“See, pretend somebody said something bad ’bout your queen. It make you want to cry, it makes you so mad. Now we ain’t playing games here!”
Jonnie gets up from the plastic chair by the domino table, and steps up parallel to the worn length of rope that is strung at shoulder height between the corner of the ring and a pipe running up the wall. He raises his fists and throws a left jab, hard and high from the shoulder, he ducks neatly under the rope and comes up with a right followed by a left hook.
“Pow! You see that? You got to come up on your toe and turn your whole body into it. Now come on, let’s see it!” Jonnie has been boxing for over 50 years, and at 75 he still loves the sport enough to take on a novice like me. He wants me to stop messing about and get down to business. Jonnie knows how to make an Englishman crazy.
Gleason’s boxing gym is tucked under the heel of the Manhattan Bridge that lands in Brooklyn. Deep below the criss-cross layers of highway stacked above York Street station, a small black door leads off the street to the bare concrete steps of a 19th-century warehouse. As the door shuts behind you, the roar of traffic is replaced by the distant whirring of treadmills up on the second floor. At the top of the stairs, a second heavy plate-iron door opens onto a huge, concrete cavern. Amongst the stocky, chipped-black, pillars that squat between the floor and ceiling, are four boxing rings, several rusted weight sets and eight pendulous, heavy punching bags. The names on the lockers that line the walls have an impact of their own, “Lennox Blackmore,” “Mario Spinoza,” “Joey Gamache,” “Pagan.” One hundred and seventeen world champions have worked from Gleason’s, including Jake “The Bronx Bull” La Motta, Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson.
Get-fit gyms strain every sinew of their advertising and aesthetic muscle to turn a workout into a leisure activity. With their walkways and mirrors, magazine racks and slick decor, they fit somewhere between juice bars and nightclubs. A boxing gym is a place of work, like a building site or a foundry. There are no MTV screens or banks of Bose speakers pumping out house classics. Instead, every three minutes, a short, business-like buzz punctuates the low hum of the treadmills and the dull thud and rattle of chains made by gloves on heavy bags. Just like the gutted innards of a construction site, with its throbbing generators and whining skill saws, the gym’s chipped concrete and guttural, grunting, fighters scream of otherness. You don’t have to be told which type of gym to join.
Flat noses, black eyes, fat lips, cauliflower ears, concussion, and unconsciousness; boxing isn’t pretty. The bloody image of working class men punching each other to the roars of wealthy spectators and their fur-coated wives, doesn’t sit easily on a refined stomach. There is the specter of crooked promoters and broken bodies, and the whiff of corruption and the mob.
It’s hard for most people to watch boxing these days, it seems outmoded and crass. It’s difficult to fathom the values espoused by those who love the sport: valor, nobility, sportsmanship, “heart.” In contrast to the apparent brutality of boxing, these ideals seem an act of false consciousness. Who could invoke such outmoded, naive terms with a straight face? Surely honor died with chivalry? But what is beneath the gritty exterior of a boxing gym and its occupants? What does boxing mean to the fighters and trainers?
I went to four different gyms before I found Gleason’s. Two of them, although they had rings and punching bags, were surprised, if not disdainful, when I asked if they trained professional fighters. The toned, tanned, trainers looked at me as if only a fool or a brute would actually want to take on a real opponent in the ring. The other two, although they offered full contact training, wanted to emphasize the boxing workout and downplay the actual fighting. When I called to cancel an appointment with one of them, the receptionist asked where I had decided to go. I told him about Gleason’s, and he said, “Well, you’d better be ready to get in the ring.”
York Street station exits onto a narrow pot-holed road that runs down to the great plinth at the base of the Manhattan Bridge. Craning your neck back to see the rivetted metal above is like staring up from the toe of a dank sphinx. The monolithic stanchion of the bridge, the grim, 19th-century warehouses and the razor wire, are everything you could want from the urban setting of a boxing gym. Of course these days, DUMBO as it is known, is the very quintessence of boho chic; but there is still a slight flutter in my stomach as I climb Gleason’s stairs.
A plain wooden table serves as a reception desk in front of the plate-metal door at the entrance. The owner, Bruce Silverglade, is sitting behind it on a low chair. He is thick set and soft spoken; a hard man grown up. His courteous and carefully measured speech is scattered with the slight grammatical errors of an autodidact. When I tell him that I’m a beginner who wants to learn how to box, he calls over to Jonnie.
Jonnie is over by one of the rings with four other men. Two of them are standing with their arms folded, watching a heavily built fighter whose muscles are etched onto him. The fighter is stripped to the waist and has black tattoos glistening with sweat. He has his wrapped fists up and is staring with total focus into the scarred, wall-eyed face of his huge, bull-like trainer. All of them are deadly serious as the trainer rasps advice to his fighter.
Jonnie adjusts his brown fedora and walks slowly over to us with his hands behind his back. He is slightly bowed with a step that leads off his left leg. It’s the strut of an elder statesman, relaxed, and without swagger. The hat, his pinstripe trousers, and black boots, the toes of which are well shined and kick up slightly from the floor, all give the look of the old-time trainer that he is. He takes me aside and looks at me carefully out of the corner of his eye.
Jonnie is African-American, but his father was a boxer from Belize—or British Honduras as it was known then—who first took him to a gym in Brooklyn when he was eight. Over the years he has traveled the world with different fighters, but now he’s back in the neighborhood where he was born. Jonnie gets to Gleason’s at five every morning, opens up and trains while the gym is empty, using six ropes strung across the ring. “No one knows how to teach that way any more,” he says, “I got a guy who drives me here and buys me breakfast ’cause he can’t get what I teach anywhere else. A good boxer really studies his craft, really learns how to fight.” Jonnie doesn’t say much more about it than that. There isn’t much point in using words to explain how to throw a punch; you just have to do it.
Jonnie started boxing in 1937, the same year that Gleason’s Gym first opened. Peter Robert Gagliardi, a flyweight turned bantamweight, changed his name to Bobby Gleason in order to appeal to the era’s predominantly Irish fight crowd. When he opened the gym in the Bronx under his new name, at first he had to moonlight as a cab driver to make ends meet. But as the depression waned, the ’40s and ’50s heralded a “Golden Age” of boxing in New York and Gleason’s went from strength to strength. At times, when popular fighters such as three time World Champion Roberto Duran trained at the gym, the street had to be cordoned off from his fans.
The original gym is described as looking like a coal cellar, needing a paint job, with wooden floors “that might have been taken from the Mayflower. A blind man with a sense of smell would have known what went on there.” In the summer, when neighborhood kids opened fire hydrants to cool off, the water pressure didn’t make it up to the second floor and the showers stopped working. The gym has moved twice since then, first in 1974, when Bobby Gleason was 82, to West 30th Street in Manhattan, and then again in 1984 to its current location on Front Street under the Manhattan Bridge. Although in a different location with new owners and working showers, Gleason’s still has a pared down, worn-in feel, like the hickory handle of a carpenter’s hammer.
For the past 12 years, the driving force behind Gleason’s has been the gym’s president and half-owner, Bruce Silverglade. Silverglade was first introduced to boxing by his father and has loved it ever since. As a youth he fought as an amateur, and then after a divorce in middle age, he changed careers and started refereeing and judging amateur bouts. He bought into the gym in 1983 and in 1985 devoted himself to Gleason’s fulltime.
Silverglade’s passion for boxing and affection for the fighters is a strong and understated force that pervades the atmosphere of the gym. When he is not greeting customers at the door, or quietly chatting to fighters and trainers, he is often reading from a sheaf of papers and listening to a personal stereo while walking on one of the treadmills.
The gym has a rhythm; it breathes. When I knock on the door of Silverglade’s office at 9 a.m. on a Friday, Gleason’s is quiet. The early morning sessions are just ending and the there is a lull before the day begins. The office is set against the corner of the gym, behind two partition walls with large windows that look out onto the rings and bags. The outside surfaces of the office walls are plastered with scores of pictures of fighters. There are shots of champions with their great embossed belts, and pictures of knock-outs caught in sweat-sprayed stasis. There is Robert De Niro in training for Raging Bull, and a picture of Mike Tyson, on whose mouth someone has glued a cut-out picture of an ear. The space inside is neat and brightly lit. The furniture is plain and functional, just like the equipment outside. When Silverglade is in, the door is always open.
He is just finishing some business with a man in his 50s who has salt-and-pepper hair and a jump rope pulled around his shoulders. Measured and dignified in his responses, Bruce is softly spoken and extremely polite. As I set up my tape recorder on his desk, he leans back in his chair, stretches out his legs, links his fingers together in his lap, and tucks his chin into his neck as he listens carefully to my questions.
Silverglade switched to the administrative side of boxing because he had too much affection for the fighters to be a judge. He found it difficult to make decisions over fights in which he wanted both contenders to win. “I define myself as a mentor,” he says, “with no strings attached.” He calls the fighters his “kids.”
Silverglade clearly has a paternal soft spot for the working class fighters who use his gym, but for him, everyone who comes to train at Gleason’s is equal. Perhaps the most powerful part of the boxing tradition for Silverglade is that once fighters prepare for the ring, they are each subject to the same challenges; their differences are left outside. He is proud to state that whatever the background or gender of those who train at Gleason’s, they are all treated first and foremost as fighters. For Silverglade, “the focus, self-discipline and self-respect” that training as a boxer provides, are assets for any walk of life. There are currently fighters representing 67 nationalities who train at the gym, ranging in age from 7 to 77. It is this diversity that he finds most rewarding.
Silverglade’s response to accusations that boxing is a brutal sport is that critics are usually unaware of the reality of boxing. “They have never come to a gym, they have never trained in a gym,” he says. “What they see is the brutality of professional boxing on television, and the headlines that are made when a boxer gets into some kind of trouble. They don’t know the benefits of the sport.”
The clean glass window of the office frames one of the rings. The tattooed fighter is cutting geometric patterns across the canvas with light, quick steps, all the time throwing tight, rhythmic combinations of hooks and jabs to the command of his one-eyed trainer. The door is closed, and apart from the buzzer marking its time, the office is quiet. With the volume cut, there is only the silent, charged choreography of controlled power. The fluid movements make his glistening skin look like melted chocolate.
The fighter is 29-year-old Jason Quick. At 6’1” and 175 pounds, he ranks as a light heavyweight. He had his first professional fight in June 2003, which he won with a knock out in the first minute of the first round. His hard but handsome features are set solid while training and don’t give much away when he’s not, but when I introduce myself he quickly breaks into a smile. His deep voice rolls with a relaxed and gentle deep South Carolina accent.
I have arranged to meet Jason on a Saturday afternoon, and the gym is in full swing, churning with activity. The atmosphere is altogether different from the quiet of the morning sessions. The four rings all hold several people, sparring or moving sideways around the ropes. The heavy bags are getting a heavy pounding and the small “double-end” bags swing back and forth from the elastic ropes that tie them between the floor and ceiling. The fighters duck from side to side and throw combinations while keeping their feet firmly planted in stance. There are small children, women, overweight men, lean, taut, little boxers and huge, Herculean fighters. The intense energy and urgency in the big room is laced with the bittersweet smell of sweat, and the musty odor of damp canvas.
When I ask Jason why he got into boxing, he says that of course there is the money, but, “the most important thing is the way I feel about it, it’s a feeling. Because no matter who you are, or what title you had, when you come through the door and step into the ring, everybody is the same. You sweat the same, you bleed the same, you cry the same, nobody’s above anybody.”
I tell him this seems to contrast with the popular image of a sport that tests its contenders with violence. Jason sighs and says, “you see, struggle brings togetherness. In some form, or some fashion, we all here struggling. It’s a common ground we all share when we come here, it’s actually seen in the eyes when you look at them, it’s like yeah, you’re a fighter, you’ve been going through something, I feel that, I can feel your struggle.”
Jason started training after he left the Marines, he was in Somalia in 1993 and Bosnia in 1995. Of his life before that he says simply, “coming from down South, it wasn’t too easy, everything you had to do was hard work.” He adds, “This is a real thing here.” It’s not even a sport, it’s real, and you can breathe it. Sometimes I just come in here to smell the air, just to feel it.”
It is this knotty fact that makes boxing ugly for some and beautiful for others. The two sides of this coin are like the meniscus between wealth and poverty. It is impossible to simulate poverty; the divide between knowing with certainty that there is a way out, and knowing with equal certainty that there isn’t, is total. If boxing makes sense to people who are familiar with physical violence, it is hardly surprising that it often makes no sense at all to those who are not.
Violence is repugnant. It is also a daily fact of life for many people, and particularly for young men. For boys, the realpolitik of the schoolyard does not allow for a lofty disdain of fighting. Rather, there is the constant confrontation with fear and the physical negotiation of humiliation, pain, courage, and self-esteem. The daily victim of the tight gauntlet of fists between the locker room and the showers, either makes a stand or he does not. There isn’t the luxury of opting out or walking away. It is only easy to dismiss the childish, male tendency to have to prove oneself if you’ve never had to do it.
In any changing room that caters for the local football team, the chipped tin of the lockers will be dented and buckled from the impact of fists and elbows. The fighting in boxing, rather than being enshrined in the elaborate rituals of team sports, is explicit and its violence is defused. There isn’t a single battered locker at Gleason’s. Boxing is physically violent, but it isn’t filled with hate. The violence in boxing is the ground on which a true test is played out, in terms that make sense to the contenders. Everything else is just playing games.
These are the terms in which a fighter and trainer forge their relationship. A trainer is a mentor and a confidant as well as a technician. Jason’s has worked with Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, and was Mohammad Ali’s sparring partner. “He’s been through a lot of decades, man,” says Jason. “There’s really not too much, or anything that I could do that he hasn’t seen.” The affection and respect he has for his trainer is obvious. “When he talks to you it’s not a foreign language, you can relate to it. I feel comfortable with him because he can just get to certain parts in my mind where I can’t really get to, he can just tap into it.”
Jonnie, meanwhile, takes his own salty approach towards me. He throws a left hook, followed by a right onto the bag. He points to the white mark left by his skin and says, “there, I want them both in the same place. Don’t make friends with him, break his jaw. You can bring him flowers in the hospital afterwards. In a life and death situation, you know what they say? It’s better to have 12 jurors than six pall bearers. You know what a pall bearer is?”
“They carry your coffin,” I say between gasps. “Yeah, that’s right.” He takes the water bottle from my clumsy, gloved hands, and gently tips it to my mouth.
At the end of the session we are sitting opposite each other and Jonnie is unlacing my gloves. He looks up and says, “now, your girlfriend hasn’t dumped you has she? You’re not going to commit suicide are you? See, you didn’t come for a couple of days and I thought maybe you had jumped off a bridge.” He is the soul of wit. “Now you want to get yourself a nice big fat girl, 250 pounds, she’ll cook you dinner and won’t go with other guys. But they gonna call her a hippopotamus and you got to defend her, right? See I made the mistake of going out with actresses and models.” He isn’t what you’d call a new man either. He chuckles mischievously and returns to slowly unwrapping my hands.
On the other side of the gym Jason is laying limp and face down on a duck-taped padded bench. His trainer is carefully working the muscles in Jason’s back. He is using the slow circular movement of his thumbs to break the knots that Jason can’t get to. Jason is listening intently to his trainer’s voice. As usual, it is too quiet for anyone else to hear.