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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, New York City boxing gyms in fight for life

Story Highlights

The number of New York City boxing gyms has declined sharply in past 20 years

Ex-cop Pat Russo, whose PAL program was cut, says boxing teaches kids discipline

Former world champion Aaron Davis is opening a new gym on April 1 in the Bronx

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One boxer stretches while others fight at Stillman's Gym, one of the many New York boxing gyms that closed doors years ago.
Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

They say boxing is dead.

But one glance inside the Morris Park Boxing Club last year -- amid the pulsating beats of hip-hop, the thwap-thwap of gloves on punching bags, the faint whistle of jump ropes, the smell of leather and sweat -- and you'd never have known it.

The gym, a longtime community fixture in the working-class Bronx neighborhood of Van Nest, had experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past few years. Owner Dex Pejcinovic brought on Aaron "Superman" Davis, the former world welterweight champion, as a full-time partner and trainer, and added new equipment and a newer paint job, bringing fresh life to the once-dilapidated space.

Thousands of young professional and amateur fighters had called the Morris Park gym home since it opened shop in 1977, among them homegrown world champions like Davis and Lou Del Valle, a one-time light heavyweight titleholder.

Everything changed three days before Christmas. An early-morning fire incinerated the gym and the two apartments above it. Fire department officials, unable to determine the cause of the blaze, thought faulty wiring might be to blame. Pejcinovic had liability insurance, but not fire coverage.

The flames consumed more than $50,000 in equipment -- the ring, gloves, heavy bags, memorabilia. "We took care of every kid who came in, even if they couldn't afford to pay for it," Davis said. "Boxing kept a lot of kids out of trouble."

The fire displaced the club's 150 members at the most inopportune time: on the eve of the Golden Gloves, the region's most popular amateur tournament, which began in January and concludes at Madison Square Garden with the finals on Thursday and Friday. It's a contest in which countless aspiring New York City fighters seek fortune and glory and, at the least, temporary escape from the streets.

Moreover, the destruction of Morris Park Boxing Club meant one less place for area pugilists to train -- just the latest hard knock in the long, slow decline of the New York City boxing gym.

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Boxing -- the sweet science of bruising -- once commanded America's national consciousness like no other public spectacle. Prizefighting was the nation's preeminent sport during the first half of the 20th Century and New York City was its commercial and spiritual epicenter, home to meccas like Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium, the place where the New York State Athletic Commission determined matchups and acted as the sport's de facto governing body.

It's also where scribes like A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker spun legends and made folk heroes out of such champions as Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson.

No more. Just 20 years ago, more than 150 gyms were scattered throughout the five boroughs. Today there are fewer than 10.

Read the classic literature on what Mike Tyson eloquently called the "hurt business" -- Joyce Carol Oates' "On Boxing," A.J. Liebling's "The Sweet Science," W.C. Heinz's "The Professional" -- and the pages come alive with smoke-filled spaces where fighters trained, admirers gawked, managers machinated, old men dreamed dreams and young men saw visions. Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street near Union Square. Grupp's Gym uptown in Harlem. The famous Stillman's Gym, where the brilliant Benny Leonard trained, just four blocks north of the old Madison Square Garden.

The corpses remain visible throughout the city. That Gramercy club -- owned by Cus D'Amato, trainer of world champions Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres and Tyson -- has become a P.C. Richards store. Grupp's is a Food Bank For New York City; where needy, downtrodden citizens once gathered to fight, they now line up for a hot meal. Google the names and the old addresses of the others and you'll find a Jamba Juice or an American Apparel.

Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason's Gym, estimates just 50 men in New York earn a full-time living as boxers.

Why the precipitous drop over the past two decades? It's no secret that boxing is a waning enterprise. Some stock explanations: With no viable American contenders at heavyweight -- always the sport's prestige division -- mainstream interest in the U.S. has nose-dived. Where the three television networks broadcast major bouts as recently as 20 years ago, significant fights now air exclusively on HBO, Showtime and other pay cable networks. Pay-per-view costs for marquee events have climbed as high as $59.95, pricing out the casual fan. The reduction in outlets makes a promoter's job more difficult and saps the demand for fighters, who today earn between $800 to $1,000 for a four-round bout. (And that's before the 10-percent cut to the trainer and up to a third for the manager).

Once the sport's undisputed mecca, New York has been supplanted by Las Vegas, where the casinos offer free venues and hotel rooms to just about everyone involved with a promotion. Even when promoters desperately want to stage a major fight in New York, they find it simply not feasible.

"When the casinos came in total vogue, the fights left New York," Silverglade says. "Take Madison Square Garden: If you use the theater, it going to cost you $125,000 just to open the door -- just to turn the key to get in there -- and you don't get food or concessions. The big arena is well over $250,000 just to open the door. So where do you want to fight? Do you want to go fight in New York where you have to pay the Garden $250,000 plus put up all your fighters? Or do you want to go to Las Vegas where they're going to pay you [a site fee] to have the fight there and they'll give you free room and board?"

Bob Arum, founder and CEO of Top Rank, one of boxing's largest promotion companies, wanted a Super Bowl-type stage for this year's proposed megafight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. The company briefly considered the new Yankee Stadium, across the street from where Louis and Marciano fought before crowds of 80,000 during boxing's golden age, but Arum was forced to nix the idea. "You cannot do a major fight in a city like New York because of the insane taxes that they have here," Arum told in January. "There is a state tax, a city tax and an independent contractor tax. You put them all together and it's like 15 percent. Let's assume the purses will aggregate $80 million. Fifteen percent is $12 million dollars. That's like giving away the whole gate to the state. That's crazy."

By comparison, Nevada raised its boxing commission tax from 4 to 6 percent in March (effective July 1). But there's no city tax and the state tax is just 4 percent. In the case of Pacquiao-Mayweather, Vegas offers a savings of nearly $5 million over New York.

The higher cost of living in New York has also undercut the local talent pool. Many boxers train in the South, where life is cheaper, or in Las Vegas or along the Gulf Coast where there are more casinos and opportunities to fight.

Some factors are old news, like the decades of corruption in the sport. In boxing's heyday, old-timers often bemoan, there were eight world champions, from flyweight to heavyweight, and everyone knew who they were. But the sport's lack of a central authority has created an alphabet soup with multiple champions, super champions, interim champions, regular champions and champions emeritus -- in 17 divisions instead of eight. Other sports have commissioners to set the rules and standards -- but not boxing, where the athletes are individual contractors and the myriad sanctioning bodies that determine these "champions" answer to no one.

Most of all, fewer poor youngsters are turning to boxing when basketball is a much more attractive, more lucrative and safer alternative. Boxing gyms have struggled to keep their doors open as business declines, while rents escalate and gentrification encroaches.

"I see boxing today as doing what the stock market did just before the crash," says Gumersindo Vidot, the Philadelphia representative for the Retired Boxers Foundation. "Everybody is getting all their money out of it. Before the market crashed, the stock brokers knew what was going on. They even have emails and voice recordings of these guys saying, 'Get your money out now because this is going to hit the fan.'

"I see that boxing is doing the same thing. I feel it's fading to a point where these guys are just pimping. You've got the [Oscar] De La Hoya, Bob Arum, they're only using the same damn guys all the time. Whatever happened to these young guys who came from the street? They don't have any opportunities anymore. You get into boxing now, forget it. You've got as much of a chance as getting in the NBA."

Vidot, who says boxing saved his life as a youngster in the South Bronx, believes a grassroots approach -- an appeal to the common fan -- is the only way for the sport to become a marketable enterprise in the long term.

"You want to bring boxing back? You have to bring that kid from the community and put him on TV. Let him fight," Vidot said. "They're just pimping these big fights out there and it's a shame, because they know it's fading so much and MMA is taking over, and they're just saying, 'Let's make as much as we can out of it and then the hell with them.'"

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