Photographer Al Bello is lucky that Micky Carson wasn't working Manny Pacquiao's corner the night Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out the pride of the Philippines in the sixth round of their fourth fight. Carson was Sam O'Rourke's second for an 1836 bare-knuckles bout with English champion James Burke that took place on the outskirts of New Orleans, and he didn't restrict his involvement to attending his man between rounds.
In the second round, Carson pushed Burke directly into the arms of O'Rourke, who threw him to the ground and fell on top of him. When Burke regained his feet, he warned Carson that he would knock him out if he did it again. Carson responded by brandishing a knife and threatened to eviscerate the boxer. Burke was soon forced to run for his life, frantically punching and butting his way to safety, a mob of O'Rourke's supporters in hot pursuit.
There were no deadly weapons involved when Pacquiao's advisor Michael Koncz and assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez blew their cool because Bello was taking photos of Pacquiao lying unconscious on the canvas. Nonetheless, their actions branded an ugly exclamation point onto an otherwise splendid fight. It was also the most recent example of a type of hooliganism that has been part of the sport since the birth of modern boxing during the first decade of the 18th century.
Photographer Chris Cozzone was also ringside at the MGM Grand on Dec. 8 and was positioned on the opposite side of the ring from Bello, giving him a perfect vantage point from which to document the incident in a series of dramatic images. "I had my camera trained on the corner waiting to see Pacquiao's head emerge," Cozzone said. "So I notice what was happening right away." One of Cozzone's images shows Koncz grabbing Bello's shirt as he attempts to jump down from the ring apron, while Fernandez is pictured with his left leg between the ropes kicking in the direction of the retreating photographer.
"Had I not gotten off the ring," Bello told Yahoo! Sports, "I have no doubt the two of them would have beaten the [expletive] out of me and I might have been seriously hurt."
Who knows what Koncz and Fernandez were thinking, assuming they were thinking at all? The most charitably explanation is that it was a case of two distraught individuals lashing out at a convenient target. It was, of course, highly irrational behavior, especially as Bello was in his credentialed position when things turned nasty. "I've been next to Al many times before, and he's not intrusive when trying to get a shot," Cozzone said. "I've never seem him push someone out of the way or anything like that, but it's his job to capture what's going on."
A photojournalist's right to "capture what's going on" can easily become a subject of controversy, but that sort of reaction usually involves something far more tragic than a boxer temporarily concussed. Moreover, public figures -- and Pacquiao is clearly a public figure -- lose their right to privacy when they participate in a public event such as boxing match. But aren't there other considerations? Should a line be drawn between doing one's job as a journalist and maintaining one's responsibilities as a respectful, compassionate human being? After all, moments before he overreacted in a most inappropriate way, Fernandez was also lying on the ring floor crying because his lifelong friend has been knocked unconscious.
The National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics sets forth some general guidelines but lacks specifics. The NPPA's eighth and final rule pretty much sums up the complicated situation: "No Code of Ethics can prejudge every situation, thus common sense and good judgment are required in applying ethical principles."
In his book, "Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach," Paul Martin Lester, professor of communications at California State University Fullerton, writes: "A photojournalist's job is to capture the news -- not make it and not run from it." When Koncz and Fernandez allegedly attacked him, Bello was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing.
Lester also addressed the sort of misfortune that befell Bello: "The photographer, unlike the hidden writer, can be the target of policemen, family members and onlookers who vent their anger and grief on the one with the camera. No call to journalistic principles of truthfulness will convince a mob not to attack a photographer in such an emotionally charged situation."
Double-teaming a photographer is one thing, but a member of a fighter's team going after his opponent is riskier business. Lou Duva discovered that when he charged Roger Mayweather in the wake of Mayweather's 1988 unanimous decision victory over Vinny Pazienza. Mayweather waited until the bellicose trainer was almost upon him and then knocked him down with a right hand. Mike Rossman's brother, Andrew, received similar treatment when he entered the ring at the end of the fourth round of Mike's rematch defeat to Victor Galindez in 1979.
This sort of extracurricular activity isn't restricted to fighters and cornermen. I was the recipient of a quixotic sneak attack by none other than WBC president Jose Sulaiman. It was following Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s knockout of Ricky Hatton in 2007, and I was in the ring to present Mayweather with the Ring Magazine belt. After congratulating the fighter, I draped the belt over his shoulder and began to walk back to the corner so I could exit the ring. Then I heard Al Bello -- yes, the same Al Bello -- yell, "Hey, Nigel. Go back and pose with Floyd."
I turned around to do so and saw Sulaiman deliberately push the belt off Mayweather's shoulder and onto the floor. I rushed over, picked up the belt and told Sulaiman in no uncertain terms what I would do to him if he ever tried it again. I then handed the belt to one of Mayweather's handlers and walked away. Before I could duck between the ropes and climb down the steps, somebody grabbed me from behind and pushed me up against the ropes. Security quickly intervened and pulled Sulaiman away. After pretending to calm down, he charged again, but security nabbed him before he reached me.
In retrospect, the Sulaiman episode seems humorous, but being involved provided some insight into what Bello experienced -- although it must be said that I would much rather be set upon by the elderly Sulaiman than Fernandez and Koncz.
So why do these events occur? Why do non-participants get carried away and join the fray? Much can be attributed to violence begetting violence. Hostile behavior, whether in a boxing ring or elsewhere, can spread like a fire, engulfing people and causing them to act in ways they wouldn't normally dream of doing. It leaps from person to person and, as in the case of a full-scale riot, knows no bounds. It's easy to get burned.
Then there's something Bello said shortly after his encounter with Fernandez and Koncz: "I guess everybody in boxing thinks they're a tough guy." There's a measure of truth to that observation. Boxing at its roots is a blood ritual, a reasonably benign manner for mankind to celebrate the aggressive behavior that helped it survive as a species. We shouldn't be surprised when an unsanctioned tussle breaks out at a boxing match. The surprise is that it doesn't happen on a more regular basis.
The guess here is that the reason most boxing matches don't degenerate into a free-for-all is the quaint notion called sportsmanship. Despite the perilous nature of boxing, most fighters are good sports, as witnessed by the customary postfight embrace. Most trainers, many of whom are ex-boxers, also adhere to an approximation of fair play. It's interesting to note that Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, had asked Bello not to takes photos of the prone PacMan but never touched him and later apologized for asking.
We are fortunate that the number of truly dangerous thugs -- characters such as Micky Carson -- has significantly declined over the centuries. Still, so-called civilization hasn't advanced quite as far as many of us would like to believe. Violence still begets violence and, if we are honest with ourselves, that's one of the reasons we watch.