The Day the Circus Came to Town

By Wrigley Brogan on April 20, 2018
The Day the Circus Came to Town
There it was—the strongest, most accurate, right hand I had ever seen. (Wrigley Brogan)

Few women were in attendance, but those that were glittered like iridescent flamingos on an evening pond…

The fight reminded me of the stories I had heard of the circus coming to town: elephants parading through the streets; lions and tigers roaring from their cages; popcorn wagons emitting wonderful smells of corn and butter; beautiful plumed women on white horses; clowns running wild through the streets squirting spectators from sneezing flowers; and a ringmaster dressed in red tails and black top hat.

The time was 1999. The Emerald Queen Casino, along with boxing promoter Brian Halquist, had been attempting to return boxing to the Northwest. The casino at the time was a riverboat floating on the Thea Foss Waterway below the city of Tacoma, Washington. They held their events in a tent on the shore. They had been staging small local fights. Now they were ready for the big time, a real show with some of the top premier boxers of the time. The two major bouts featured Kirk Johnson against Al Cole followed by the main event between unbeaten heavyweights Chris Byrd and Ike Ibeabuchi.

The circus tent rose high overhead giving the feeling of an inside stadium. Salt from the waterway hung on the air. The Showtime crew appeared at the weigh-in, cameras and lights being arranged around the newly erected ring. It seemed like everyone important to the boxing world was in attendance: Michael Buffer strutting impeccably across the floor, every strand of hair carefully crafted; Roy Jones Jr., slick and fit, making small talk with the press; Teddy Atlas leading around his newly acquired ward, Kirk Johnson, like a trained bear; Larry Merchant leaching smug, erudite, superiority and leaving a wake of arrogance as the seas parted before him and he worked out pithy phrases for his television comments; Cassis Green sailing about under his captain’s hat; Ron Rall, his white hair looking almost as good as Buffer’s; and former world champion Curtis Cokes, recent trainer of Ibeabuchi, oozing an approachable countenance and gracious smile.

The venue was packed on fight night. The aroma of pre-cooked hamburgers, the meat sticking to the buns, filled the air. Rows of mustered-slathered hotdogs settled into seats with the spectators. Few women were in attendance, but those that were glittered like iridescent flamingos on an evening pond. The usual assortment of silly fights preceded anything of importance, local boys in awkward stances and dripping with disappointment at their lack of television exposure.

Kirk Johnson rolled into the ring like a solid block. All muscle, he knocked his gloves together flattening the ends. Atlas stood behind him like a man ready to snatch back a pit bull should he attempt to strike too soon. Johnson looked tense and anxious, a man ready to make a point about his prowess.

Al Cole was thinner and more lithe, a supple tangle of muscles. He circled Curtis Cokes and resembled a man who fought enough to be comfortable in the surroundings. He had recently moved into the heavyweight ranks, an opportunity to earn more money apparently based on weight.

The fight was better than anyone might have expected: all action, all punches, both attacking, both maintaining their willingness to fight and not back down, both confident in their skills.

And then it happened—the strongest, most accurate, right hand I had ever seen. Al Cole, hands held low, walked right into Johnson’s thunderous punch. His face turned to mush. He had moved forward looking like an Avedon portrait and bounced back resembling the latest Picasso abstract, several eyes plastered on one side of several heads and all moving in different directions. That is what I saw. But I doubted myself. The punch seemed not to faze Cole. He walked right through the blow, did not even wobble. How was that possible?

The trouble with photography is one never sees the photo he has taken. After hitting the shutter everything goes black as the mirror flies up, the shutter opens, then everything returns to normal. Unlike today when you can at least view the picture immediately after it is taken, in the days of film there was no way to see what you actually shot until the film was developed. I moved on and enjoyed the remainder of a great fight.

The stage was set for the main event. It is difficult to describe the size between Byrd and Ibeabuchi without cliché’s like Mutt and Jeff. Byrd, an Olympic silver medalist, weighed 208 and Ibeabuchi weighed 244—all muscle. Like Cole, Byrd had eaten his way to heavyweight for the money. Byrd was fast and slick but lacked power. Ibeabuchi was also fast, especially for his size. He averaged 81 punches per round and, since such things had been counted, had thrown a record number of punches against David Tua: 971.

Larry Merchant refused to hold back his dislike for Byrd. He apparently did not like boxers and preferred punchers. To show his superiority over the rest of us boxing mortals he tossed out a few witticisms only understood by Schopenhauer or Jeremy Bentham followed up with a bit of sarcasm floating on a voice that seemed bored with the entire idea of boxing. I never grew tired of listening to him and his erudite attitude.

Byrd managed to avoid Ibeabuchi’s punches for 4 rounds. He had developed the habit of fighting off the ropes, a bad idea against a puncher like Ibeabuchi. He had difficulty avoiding punches from the ropes. Several times he launched a barrage against his opponent. The blows bounced off like rain on rock. The end came in round 5. After being knocked down Byrd leaned against the ropes but did not throw any punches. The fight was stopped.

I picked up my film the following afternoon and settled down in a local restaurant behind a cup of twenty-five cent coffee served in a thick white porcelain cup. I started thumbing through the pictures. One shot jabbed me right in the face. There it was, the perfect boxing shot, the thunderous right hand thrown by Johnson. The picture was just the kind I like, a slightly slower shutter speed than most boxing photographers use, just slow enough to show a bit of movement, to show Cole’s distorted face, sweat flying into space, every muscle of Johnson’s strained to the limit, every vein bulging under the skin. I knew it was a prizewinner. And I was right.

The now defunct World Boxing Board named me boxing photographer and writer of the year and American Photo, based on this single shot, named me one of the ten best International Sports photographers of the year. All this was nice but everyone in boxing knows that Tom Casino is the world’s best boxing photographer.

I took a refill from the waitress and thought of the event. The circus never came to town again, but for one night we were in the big-time. We are mostly back to sideshows, heads without bodies, fat ladies with beards, fire eaters and sword swallowers, all interesting in their own right, but I still think of elephants, lions, and the brightly-colored women standing on horsebacks.

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  1. Pete The Sneak 04:37am, 04/23/2018

    Ooof! My jaw hurts just looking at that picture. Another great and enjoyable article from Mr. Brogan…Peace.

  2. andrew 12:36pm, 04/21/2018

    I wonder who won the Johnson fight

  3. Balaamsass 08:57am, 04/21/2018

    @ODB-Once again you nailed it! Boxing site or not…. all of this is interconnected…. every bit of it! Had an asshat come on here a couple of years ago who posted that the comments posted here should be all boxing all of the time…as if Ali who most definitely was not all boxing all of the time never existed!

  4. Ollie Downtown Brown 07:03am, 04/21/2018

    Balaamsass… Your mentioning of the NFL, made me think about that CLASSIC black & white photo of Y.A. Tittle, kneeling, hunched over, no helmet, with his hands on his knees, blood snaking its way down his face and curling around his ear. My gawd, that photo shows “the agony of defeat,” if any photo ever did.

  5. don from prov 06:04am, 04/21/2018

    Great photo—
    Great article.

    I was one of those (deluded?) ones who thought Ibeabuchi was the future of the HW division.  He certainly showed the brothers Klit how to handle a younger Byrd that night.  But of course, he was bent in ways not good.
    The rest is history.

  6. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:09pm, 04/20/2018

    That punch was one “slobberknocker.”  Another excellent article churned out by Mr. Brogan.

  7. Balaamsass 07:07pm, 04/20/2018

    Pulitzer Prize worthy! That punch would have killed the average Joe! At least the equal of ten NFL concussions!

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