Andrew Golota-Riddick Bowe fight

July 11th, 1996. Madison Square Garden, NYC.

On a warm summer night, a month before my formal photography internship at New York Newsday was to begin, a lightly regarded heavyweight boxing match was to take place at Madison Square Garden. Not credentialed for the fight, I purchased a ticket for the bout, camera bag on my shoulder, prepared to photograph the match for nothing except the experience.

Hardly anyone seemed to care much about this fight, evidenced by the fact that the “World’s Most Famous Arena” was not even halfway filled to capacity. The light crowd made it easier for me to set up in a prime location, in the first level above the ring. Positioned next the the makeshift photographers podium to my right, I had a great look at the ring and ready for the fight.

The fight was dominated by Golota, who was way ahead in points even with having a few deducted by repeated low blows to Bowe. After six rounds, I was preparing to photograph a knockout when I noticed the battery on my camera beginning to die. I knew I was low on power and didn’t want to run out before anything eventful happened.

The seventh round was where all hell broke loose. Golota drilled Bowe with a fourth low blow, and was promptly disqualified. As they made their way back to their corners, a member of Bowe’s entourage threw a punch at a member of Golota’s crew. Within seconds , managers, trainers and and supporters of both sides entered the ring battle royal style and an all out brawl ensued.

Like in slow motion, I fired away as a witnessed Andrew Golota being hit from behind by someone with a cell phone.

I looked to my right to see Newsday photographer Paul Bereswill, who had this saddened look on his face, but also seemed concerned. Being in the second level of the arena, I never felt a sense of danger initially. Even though there was fighting going on even on the arena floor outside of the ring, there was not a reason to believe it wouldn’t calm down.

Around that time, I noticed muffled chants and screams to my right. They were in the far corner of the arena and moving towards the ring. It seemed surreal, but a group of fans, some waving what seemed to be polish flags, were charging towards ringside as many of the crowd were rushing past them to get out.

At this point, the battery to my camera had completely died. Without a backup, I was now a complete observer. Beyond my belief, these men rushed towards ringside, pushing aside fans on their way. As they made their way near the floor level is when things officially got out of control. Brawls broke out throughout the arena as complete chaos took over. Like a cancer, violence appeared in all areas of the building.

Like anything that catches you by surprise, it can be too late before you realize how serious the situation is. That moment happened to me as I stared at the madness below. Not believing what I was watching, I was snapped out of my trance by the sound of a skull being slammed against a wall to my left. The fighting wasn’t just in the ring or on the floor. It was everywhere.

I turned around to find two grown men brawling. Quickly, one got the better of the other and threw him to the ground. He then unceremoniously slammed the his head against the wall, kicked him and ran into the concourse. The beaten man, bleeding, jumped up and chased after him. At least two other fights were occurring around my section and I decided the that I had to get out. Packing my gear, I made a quick left and, before entering the well lit concourse, did a double take at the thick blood streak horizontally decorating the wall on my way out.

It was obvious that blood was spilled throughout the building. One person was critically injured during the melee. But seeing the amount of blood smeared against that wall was the lasting memory for me during a brutal night where a heavyweight fight had no winners.

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Not every story is related to sports. Assignments take on adventure at many turns, and this night was no exception. As a photography intern for Newsday in New York, I would often get the assignments that the staff photographers did not want. Many were brutal, but occasionally their trash was my treasure.

Many of those treasures were photographing concerts. A Friday night photographing a Smashing Pumpkins concert was about as exciting to many of the staffers as going for a root canal. For me at that time, a single twenty-something, it was an assignment that I would have fought for. My enthusiasm for the assignment got me the unofficial title of concert photographer for my time there, covering bands such as Metallica, Prince, The Counting Crows and Tina Turner, as well as festivals like Lallapalooza. But none of those got off to a rocky start like the first.

I must start this story by admitting that I have never been good with cars. When I was seventeen and out on a date with a girlfriend, I was the one who waved the traffic away and set up the flares while she changed the flat on my car, with no concern for the fancy dress she was wearing. The engine to my first car seized dead on the side on the Long Island Expressway. The reason? I always tried to pay attention to the gas in my car. The oil, on the other hand, I failed to think about until that cold night. I did the same with my second car.

There were numerous other incidents, many of which are still hidden away deep within my embarrassed mind. Possessing a lack of basic knowledge of operating a motor vehicle, having little desire to learn as well as no discipline for routine maintenence is a the perfect confluence for highway drama.

So as I packed my gear and headed over to the Nassau Coliseum, the only thing on my mind was photographing the show. The drive from the office in Melville to the arena is less than 15 minutes and I planned to get there much earlier than I needed to be. Bob Luckey, who was my mentor throughout my time at Newsday, preached to me often that the most successful photographers were the ones who got the assignment the earliest. Those guys rarely scrambled for answers, they were the ones giving them. They were in charge of their fate, and that always stuck with me.

Getting there early gives me time to talk with the ushers and security guards. We would joke around and talk about their families and lives. When other security would try to kick us out early or not allow photographers access to the pre-approved position, those relationships gave me access I would not normally have been afforded. If there is anything that is consistent with me, I will try to push the boundaries to gain better access. The key to that is not to abuse the privilege. If they allow extra access, I would thank them and take it. At times, you can take the access and be met with resistance. But if they give access and you push past that, that’s when you have hurt yourself.

With concerts, the amount of time to photograph is set by the band. Some bands are awesome and allow generous time for photographers. Others, like Prince, make it more challenging. At a concert at the Jone Beach Theatre, he granted 90 seconds for photography. Time is of the essence and being there early is a great advantage.

That advantage rolled away, literally, on the ride there. Less that five minutes from the office, I noticed my car shaking as I picked up speed. That wasn’t abnormal with any vehicle that I owned. As the noise grew louder, I quickly pulled onto the shoulder when a loud pop shook my car and it came to a convulsing stop. Sitting stunned in the drivers seat, I watched as a tire, my tire, rolled innocently across the lanes of the expressway. Cars flew by and narrowly missed the runaway wheel, like a game of Frogger with real people. The tire won the game and rested upright against the barrier facing me. If it wasn’t a rubber tire, I would have though that it was mocking me while I stared at it.

Assessing what to do, I did not have an immediate idea. I got out of the car and to the side of the expressway for safety. The only good thing, besides not dying, was that I left early and time wasn’t a problem yet. It shouldn’t surprise you that I didn’t have AAA. My father did, and we have the same name, so that evening I didn’t feel completely awful abusing that information. At the same time, I called a cab to take me to the arena. I left the keys in the car after the cab picked my up, and the tow truck driver hauled my quality ride to the closest auto shop.

“So the tire just flew off of your car, huh?” the cab driver asked.

It was like he didn’t believe me, but the evidence was overwhelming. He stopped short of making fun of me once he realized that I would need a ride after the concert as well and around the time that he gave me his own phone number. Rushing into the building past overly inebriated Pumpkinheads, if that’s what you would call a fan of the band, with two cameras attached to my shoulders. Normally I try to have a witty response to all the drunk “take our picture” people that yell at me, but tonight was a night to ignore it. I made it in time, picked up my pass and was still breathing heavy as I went into the bathroom to wash my face.

The concert was minutes from starting and I scrambled to get my mind in the right spot. I hadn’t had a moment to talk with any of the security guards, to check out the photo spots or to even find out how many songs we were permitted to shoot. It was a complete trial by fire. Surpisingly, the most relaxing moment for my was the opening sounds of the concert. In the darkness, singer Billy Corgan appeared through fog with the sounds of the opening number “Tonight, Tonight”. I realized that I had made it and I was going to be O.K.

I fired away during the dramatic fast paced ending of the song and realized that this was already turning out better than I had hoped. Two songs and eight minutes later, I was done. Some bands, like Metallica, actually left tickets with my pass so I had a seat for the rest of the show. Most, though, have security usher you out. I called the cab driver on my way out, and he was already in the parking lot waiting for me. Take me home, I asked. I was spent, and dealing with my car could wait until tomorrow.

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