Chris Howell documented an Oak Cliff boxing gym for 14 years, and he’s not finished yet
Filmmaker Chris Howell thought he was just taking a break from the tedious editing process on his film “Old Man” when he decided to go shoot the Dallas Golden Gloves one evening in 2002.
There he met Greg Hatley of Oak Cliff Boxing Club, and he saw Hatley’s son, Greg Hatley Jr., win a fight.
It was love at first sight.
The younger Greg Hatley said, “Oh, you’ve gotta see my brother fight,” Howell recalls. At 16, Charles Hatley was fighting with his hands behind his back, stunting on opponents and knocking them out.
A protagonist was born.
Howell, who lives in Lakewood, has spent the past 14 years filming the long-follow documentary “Sweet Science.”
Even though a final cut of the movie was released at the Dallas International Film Festival in 2010, the story is not over. Charles Hatley, now 30, last year won the World Boxing Council super welterweight world title, defeating Anthony Mundine in Melbourne. Howell, who has never stopped filming the Hatleys, now is raising funds to re-edit the film or possibly produce a sequel.
Many times over the years, Howell thought the story was finished.
After the Dallas Golden Gloves in 2002, he followed the Oak Cliff Boxing Club crew to the Texas Golden Gloves, where he thought the story would end. But then the Hatley brothers mowed through their competition and made it to nationals in Las Vegas.
“Then we were in deep,” Howell says.
He thought the film was done in 2004 when the Hatleys lost at the Olympic Trials.
But then in December, 2004, Dominic Littleton, an Olympic hopeful and former foster kid from South Oak Cliff, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He left no note, and it’s still unclear whether his death was accidental. He had been like family to the Hatleys.
The loss broke everyone’s hearts, and the story continued.
By 2008, Howell and crew had 650 hours of footage for “Sweet Science.” East Dallas-based Post Asylum paid for the edit and editor Brian Hockenberry reduced it to about two and a half hours.
They held focus groups of friends who critiqued it. The Dallas Independent Film Festival board watched it several times and gave notes.
The editing process alone took two and a half years.
Meanwhile, Howell was still filming. He maxed out credit cards to fund his own travel costs for the film. Although he already was a professional filmmaker with a respectable dossier of short films, he took a job as a cable puller because it had flexible hours. His wife, Anne, is a teacher at Mt. Auburn Elementary School and her salary kept them afloat.
Boxing drew Howell because he’d always been a fan of the sport. His father was as well. Howell had long wanted to make a film about Johnny Tapia, a champ from his hometown, Albuquerque, N.M. (Someone else made that documentary, “Tapia,” in 2013.)
After immersing himself in the sport for 14 years, he says he is less of a fan. Head injuries are “the elephant in the room that nobody talks about.”
Now, to see a kid who is great, a kid who has a promising boxing career ahead of him, can be gut-wrenching.
“The majority of these guys, they don’t get injured,” he says. “It’s just that the guys who do, they’re severely injured.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in boxing as a way for impoverished kids from rough backgrounds to find a way up.
Boxing teaches fortitude, toughness and discipline. It changes lives.
“In a life that’s out of control, it’s something that they can control,” Howell says. “Inside the ring, it’s one against one. I think they find a measure of control.”
After his victory in Australia, Charles Hatley now is in line for Floyd Mayweather’s belt. During a welcome home party recently, Howell says the champ came up and asked, in his typical humble fashion, about Howell’s 2-year-old daughter, Evie, and his wife, who is expecting their first son in May.
Even though Howell’s feelings about boxing have changed over the years, he says he’ll always be Charles Hatley’s No. 1 fan.
“Those guys are my family now … I love those guys,” he says. “And I sure do miss Dominic.”
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