1970s Movie Star's Journey from 'Dawn of the Dead' to Boxing's Most Famous Gym

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2015

Ross' debut performance was as Francine in 1978's Dawn of the Dead.
Ross' debut performance was as Francine in 1978's Dawn of the Dead.Credit: Dawn of the Dead

Gaylen Ross, the star of George Romero’s 1978 genre-defining zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, has a story to tell. Well actually, she has two stories to tell, and both of them are rather compelling.

Ross, who was also featured in Romero’s 1982 cult favorite Creepshow, had traded in her career as an actress for a move into the director’s chair by the mid-1990s, when she met middleweight boxer Godfrey Nyakana, a fighter from Uganda who was training at the world-famous Gleason’s Gym in New York and going after the sweet science’s version of the American Dream.

Romero's 'Dead' series spawned an entire generation of zombie film fans.
Romero's 'Dead' series spawned an entire generation of zombie film fans.Denis Poroy/Associated Press/Associated Press

But Nyakana and his journey through the treacherous world of boxing is the second story, one Ross needs some help to tell. The first is how she decided she’d rather be a director than an actress, and how it happened is as unique as any of Romero’s films—and equally as fascinating.

“The truth is, I was doing Creepshow and when Ted Danson and I are killed, and Leslie Nielsen is the protagonist...so there I am on the New Jersey shore, up to my neck in sand, literally, and a wave machine is throwing water on me every few minutes while they do all these crazy takes because Nielsen [in the movie] is trying to drown me,” Ross told Bleacher Report.

Ross from a scene in 'Dawn of the Dead.'
Ross from a scene in 'Dawn of the Dead.'Credit: Dawn of the Dead

“George Romero is sitting cross-legged not far from me to make sure I don’t die. And he’s sitting there in a parka, dry as a bone on the Jersey Shore, and I looked at him and I thought: ‘You know what? It’s a whole lot better on the other side [of the camera].’”

Ross let out a good laugh as she further detailed her epiphany.

“So when George said cut, I said ‘You know what? I think this is really a wrap for me on my acting career.’ So that’s when it all started!”

Ross was directing theater when she was approached to do a documentary on Polish immigrants coming to America, which became 1989’s Out of Solidarity. It’s there she found her calling, something she’s been happy to continue ever since.

Ross’ 1997 film Blood Money: Switzerlands Nazi Gold, won a 1998 Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Research. Now, Ross has turned her attention to boxing.

Nyakana was a middleweight contender in the 1990s.
Nyakana was a middleweight contender in the 1990s.Credit: Chris Cassidy

Rather, she’s turned her attention back to boxing. TitleShot, a documentary Ross is seeking funding for through Indiegogo, is the story of a fighter she followed and filmed 20 years ago, Nyakana, and the host of characters at Gleason’s who surrounded him.

“Godfrey’s story, to me, is sort of the universal and timeless one about a fighter—any fighter—trying to make it, or anyone trying to achieve their goals. But around it were also these great characters like [trainers] Bobby Cassidy, Bob Jackson and [cutman] Al Gavin. I would walk into Gleason’s, and there would be a story. It was always full of life and full of energy and it was very special.”

Boxing is well-represented in the world of cinema. Despite its status as a niche sport in the United States, numerous feature films and documentaries about boxing have been created by artists from all over the world.

Perhaps it is, at least in part, attributed to something akin to Ross’ view of Nyakana: that a fighter is a universal figure. It is one shared by many; there is a long list of artists and critics who see these heroic combatants toiling long hours of their hard lives within the cold confines of the cruelest and most treacherous of sporting endeavors.

They are the everyman. They are us, and there’s no greater representation of real life within sports than that which is shown in a boxing ring.

Nyakana with his trainer, Bobby Cassidy.
Nyakana with his trainer, Bobby Cassidy.Credit: Mark Wexler

But Ross isn’t relying on others' work to make her film relevant, and she’s not borrowing from tried-and-true cliches either, the way Antoine Fuqua’s 2015 feature film Southpaw did. Instead, Ross refreshingly expects TitleShot to be different than any other movie in the genre—documentary or otherwise.

“What was remarkable, and I think was unique about this film, is that all sports have their public relations and things like that who try to move a sports star along. And all the film is just created to push that star forward. But for this film, we were just allowed access. And everything was pretty much laid out on the table for us.”

So don’t expect an HBO or Showtime-style boxing documentary. Ross’ intent isn’t to publicize a fighter, a network or a promotional company. Her simple aim is to capture the truth of a sport where truth is almost always the enemy.

“So the first day of filming, when we went back into the dressing room, it was shared by at least four other fighters. It wasn’t private at all. There was no curtain. And you can see in the footage that Godfrey is getting ready to go out and working out with his trainers to get loose, and the cameras are reacting to a fighter who just came out of his fight with a big icepack over his eye. And his people are around him, and there’s no division between the camps. There was completely open access to everything, and it continued throughout the filming.

There’s no veil. There’s no curtain, which I think is very unique.”

The sport of boxing, or maybe it’s more correct to say the promotion of the sport of boxing, is exactly the opposite of what TitleShot explores. Boxing managers, promoters and television partners tout the open access that fighters give the media in fight camps, and they’re correct in doing so, especially in comparison to other professional sports.

The truth about boxing is almost always left out of documentaries.
The truth about boxing is almost always left out of documentaries.Credit: Mark Wexler

But the promotional films often produced, such as HBO’s award-winning documentary series 24/7 and Showtime’s similarly styled All Access, still employ, to one extent or another, the ever-present curtain in boxing: the one meant to hide all the things those who stand to make lots of money off the fight without taking any punches don’t want anyone else to see.

After all, the people in the business of boxing don’t refer to the sport’s contests as fights. They refer to them as promotions.

Ross said viewers of her film will be able to appreciate the difference in intent.

“I would say that the difference with the kind of access we had is that Godfrey was on a journey—a roller-coaster quest for the title—where every fight was important. You didn’t know what was going to happen. Every moment—there was a win, there was a loss, there was a win, and finally a loss. And each of those things was captured.”

Nyakana's story is compelling.
Nyakana's story is compelling.Credit: Bobby Cassidy

Case in point: Even after Nyakana was knocked out in a hugely important fight that would have catapulted him into a long sought-after title shot, the filmmakers had open access to the post-fight discussions of Nyakana’s inner team.

“We filmed a scene in the hotel lobby at midnight with the manager, trainer and his team talking about the future of Godfrey. It was stunning. I don’t think that kind of thing has ever been shown.”

The hard facts of Nyakana’s professional boxing career are not that hard to find. BoxRec.com lists his professional record, along with what happened when he finally earned his way to a world title opportunity.

But the story of how he got there—the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations and the peaks and valleys of everyone who had a stake in this everyman’s dreamhas yet to make its mark in the world of art, and Ross is hoping her Indiegogo campaign can help it happen.

This will be her second attempt to do so. Ross previously tried to gather funding 10 years ago but said boxing didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar then.

“Something had happened. People were not talking about boxing anymore, and they didn’t want to talk about it in a way. The reason we’re doing it now is that it feels as if there’s something in the air about boxing again.”

Dawn of the Dead's Ross now focuses on making documentaries.
Dawn of the Dead's Ross now focuses on making documentaries.Credit: Dawn of the Dead

Ross noted two things about 2015 that give her such high hopes. This year's superfight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao put boxing back on the mainstream map, as has Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions series.

Besides, Ross said she doesn’t want to wait any longer.

“I don’t have another 20 years. We have to do this now.”

Ross’ character in Dawn of the Dead is tougher than one might expect when she’s introduced at the beginning of the film. Before the screen fades to black and the credits roll, she’s one of only two survivors seen flying away in a helicopter out of immediate zombie danger.

Fittingly, one gets the same impression of Ross herself. She said she and her team, who have been extremely active on various social media platforms, will fight for funding until the very last bell sounds.

“We’re doing well, but we could be doing a lot better. That’s why we really need the support. It’s so important after 20 years that a boxing films like this gets made, one with so many great characters, many who are no longer with us.”

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and information were obtained firsthand. Contributions to TitleShot can be made via Indiegogo.