright I’ll come up in a week or so,” and he goes, “no no no you got to come up and see him tomorrow he’s going to be sparring with Marvin Stinson.” Stinson was the main sparring partner for then heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. I said “ok.” and Cus said. “This kid’s going to be like the Heavyweight Champion of the world someday.” So, I said alright I’ll come up tomorrow.” He said “good.” I get there and I look around the Catskill gym and I see Cus and then I see this young kid and I thought that couldn’t be the kid that Marvin Stinson is going to train with. He’s like a kid. So I ask Cus, “Where’s the fighter and he says, “over there.” I said, “That kid? how old is he?” Cus said, “He’s 15.” So, Cus introduced me to Mike Tyson and Cus only had him for a couple of months. But anyway I watched him spar and it was amazing to watch this young kid, he really “tuned up” Marvin Stinson and it was all Cus’s moves too. Moving his head side to side, peek-a-boo style hands high. Cus didn’t like the expression peek-a-boo style, he just said,” hands high protect your chin move your head, ten different combinations move your head after the combinations,” those were Cus’s basic things. So that’s when I met Tyson when he was 15.
What makes a boxer great?
Cus used to always say that character is the main thing. If you have good character no matter what you do if you have character and heart you’ll succeed. “Heart” being courage. In boxing when you say somebody has heart it means inner courage, inner strength. Muhammad Ali although he did a lot of things wrong like pulling back from punches, he had such a good sense of anticipation and he also had this legitimate self-confidence.
Who was the greatest boxer you ever photographed?
So the two best fighters that I ever saw were Sugar Ray Robinson, I watched his fights on TV with my dad, and then Ali. I photographed Ali about four or five times. Including in 1968 when he got stripped of his title in 1967 because he wouldn’t go into the army so they took away his livelihood for three years. The first time he fought professionally again was against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta where he stopped Quarry in three rounds. But at the start of Ali’s career, he fought everybody. All these bruising guys including Sonny Liston two times. Everybody feared Liston after he destroyed Floyd Patterson in two different fights. I got very friendly with Floyd and very friendly with Jose Torres who was the Light Heavyweight champion and he was also one of Cus’s fighters and he became best friends with my brother Pete. At one point they were even roommates. Jose was very smart and full of character… he was a great fighter including when he won the title from Willie Pastrano which was the first pictures I ever got published in the Saturday Evening Post. That was a big deal! I was still a student. I just shot them on spec because I was just a spectator I was still at RIT, and Pete wrote the article.
What was your take on Muhammad Ali the boxer and the person?
I met Ali a bunch of times. I met him initially in Puerto Rico in 1965 and he couldn’t have been nicer and funny. He was the greatest fighter who never ever feared anybody including a guy like Cleveland Williams who was knocking everybody out and Liston who was knocking everybody out. But one of the things about him that made an impression on me was his humanity. I went with Ali and Jose Torres when he was still suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission up to Harlem. Ali wanted to go up to Harlem So Jose drove. He and Jose were good friends. Jose was the driver. Ali was in the passenger seat and I was in the back seat and I took photographs of Ali on 125th street. He had already declared himself as a Muslim and there were some Muslim guys checking him out. One of the pictures shows Ali with a walking stick. He’s walking down the street and then he did rope tricks for everybody. Then we visited Jose’s wife Ramona at a hospital in Brooklyn and it was September of ‘68 so we started driving down a Brooklyn street and I hear Ali say to Jose “stop the car, stop the car” and I hear Jose say, “why? what’s the matter?” and Ali says” just stop, stop…” and they both jump out of the car and I thought what the hell is going on? so there was a black dude changing a tire, he had a flat and he was parked on the side and so Ali taps the guy on the shoulder and the guy turns around and he sees Ali and he was like in a state of shock…it’s Muhammad Ali…and Ali says “hey, brother can I help you change that?” The guy says “No, bro, I’m good but man, my wife is not going to believe this!” I thought it was such a humane thing, Ali was a very humane guy and funny and he had a good visual memory. Every time I photographed him and he met so many hundreds and thousands of people in his life but he would always just give me a little nod like he knew me, you know? I met him in ‘65, photographed him in ‘68 again in ‘71 for Rolling Stone, one of the first non-rock and rollers on the cover of Rolling Stone, it was before the first Frazier fight at the Garden.
What do you remember of that famous first Ali-Frazier fight?
I thought it was a close fight but what clinched it for Frazier was when he hit Ali with that left hook I think it was the 14th round and everybody thought that Ali wouldn’t get up but he not only got up but he finished the fight. That was a 15 round fight. He got up from that devastating punch and finished the fight. He lost by a unanimous decision but don’t forget he was off for three years during the prime of his life that was in ‘71 and he didn’t have that many fights leading up to that first Frazier fight. Ali just had a lot of character.
Most exciting fighter?
Who was the best most exciting fighter to watch and to listen to and whose character imbued something in my soul? It was Ali. He was just a very special human being. Tyson was a totally exciting fighter in every fight he did and Ray Robinson was brilliant…he was unbelievable. I took photos of him in 1968. He would train every day at the same gym where I photographed Liston. It was a downtown LA gym. In Miami, Ali was at the Fifth Street gym.
Tell us about Sugar Ray Robinson.
I think the best pure fighter I ever saw, I photographed him years later, was Sugar Ray Robinson but he was already retired then and he had a youth program in Los Angeles. He had moved from Harlem to LA. He was a brilliant fighter and he was totally a nice guy who couldn’t have been nicer.
Any memories to share about your late great brother Pete Hamill, one of New York City’s treasured and legendary newsmen, who passed away this past year?
If it wasn’t for Pete I probably would have ended up in jail (laugh) I miss him every day. Every day something reminds me of him. He was a special man. He helped out a lot of people in the business that he was in. He ended up being a reporter, writer he bent over backward to help people to get established and get started when he was an editor of the Post and Daily News, he hired a lot of young guys he just did the right thing for people he was a very generous person. Besides being a very talented guy.