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Posted: Thursday March 25, 2010 5:37PM; Updated: Thursday March 25, 2010 5:59PM
Bryan Armen Graham
Bryan Armen Graham>INSIDE BOXING

As Golden Gloves loom, NYC boxing gyms in fight for life (cont.)

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Fighters spar at Gleason's Gym. Even the oldest active boxing gym in the United States hasn't been immune to the citywide decline.

Despite the excitement of the Golden Gloves, even New York's venerable gyms are either struggling or adapting to survive.

Gleason's is New York's most famous gym and the oldest active boxing gym in America. Founded in 1937 in the Bronx, now in its third home on the second floor of a DUMBO industrial building, it's probably the best-known gym in the world.

The interior is familiar, unchanged by time: boxers skipping rope, shadowboxing, sparring in the four practice rings, slugging away at heavy bags along the walls. Many pro fighters still train here, among them junior middleweight champion Yuri Foreman, former welterweight champion Zab Judah and up-and-coming heavyweight prospect Tor Hamer -- following in the footsteps of Jake LaMotta, Floyd Patterson and a young Cassius Clay. The inscription near the entrance of the 14,000-square-foot space -- less stark than its Morris Park counterpart but no less inspirational -- comes from Virgil: "Now, whoever has courage and a strong collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace up the gloves and put up his hands."

Even as powerful a brand as Gleason's hasn't been immune to the citywide decline. Complicating matters is the sharp rise in boxing insurance, for which owner Bruce Silverglade pays around $25,000 per year. ("[It] has gone up in proportion and percentage more than any other expense that I have," Silverglade says, "and without any incidents.") While there's always a spike in membership around New Year's Day -- a joint consequence of New Year's resolutions and Golden Gloves season -- Silverglade says the gym has suffered a 6 percent drop in membership over the past two years.

After graduating from Gettysburg College in 1968 with a degree in economics, Silverglade entered the Sears Roebuck management program and ran one of the company's stores on Long Island, but worked in amateur boxing as a volunteer. After serving as the national chairman for the Junior Olympics, Silverglade became president of amateur boxing in New York City. One day at Gleason's while making the rounds, the owner mentioned that he was looking for a partner.

The very next day, Silverglade went back to Sears and resigned.

"I couldn't wait," recalls Silverglade, who bought a 50-percent share of Gleason's after cashing in his profit sharing from 16 years with Sears. "When I had the opportunity to change my hobby into my lifelong dream -- having a good time and being involved with Gleason's, which was such a big name in boxing -- I just couldn't resist it."

Silverglade says there's been a radical transformation in DUMBO since he bought Gleason's, "from a very, very nasty slum area to probably one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in all of Manhattan."

Business was steady for years, but just as a fighter must adjust tactics on the fly against a stubborn opponent, most of New York City's hardcore boxing gyms have had to adapt to survive.

One solution for a brand as recognizable as Gleason's is alternate revenue streams. Silverglade says the gym has hosted location shoots for TV shows and 26 feature films -- including four Academy Award winners -- as well as fashion shoots, corporate parties, bar mitzvahs and weddings.

"If somebody in New York says boxing, they say, 'Oh, Gleason's Gym,'" Silverglade says. "It's synonymous. It's like Kleenex and tissue paper."

Many gyms, like Gleason's and the Church Street Boxing Gym, now primarily cater not to aspiring fighters but to white-collar clients, who may want a rigorous workout, or a way to tap something carnal within, but aren't looking to boxing for a livelihood. Silverglade estimates that 65 percent of Gleason's members are businesspeople, the rest being professional or amateur boxers.

"The only thing that has allowed me to survive is the fact that we draw from the neighborhood," Silverglade says. "I have a pretty good monopoly on boxing and boxers from around the world come here. But the rents have soared in this area from when it was a slum to what it is today. And the increase in membership of businessmen and women is what allows me to survive."

But during this recent economic crunch, the loss of that business clientele has made a gloomy situation worse.

"I told everybody for years we were recession-proof, because we never had a bother in the '80s when [Black Monday] happened," Silverglade said. "What happened to Gleason's is my membership was going from 99 percent fighters to 35 percent fighters. I opened the door to all these business guys, which was great, income was coming. But when the recession came, I was affected."

Of Gleason's 930 registered members, more than 300 are now women, often hoping to learn self-defense. (It's come a long way from when Silverglade became part-owner in 1981, when women weren't even allowed to join.) Gleason's managers have made the environment very friendly to newcomers, and many gyms now openly market themselves to women.

Some gyms have made the metamorphosis from hard-core boxing gyms into fitness centers. Others have even begun to offer classes in mixed martial arts, a business move that would have been anathema to boxing traditionalists a few years ago.

Take the Church Street gym on Park Place, two-and-a-half blocks from Ground Zero. Owner Justin Blair began organizing Friday Night Fights cards for his mostly white-collar customers beginning in 1997, when the gym opened its doors. The buzz around the events quickly outgrew the small gym, and Blair needed to seek larger spaces like the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on the Upper West Side. Today, many of the cards are a mix of boxing and muay thai, a form of Thai kickboxing. While the events once offered boxing exclusively, the rise in popularity of mixed martial arts has led Church Street to accommodate the public demand. Such flexible entrepreneurship is familiar to the owner of Gleason's.

"I go out and try to solicit as much as I can to bring money in and keep the doors open," Silverglade said, "because once I get through bragging about how well-known Gleason's is, I'm a small business owner in New York. And I have all the problems of insurance and rent and everything else that all small businesses have. You can't just sit back, you have to go out there and hustle and make things happen."

* * *

Aaron Davis thought about opening his own gym even before the fire that consumed the Morris Park Boxing Club, but the events of the past few months helped fast-track those plans.

"I knew I needed a bigger spot," he says, while pacing through the first-floor workout room of the Aaron Davis Boxing Gym. "There's a train station right here and tons of buses come through. Easy access for everyone and it's close to Morris Park."

Davis, 42, captured a Golden Gloves title in 1986. Four years later, the Bronx native knocked out Mark Breland for the WBA world welterweight championship. He retired in 2002 with a professional record of 49-6, and has since devoted himself to bringing along up-and-coming boxers in the Bronx.

The official grand opening of Davis' gym isn't until April 1. But several young fighters, including many who he guided at Morris Park, have already begun training in the unfinished facility.

Davis has spent 15 hours a day refurbishing the old warehouse building in the shadow of the elevated train tracks along Westchester Avenue since purchasing it last month. Ten days before doors open, the renovations are ahead of schedule. The accessible location, one block from the Westchester Square stop and Herbert H. Lehman High School, is just one reason for Davis' optimism.

Today, the scent of fresh paint -- black for the floor, white for the wall -- fills the space. In the ring at the back of the room, Luis Rosato (a three-time Golden Gloves champion in the early '90s) works the pads with a teenage protégé. With contagious enthusiasm, Davis talks about the gym that bears his name.

"All experienced trainers," Davis insists. "Anyone can walk in the door, throw a towel on their back and call themselves a trainer. Boxing is the only sport where a guy can say 'do this' and 'do that' when they've never done it themselves. You can't tell someone how to get out of a situation if you've never been in that situation yourself."

There's already one ring, four heavy bags and a couple of speed bags on the first of two 3,000-square-foot floors, with a second ring and more bags to come. Downstairs is another training area for the elliptical machines, light weights and treadmills. Davis even invested $34,000 in a central air system, a rare luxury for a boxing gym.

Davis talks about the future with the gusto most boxing folks reserve for the past. To listen to the former champ, you'd have no idea about the pessimism that surrounds the sport as a profitable enterprise. It's not that he's unaware of boxing's ailments. He hates that fighters often have no choice but to go with a local promoter. He hates that promoters shop out of the tri-state area for "opponents" to inflate their prospects' records instead of feeding some of the precious few fighting opportunities to local boxers. But rather than lament the state of boxing in New York City, Davis is taking proactive steps toward rebuilding the sport across the five boroughs. Beyond the gym, he's hoping to buy the larger warehouse adjacent to the gym and convert it into a venue.

"There's a building right next door we're looking to get -- it holds 2,500 -- for amateur and pro shows," Davis says. "We're going to be doing a whole lot of things, including some promotions."

When the pizza comes, Davis grabs a twenty from his sock and offers a slice to everyone else first. Altogether, he says he's invested $200,000 into the gym, which he sees as a worthy investment in the neighborhood. He won't make it back overnight -- the $55 monthly dues for adults are modest compared to other gyms, and he'll never turn away a kid whose parents can't afford to pay for training -- but the return in goodwill is beyond measure. When Aaron Davis' gym opens, many of the Morris Park fighters who have taken up temporary residency at John's Gym will follow.

"You're going to see a lot of Golden Gloves champions coming out of this gym in the next couple years," Davis says, smiling at the vision of it. "And in another five to eight years, you're going to see world champions."

* * *

There are a million reasons why the sweet science should no longer exist, why there's truth to the boxing-is-dying column that's become a mainstay for sports pundits nationwide. At the same time, boxing has always been a sport on the precipice of extinction -- and it's always managed to endure, from the ancient Greeks through the English bare-knuckle fights of the 18th Century through today.

The undercurrents of race and class are obvious: For years, boxing has been credited with uplifting impoverished youths, yet it's constantly under attack from middle-class reformers like the American Medical Association. ("One of the standard arguments for not abolishing boxing," Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "is in fact that it provides and outlet for the rage of disenfranchised youths, mainly black or Hispanic, who can make lives for themselves by fighting one another instead of fighting society.") Russo, fed up with the out-of-touch bureaucracy that disregarded the positive impact of the PAL boxing program, says attacks on boxing have always been politically safe.

"The kids that we attract have nothing and their parents are not voters," Russo says. "The coaches become their mentors and their parents and guide them. We make them take all the civil service tests. Now that's not all of them, but it's a majority of the kids -- the average kid that you want to get that's going to join the Latin Kings or the Bloods."

For men like Russo and Davis, boxing is less a sport and more a mission. They're firm believers in the regenerative properties of the discipline. And their tales provide good reason.

This week, Russo opened the Flatbush Gardens Boxing Club, a permanent home for his itinerant boxing program. High-profile donors, among them Dustin Hoffman and Teddy Atlas, have helped make Russo's dream a reality. Atlas and New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly spoke at Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

It's an emotional victory, but there's no time to celebrate: Starting tonight, nine of Russo's NYC Cops & Kids fighters -- four from Staten Island and five from the Bronx -- will try for the club's second consecutive team trophy in the Golden Gloves finals at Madison Square Garden.

And when that's over, you can bet Russo will be on the hunt for the next wave of recruits.

"Junior high school," he says, "that's when you have to get to them."

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