Four years ago, I drove up to Indianapolis for a night of action. It wasn’t wrestling that night; it was boxing. Scott Romer invited me to tag along as he photographed the local Indianapolis promotion.
What happened that night gave me an insight into the life of one of the hardest working people I know. Scott Romer is a hustler. He’s a master photographer, businessman, salesman, self-marketer, and self-promoter. He’s been doing this since he was a teenager in the 1970s, working with Dick the Bruiser on the wrestling shows and Fred Berns in boxing. And he’s still busting his but in armories, gymnasiums, auditoriums, banquet halls photographing everyone from wrestling fans to, you know, Presidents of the United States.
Seriously. If you don’t believe me, buy the whole book.
Scott gave me permission to reprint the opening of his book. What follows is my account of that night in Indianapolis, watching Scott hustle as he took photos, printed them at ringside, and sold them to the fans, the managers, and even the boxers themselves. An historic fight took place as part of the event, which you can read about below.
It’s 5:30 p.m. on a crisp December Saturday night in 2019, and Scott Romer is banging on the back door of an old, familiar haunt.
Located just a few blocks north of the heart of downtown Indianapolis, the Tyndall Armory is an unassuming brick building that once played host to the weekly wrestling programs starring Wilbur Snyder and the city’s favorite son, Dick the Bruiser. Tonight, it’s the home of Chin Chek Promotions, a boxing outfit making great strides to bring the sport back to prominence in the heart of Indiana, and the featured event will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records.
That is, if no one dies in the ring.
The door opens, and Scott steps inside. With a nod and a “Thanks” to the doorman, he jogs down a half flight of stairs, racing through a door leading into a small classroom. A dozen young men sit quietly in chairs, some half-dozing, some listening to air pods, all waiting to see the man in the starched white dress shirt and tie at the head of the room. The ring doctor has one eager young competitor already in the chair, a large arm cuff Velcroed around his bicep, in the middle of his pre-fight checkup. No one gets to fight until the doctor clears them. That’s state regulation. The stillness of the room is because each man is trying to stay calm, to keep his blood pressure down. No one wants to be denied a chance to fight.
Scott spots the guest of honor right away. He’s hard to miss. His head is shaved except for a short yellow mohawk. He has a matching handlebar mustache. He sits back in his chair, his eyes wide, staring at the doctor as he examines the younger man in the chair. He’s wearing a custom-made T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and one look at his tattooed arms will tell you, this guy was a fighter – many decades ago.
Al Hughes had his first fight more than five decades earlier. He is seventy years of age, and if he competes tonight, he will shatter the current world record for the oldest man to compete in a sanctioned fight. Al’s story is already legend among the boxing community. He is fighting in memory of his son, who was also a fighter, a veteran, and a recovering drug addict. Earlier in 2019 Al and his son had discovered that Al, then 69, was a decade older than Steve Ward, a British boxer who last competed at the age of 59. Al and his son began training on a lark, hoping that Al could set a new mark so high, no one would ever touch him.
When Al Hughes III committed suicide just a few days before his father turned 70, the devastated father nearly gave up on the dream. Then one day, standing in front of the small box containing his son’s ashes, he made a vow. He would compete. He would set a new world record. He would do it for his son. “I’ll do it or die trying,” he told The Indianapolis Star just a few days before the event.
Most of the tickets sold that evening for the show were because of Al, but when Scott found him sitting in the classroom, Al was a million miles from stepping into the ring. His nerves were getting the best of him, and after several attempts, he had not yet passed the blood pressure test.
Al is tense, and no amount of talk about calming down and relaxing is going to change that. He’s got to fight just to get to the real fight, and the more he talks and worries over it, the worse things become. Rather than pile on to Al’s frustration, Scott decides to head upstairs and get the lay of the land for the evening.
Bruiser’s old haunt looks much like it did decades before when this was a house of wrestling. The ropes and turnbuckles are different from those found in a wrestling ring, but the squared circle is positioned right where it always was in Bruiser’s day. Several wooden folding tables lie flat on the floor at ringside, still to be set up for the judges and state officials who will oversee the matches. Metal folding chairs surround three sides of the ring while a set of round tables with eight chairs each are set up between the ring and the raised stage, where a DJ and the crew from FITE TV are finishing their set ups. Above the main floor, surrounding the ring on all sides, is the balcony area with plenty of seating for those not holding floor level seats to catch the action.
A video screen displays the animated graphics for Chin Chek Promotions, and a crew of three works feverishly to duct tape cables to the floor from the stage to the ring for the TV cameras. A table with empty food trays sits off to the left of the stage, waiting for the catered dinner that will be served to the VIP ticket holders at the tables. Opposite the stage and to the left of the main entrance doors, the concession stand is being set up, with hot dogs and nacho cheese already being warmed. Scott nods to a serious looking team of men and women in suits and business formal wear, now making their presence known. The Indiana State Boxing officials are in the building. It’s 5:45 now, and the doors will open in fifteen minutes.
Scott Romer isn’t worried about time. “These things never start on time,” he says, referring to the promised 7:30 bell time. “It’ll be 30 minutes to an hour late when the fights start.” Scott is looking for an open space along the outer brick wall with an outlet, some place he can set up shop. He finally finds a spot on the right side of the stage, right beside the doors where all the fighters will make their entrances and exits. There’s just enough room next to the three medical technicians who will be checking each fighter’s vitals post-fight to clear them to leave the building, a perfect place for Scott to ply his trade with the boxers and their handlers.
Scott spots a young man at one of the VIP tables with a camera in hand and makes his way over to say hello. The young man is from New York City and has come in with one of the boxing teams booked for the event. This is not his first boxing show, but he tells Scott this is his first time photographing boxing. He’s a fashion photographer by trade, and he just recently got his foot in the door with the boxers after doing a photo shoot with a fighter who works as a fashion model. “It’s a passion project,” he says as Scott checks out the young photographer’s well-used film camera.
We do another quick loop as Scott searches for the booker, Reggie Strickland. A local and international boxing legend, Strickland has a record of his own to brag about, having fought in more fights than any other man. He’s nowhere in sight, but Scott, who knows everyone, introduces me to a white-haired lady in a referee’s black and white striped shirt sitting in one of the metal folding chairs.
“Connie Page is the timekeeper,” he tells me. “And her husband Bill is one of the judges.”
Connie looks anxious when Scott asks me to pull out my recorder, imploring her, ”Tell him some stories about me!” She quickly loosens up when Scott walks away and says, “Ask Scott how many times he’s been married. That man and his women! Just go to his Facebook, and you’ll see what I mean!”
The fans are starting to arrive, and Scott heads back downstairs to check on Al. He finally connects with Reggie and introduces us. Reggie is polite but clearly distracted. He’s worried about his main attraction, who is still unable to get cleared by the doctor. Reggie gives Al his own pep talk. Scott starts using the word “if” in regards to Al’s chances, and Reggie won’t hear it. “He will. He will get his blood pressure down.” He has a lot riding on this, and it’s not all financial. He has a promise to keep to Al.
It’s almost seven when we head outside to Scott’s Toyota Matrix to start unloading his equipment. There’s a large, well-used professional photo printer, a giant gear bag, and a plastic folding table that’s seen better days. We haul everything upstairs to our spot, which Scott is relieved to find still available. As he’s unloading equipment, he spots another familiar face and leads me to ringside. Scott introduces me to the former boxing commissioner, Jake Hall, who sits at ringside with his grandson. While I’m setting up the recorder on my iPhone, Scott asks Jake to tell me some stories about the two fights he once had.
Jake unlocks his iPad and pulls up Scott’s statistics on the website BoxRec. His record was 0-2, and Jake notices something odd about one of the two records.
“It says here you weighed 195. I don’t remember you being that big back then.”
“I had twenty pounds of ankle weights on under my sweatpants,” Scott admits.
Jake shakes his head. “It was in Illinois. He’d have never gotten away with that with me. Guys were always trying things like that. Usually it was rolls of quarters in their cargo pants. I got wise to that one quick and would hit their pockets with my hands when they got on the scales.”
Jake is full of stories about boxers, promoters, and the men who tried to fix the fights to their satisfaction. “The mob used to tell one guy, ‘You go down in this round.’ That’s one way they fixed things. They’d also have two guys fight in one state under their real names and then have them travel to another state and fight under each other’s names so they could fight again. That was before they set up the national registry. Now you can’t fight in one name here and another name there. Everybody has a nationally registered number, and if you try to cheat, you get suspended.”
In spite of the changes, Jake assured me that the mob still had their ways around the rules. “They used to fix fights by telling guys to take a dive. Now they fix things by choosing who they fight.”
Bell time comes and goes. It’s hard to say where the holdup is. The crowd is still coming in, the TV crew is still going through their paces, and the pre-fight checkups continue. Al Hughes is now standing in front of a cooling fan downstairs, still trying to get his blood pressure down. The DJ is already spinning tunes on stage as the VIPs get their first helpings of the fried chicken buffet now set up and ready to eat.
Scott has to go downstairs and search for a power strip, which he is able to find. He changes the ribbon and the paper cartridges in the printer, and with a few minutes to spare, he’s ready to go. Scott also brings news from the locker room. Al Hughes is going to fight. There’s no word on his blood pressure numbers or what arrangements have been made between the promoter and the state officials to let the fight proceed. Somewhere in the building, I know both Al Hughes and Reggie Strickland are relieved.
It’s now 8:05, and the ring announcer welcomes everyone and introduces the first two fighters. Scott makes his way to the ring, stepping up on the apron in a neutral corner to ensure himself the best possible vantage point for the match.
The combatants are in the ring when the National Anthem is sung, and a few minutes later, we are underway. The first match takes less time than the national anthem. A hard-hitting fighter from New York, part of the crew the fashion photographer has come to shoot, knocks his opponent down twice. At 97 seconds, the match is stopped. Scott sticks around long enough to take a few photos of the victor as he poses for the crowd. He races to his printing station, selects the best shots, and has them printed before the winner is finished with his requisite post-fight exam.
Scott motions the winner over before he can pass through the double doors leading to the dressing area. Boxer and manager lean in over Scott’s shoulder as Scott makes his pitch. Twenty dollars for an 8” x 10”. The manager reaches for some cash, and Scott prints the photo of their choosing, sliding the finished product into a protective plastic sleeve. His first sale of the evening.
The second fight lasts a round and a half. A very game, energetic boxer from Ohio is clearly the aggressor early on, but the New Yorker waits patiently for his opportunity. Ohio goes down only once, and when he does, he does not get back up. Scott is at his table, ready to make his pitch to the second winner, but with their own photographer on hand tonight, they take a pass. Scott takes it all in stride. “You can’t win ‘em all.”
The third fight turns out to be a big winner for Scott and the crowd. The first local fighter takes the ring and makes quick work of his opponent with a first-round knockout. His mother puts on a show of her own, cheering at ringside with her tablet filming the whole match. Scott can feel the energy as he races from the ring to the table. Knowing the winner has fans in the crowd, he’s not just going to pitch to the fighter. He’s going to work the fans. He sells a few snaps to the boxer and his family, and taking advantage of a delay due to issues with the FITE stream, he sells a few more photos to the fans in the crowd. “It’s a hustle,” he says, “But this is so much better than working a real job.”
The fourth match on the card, scheduled for twelve rounds, is one of two title matches tonight. It’s also expected to be a money maker as the champion is another local favorite. The crowd goes berserk as Reggie Strickland and company lead the champ to the ring, with five stablemates in tow carrying the champ’s title belts overhead. Only one is at stake tonight, and the challenger is a very game looking Australian.
This match is no easy knockout. The challenger is not at all intimidated by the crowd or the gold at ringside. Through the early rounds he is poised, confident, betraying no trace of fatigue or pain. The champ, however, is reeling a few rounds in. He’s getting the worst of each exchange, and in the seventh, he suddenly goes down. The challenger looks as fresh as he did a few rounds previous. Still no emotion or no sign of tiring on his face. The champ is swelling around the eyes. His nose has been bleeding for a while. As the ring girl walks a circle carrying the sign for round eight, the ring doctor makes his way through the ropes to examine the champ.
Words are exchanged as the doctor checks the champion’s eyes. He wants to fight. There’s no quit in him. It’s the doctor’s duty, however, to make the tough and unpopular decision. The ref signals the match is over, and the crowd starts to boo. Only then does the challenger show any sort of emotion.
Scott shakes his head walking back to the table. “The wrong guy won.” On the other side of me, the lead medical examiner leans over.
“This could get ugly,” he says. “Last time this happened, the guy cussed me out. It wasn’t my call to stop the fight, but he blamed me.”
The new champ takes a seat to get his blood pressure and pulse taken, but his opponent bypasses the medical station completely. With all of his handlers imploring him, “You need to see the doctor!” he bursts through the doors and heads downstairs. The technician waits a moment to see if the former champ might turn back. He shrugs. “He can’t leave the building unless I say so,” he says. He grabs a few things and heads downstairs.
Scott, meanwhile, is printing photos of the champ, both from the fight and after. He chooses one photo in particular featuring as many people as he can, knowing he might be able to sell a copy to the state official and handlers who were with the new champ. He heads downstairs, where the mood has definitely shifted. The former champ is still angry, ranting, his teammates and friends trying to calm him down. The new champ is in the bathroom finishing his drug test. Scott waits patiently.
Scott spots Saleto Henderson, aka “Mr. Personal.” He introduces me and takes our photo together, telling me Saleto is one of the best in the world. With a 6-0 record, he’s one of two combatants fighting for the vacant NABF Jr. Flyweight World Championship in the main event later tonight. Although only 5’1”, he is a confident and cool young man who seems to give off an aura of greatness, even sitting on a bench in a tiny locker room surrounded by friends.
Scott makes his pitch to the champion when the drug test is over. The champ buys a few photos for himself. Scott tracks down some of the other men in the group photo and is able to sell a few more pics. He is happy with the take and quickly back to work, photographing more of the night’s action.
As I take my seat by Scott’s table, my new friend, the medical tech, fills me in. “You should have come down with me. He told me to go fuck myself.” He’s smiling, taking it all in stride. He’s been working boxing shows for a long time, and he loves it. He starts to tell me the things he’s seen, everything from broken noses to broken arms. “One guy literally broke his arm from throwing a punch.” He loves the extra pay these gigs bring, but more than that, he loves boxing, and he loves being so close to the action. “We see the whole show. We literally touch every fighter. You can’t beat this!”
Scott continues his shuttle runs from ringside to the table to the locker room. He’s looking for the winner of the sixth fight and happens upon the young man who lost that same fight, a local he knows well. “You know where this guy is?”
“Naw, sorry,” he says.
“It’s a good shot, right?” says Scott. “Be better if you had won, though.”
“It’s all good, Romer,” he says. “Just means bad news for the next guy I fight.”
We hear the sound of boxing gloves on pads, and as we walk by the dressing room, we peek in on Al Hughes, dressed in a burgundy and gold robe, throwing warm up punches with Reggie Strickland. Scott shakes his head. Everyone’s concerned about what will happen to Al, and the time is nearly upon us.
It’s just after 10:45, and a crowd gathers nearby, forming a tunnel from the back door to the ring. The DJ cranks up the volume and begins to play the “Gonna Fly Now” theme from Rocky. You can hardly hear the ring announcer as Al Hughes makes his way into the room to thunderous applause. Family and friends are dressed in the same custom T-shirt he wore downstairs, emblazoned with the show logo and Al’s photo. Al’s daughter holds up a picture of his fallen son.
Silently the medical team rolls a gurney with extra medical equipment to the far side of the ring. They have paddles, oxygen, and more at the ready. The promoter and the medical team want to take no chances if something bad happens. They are silent themselves, watching and hoping they’re not about to witness a tragedy.
Scott takes his post in the neutral corner, his camera firing away. Al’s opponent bounces on his feet, left to right to left. Al is still. It’s clear when his robe comes off he is not in shape to take even one punch from one of the many competitors who have set foot in the ring tonight. Even the smallest of fighters could take him down with one or two good shots.
Al’s opponent is most likely the second oldest man on the card, but at age 44, still in better shape than Al. I’m certain I wasn’t the only person wondering what was going through his mind. Would he take it easy on Al? Would he go all in? Did he have special instructions on how he was to handle the fight? All would soon be revealed.
The ref calls for the bell, and Al moves to the center of the ring. I’m watching his opponent more than Al, waiting to see what he will do. Al’s punches are slow, weak. What do you expect from a man seventy years of age, carrying a heavy heart? The other fighter parries Al’s blows but does not respond. He backs away. Al follows. He moves right. Al follows. Al is on the attack, throwing shots where he can. The other fighter keeps his guard up but makes no offensive response. For three minutes he takes what Al can give him and offers no offense in return. At the break, the fight doctor steps into the ring to check on Al, who has not been hit once. It’s becoming clear where this is going.
Half-way through the second round, Al scores a knockdown. The other fighter stumbles and falls to one knee. The crowd roars as Al heads to a neutral corner and the ref gives the other man an eight count. The cheers grow louder as the ref gives the command to resume, and Al moves back in, throwing more punches than before. The other man stumbles and falls again. This time, there’s no getting up. There’s a ten count, and then the bell. A tearful and relieved body of friends and family cheer their heads off as Al has fulfilled his promise, and written himself into the record books, with a victory.
A smiling, relieved medical team returns to our corner of the building and parks the gurney. They take their places by the chairs to check Al and his opponent. The head tech smiles at me. “There you go,” he says. “A little WWE action for you.”
Scott snaps a few more photos before racing back over to his table. He still has two more matches to go, including one in which the hometown boy Saleto Henderson will strike gold and win his first ever world title, advancing to 7-0 in the process. It’s all part of a day’s work for the man who has viewed everyone from Dick the Bruiser to Muhammed Ali to George W. Bush through the lens of a camera.