How do you capture in art a sporting event that happened 60 years ago? One way is to call in a man who has done this kind of thing for us many times—Artist Robert Handville. A master of the technique, Handville is able to work with bits of motion picture film and photographs to re-create with accuracy and forcefulness the excitement of moments long passed.
On the cover of this issue and in the story beginning on page 39, Handville has depicted meaningful situations in some of the biggest heavyweight championship fights of the century: Jess Willard vs. Jack Johnson in Havana in 1915; the Tunney-Dempsey "long count" fight in 1927; Joe Louis meeting cocky Billy Conn in 1941; Rocky Marciano flooring Ezzard Charles in 1954; and finally the confrontation between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which has not even happened yet. Even though he never saw any of them—especially the one that won't be held until next week—Handville's artistry brings these famous matches alive.
To depict the fight that has not happened, Handville drew heavily on his imagination and his memory of former performances by the principals. But to bring the old contests back to new life, he sat watching ancient fight films being run over and over. With him was Senior Editor Martin Kane, a boxing fan from way back who had personally seen every one of the contests concerned except that between Willard and Johnson, which the defeated Johnson later claimed he had thrown. Seeing that film convinced Handville the knockout was genuine enough. "It was a tremendous punch," says Handville, and his painting so shows it.
As he watched the films, Handville was surprised at the way Tunney kept his hands low against Dempsey. "I thought only Ali did that," he said. But Kane straightened him out, explaining, "It was a common style in the old days. All boxing styles are cyclical. Today we have passed the Patterson peek-a-boo, and soon hands will start dropping again."
March 1, 1971
By the time he had seen most of the old movies that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED used as reference for this story, boxers and sluggers were dancing and shuffling before Handville's eyes. Finally came Marciano-Charles, and it was Rocky who impressed Handville as the most dangerous fighter of all. "He gave a lesson in how to reduce a guy to nothing," says Handville.
When it came to matching Ali and Frazier, Handville was handicapped by the fact that he had never drawn Frazier before, though he had painted Ali several times. But once again movie films provided all the hints Handville needed. The result was the action shown on pages 46-47. Frazier bores for Ali's middle. Ali dances away and then shoots a long left jab to Frazier's head just as—it seems to us—he will surely do on March 8. But, we asked, what will happen in the last round? Handville shook his head, smiled, and said something about the limits of artistic license. Resuscitation, yes. Clairvoyance, no.