One evening in 1994, photographer Bruce Gilden took his seat in a car in London, setting off southbound. Along with writer Mick Brown, he’d been assigned by the Telegraph Magazine to visit and document a night at an unlicensed boxing club in blue-collar, suburban Swanley, just within the M25 – the circular motorway enclosing the UK capital city’s confines.
The car took them to the White Oaks Leisure Centre, where they entered a busy room. Hundreds of people were clutching pints of lager in translucent plastic cups, cheering at every jab and hook as the fighters – a mix of enthusiasts, ex-pros and “journeyman types” – swung their fists at each other. The atmosphere was visceral, loud, and a far cry from the suited glamour of venues like Madison Square Garden or Caesar’s Palace that commonly host the fights at the highest echelons of the sport. “They look totally nuts, they’re all cheering because the fans are mostly friends of the fighters,” Gilden recalls, while pointing at a crowd shot in his recently-published photobook One Night Only, collating pictures he took from that evening. “So they have a vested interest.”
It was a particularly exciting commission for the photographer, who had wanted to be a boxer himself growing up. “I used to watch boxing all the time when I was a kid,” he continues. “So I can tell the difference between [licensed] boxing and street fighting. It’s Marquess of Queensbury rules – I never found out who the Marquess of Queensbury was but with a name like that he must have been aristocratic, the rules are very gentlemanly. I didn’t observe those rules and these guys were more like me.”
He worked relentlessly throughout the evening, swiftly moving around the club’s areas and taking pictures of everything, and everyone he could. Featuring in-the-ring pauses between rounds, close-up portraits of the night’s attendees and access to the behind-the-scenes, backstage areas – One Night Only is an immersive visual journey through the single evening in the club.
A colourful cast of characters appear across the book’s spreads, from a 1.6 metre (5ft 4in) tall heavyweight boxer readying himself for battle and Aitch the dinner-suited MC, to gawping couples and wide-eyed punters staring down the barrel of the camera. It’s a shift from the stark and face-full-of-camera style that characterises Gilden’s most recognisable and defining work – but his eye for the bold and uncompromising remains present as ever.
“I think I’m quite courageous with my photography – I go with an assistant now but I used to always go alone. I’m conscious something bad could happen, but when I feel like something is bad I go away,” he says. “My pictures are a little different than a lot of other photographers, not only because of my style but because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Unlicensed boxing – featuring fighters who are not licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) – is a legal sport in the UK. It can take a number of forms, including bare knuckle boxing, and there are often less-recognised organisations handing out their own licences. That particular night was organised by the United Boxing Organisation and its founder Reg Parker, who had previously applied to the BBBC for a promoter’s license, but was refused. Parker told Brown that the UBO was “bringing boxing back to the British public”.
“You didn’t see upper class people here, it’s more middle class and [working] class. There’s also more fist-fighting guys – and they go because that’s what they do and that’s what they like,” Gilden says. “People go [to watch boxing] because they like violence. I think people have the wrong idea about boxing, martial arts etc., it’s an outlet for a lot of people. For many people it teaches you discipline, it teaches you that you can protect yourself, [and] it gives you confidence.”