Boxing has always been a natural subject for the movies, whether as fiction or documentary. The natural drama of two athletes putting everything on the line to compete head-to-head creates compelling conflict. Beyond that, the preparation a prizefighter goes through to become ready for battle perfectly mirrors the mythic archetype of the hero’s quest. Every boxing match contains the seeds of epic poetry.
If award-winning filmmaker Gaylen Ross can reach her Kickstarter goal, there will be an exciting new addition to the canon of great boxing films. Twenty years ago now, Ross shot hours of 16mm footage for a project called “Title Shot,” centered around the iconic Gleason’s Gym in New York, where then-rising junior middleweight contender Godfrey Nkayana was attempting to launch his career, across the ocean from his native Uganda.
Nkayana entered the professional ranks with a resume that included a Gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, a very significant amateur achievement. Nkayana was hoping to follow in the footsteps of his countrymen Ayub Kalule, John “The Beast” Mugabi and Cornelius Boza-Edwards.
Gleason’s Gym is perhaps the most celebrated gym in the history of the sport. Founded in 1937, a laundry list of boxing legends spent time there, preparing for competition, including such stars as Jake LaMotta, Roberto Duran, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Generations of champions and would-be champions left their sweat and blood inside the walls of both its original Manhatten and current Brooklyn locations.
Ross’ existing footage has the classic look of real film, no longer seen often in contemporary documentaries, where much cheaper video production has become standard. It’s the perfect visual aesthetic for what is essentially a “time capsule” for a now-gone era of boxing history. There is footage of Muhammad Ali’s legendary, and now deceased, trainer Angelo Dundee, along with world-championship trainers Bob Jackson and “Irish” Bobby Cassidy. Other scenes show a then up-and-coming Shane Mosley sparring with Nkayana.
Two decades worth of projects sidetracked Ross from completing “Title Shot.” She has produced documentaries about Russian mail-order brides, Swiss banks, stock market fraud and the Holocaust. But the story told in “Title Contender” is a timeless one. It may even have added poignancy for chronicling a bygone era.