He is known to the public as ‘the Hexecutioner‘. He has a new tattoo engraved on his small body after every win (there isn’t much space left – to date he has lost only 1 of his 27 professional fights). He keeps pet pythons, iguanas and large spiders. He wears children’s shoes. South Africa’s Hekkie Budler is the world champion minimumweight boxer. Last month, he came to Monaco to defend his titles. Sam, New York Times European Sports Writer, came down to Nice and we spent the day with Hekkie and his entourage a few days before the fight, to make a portrait of the ‘toughest small guy in the world’.
Not the usual vibe at Monaco hotel
At Monaco’s Novotel, the usual ladies and gentleman lounging in smooth Gucci were conspicuous by their absence. The hotel foyer had become an elemental male domain, full of the comings-and-goings of sportswear-clad professional boxers and their coaches, smelling of sport and bristling with bravado in advance of Monte Carlo’s World Championship Boxing Tournament. As we chatted, Hekkie and his entourage spread themselves over the velvet lounge chairs and talked of sport, Oscar Pistorious and porn. No-one was impressed when the female photographer tried to bond by mentioning her kickboxing experience. Sam made the mistake of saying that boxers are softies underneath. “Not South African ones” growled (the slightly perplexingly named) Ryno the Lion, light-heavyweight champion, who didn’t know that he was fated to lose his title and most of his face three days later.
Photographer dodges punches
My brief as photographer was to follow Hekkie throughout the day. There was little if anything going on for most of it (much of Hekkie’s fight preparation week is taken up playing Nintendo) but temperatures were raised at the afternoon training session. The conditions were a little challenging, both for fighters and photographer. Monaco, I assumed, must have a boxing gym hidden away somewhere that I would discover – but in fact the boys ran through their paces in a supremely dark stairwell and very small meeting room at the Novotel. I put myself in the limited space between the punches being thrown and the tables pushed back against the wall and did my own shadow boxing act, along with South African TV cameraman and Hekkie’s team of trainers, who were waiting with water, towels and their silent bulks of muscular moral support.
In the corridor after his training session, Hekkie showed scant regard for the Monaco hotel carpets as he stripped and wrung out what looked like litres of sweat from the plastic under-suit that he was wearing to lose weight. But while he may be world champion – and preparing physically and mentally for an impending high-stakes fight – he was anything but the diva-superstar with the writer and photographer relentlessly followed him around. He welcomed us uncomplainingly into his bedroom, strewn with piles of belongings and socks hanging up to dry, patiently answered all questions and gallantly carried my photography equipment up and down the stairs (even though I tower above him and weigh considerably more, I had no qualms about accepting his offer). A couple of the flat-nosed, large-biceped boxing coaches snuck off for a little sightseeing trip to the picture-postcard village of Eze in the afternoon. “Its not every day we’re in South of France” said one, bashfully. Maybe Sam was right about boxers being softies…
Photographer ticket to Fight Night
I have done several photography assignments in sport (see blog posts about my portraits of freedivers or triathlon champions the Brownlee brothers and Chrissie Wellington) but boxing is a new terrain for me. I filed my editorial assignment, but was curious about Hekkie’s upcoming fight and asked if I could get access to the event itself. Tickets were going for several hundred euros, but Colin, Hekkie’s manager, came good with a press pass. All the ringside spots were already allotted, but I wasn’t too sorry to dodge showers of sweat and blood (apparently routine conditions for a ringside boxing photographer), instead shooting the fight from a scaffold tower reserved for last-minute / less-favoured photographers.
Monaco adores mini pink-haired champion
Hekkie’s was the only fight with a female referee (in a beautiful synchrony, her pink gloves matched his freshly dyed hair – Hekkie changes hair colour before every fight). The thuds as his punches hit home weren’t loud, nor was the ‘pfif‘ sound when he fell to the ground early on (and I thought all was lost). However, the roar that exploded from Monaco’s seemingly bloodthirsty crowd when Hekkie won was deafening, and the sight of Monégasque women queueing up to adore -and be photographed with- Hekkie afterwards, towering over him in their highest of high heels and glittering finery, was quite something. As for Hekkie, he looked tired but happy with the situation. I guess he can get another tattoo now…