It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday in April, and the Lockhart Funeral Home is filled to capacity.
Jeff Lockhart, a third-generation funeral director and small-town resident of Mitchell, Ontario, is running the proceedings with veteran calm and his trademark compassion. He is both towering and unassuming, and knows just the moment to share a small, sad smile or brief nod; he knows the majority of his client families, and sees his role on this sombre day as that of an aide or facilitator.
Five hours later, following a rapid run down Highway 407, the same Jeff Lockhart — acclaimed boxing photographer, a staple at professional fights across Ontario — crouches ringside at the Pickering Casino Resort with camera in-hand.
The opening attraction of the evening between Michael Cabato and Jorge Diaz has just ended, and droplets of the latter’s blood sit drying on the canvas a few inches from Lockhart’s lens.
“It’s getting that prime shot that keeps me coming back, and it’s a fun challenge,” he reflects. “It’s also the people involved. Ringside, you get to know everyone (and) the other photographers are all great. We talk a lot and help one another out.”
Lockhart’s talent has grown exponentially since his first photos on a Minolta X-700 roughly 40 years ago — to say nothing of his tools.
“They’ve come a long way since then,” laughs the father of two. “Now it’s a professional Nikon camera, with a few different bodies! But that Minolta lasted me many, many years until I went skating with the kids one day (and) tossed the skates in with the camera bag!”
A chance encounter led to Lockhart’s debut at ringside.
“I never set out to take pictures of boxing matches,” he chuckles, remembering chilly winter nights spent snapping photos of a local wind turbine project. “They were putting the blades on these turbines, (and) I brought the kids out along with my camera. My friend then passed my photos onto the company, (and) they really liked the pictures.”
One photo led literally to another, the turbine project manager doubled as a boxing manager, and on March 28, 2015, Jeff Lockhart suddenly found himself ringside.
His memory of that night — eight years and triple-digit events later — is still ‘razor’ sharp.
“Donovan Ruddock was fighting Ray Olubowale, (and) it was Donovan’s first comeback fight. I’d heard of him,” laughs Lockhart. “Kevin Higson and Steve Franjic both fought that night, (but) I didn’t know any of them as I wasn’t a serious boxing fan at that time.”
Higson indeed won an NABA title on the evening, while Ruddock returned after a 14-year layoff; Ryan Young and Josh O’Reilly — then undefeated prospects — both earned victories.
“The action is always good,” says the affable photographer. “United always puts on a great show, the lighting is perfect (and) it’s neat to see them trying new venues with the Casino.”
Boxing has taken Lockhart to fascinating places, one of the most memorable being the Bell Centre in Montreal for Steven Butler vs. Brandon Cook.
“Brandon knocked him out in the sixth or seventh, despite Butler being a strong favourite, and I was ringside for that,” remembers Lockhart. “It was a pretty amazing moment, he caught Butler and then what stands out is the aftermath.
“Somebody threw an ice bucket and nailed Brandon, and a small riot broke out at the arena — not something you see very often! That was an interesting night.”
Following another evening of fights, Lockhart winds down at the venue by quickly uploading slider galleries on his Instagram.
There is no confusion of his priorities; boxing is fun, but serving his community as a funeral director is his job. His calling.
“First and foremost it’s always about making sure my work is covered back home,” he reflects on his photography engagements. “With my son Curtis in the business now, it’s a little bit easier (and) I’ve got other employees — but boxing is a lot of drives home in the middle of the night.
“I’ve enjoyed this experience in boxing, (and) given that I was not expecting to ever do anything like it I think makes these moments a little bit sweeter.”
On championship Saturday nights, nary a belt is awarded in Ontario without Jeff Lockhart present at ringside — ready to provide a career-defining title photo, or tag an excited undercard fighter in a shot from their professional debut.
But on Sundays, Mondays and all the others, he can be found in the same place his father and grandfather were: Helping the families of his community through the oft-difficult process of grieving, remembering and paying respects at the Lockhart Funeral Home.
Jeff Lockhart lives in Mitchell, Ontario, with his wife Bernadette. They have two sons, Curtis and Connor. You can find Jeff’s work on his Instagram, @jefflockhartphoto.