SI Vault
John Schulian
March 04, 1974
That has long been the lure of Baltimore's notorious strip, and the gym over the Jewel Box is no different. There aspiring boxers rehearse for shows in the local bucket of blood
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March 04, 1974

On The Block: Way Of All Flesh

That has long been the lure of Baltimore's notorious strip, and the gym over the Jewel Box is no different. There aspiring boxers rehearse for shows in the local bucket of blood

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Baltimore is a gritty old strumpet of a city where unwritten sociological imperatives require a boxing arena to have Polish bakeries on one side, steel mills on another and red-neck bars all around. Steelworkers Hall meets those criteria with the ease that home boy Joe Gans dropped pretenders to his turn-of-the-century lightweight championship.

Gans would have fit in nicely at Steelworkers because, if students of pugilism v�rit� will excuse its newly painted exterior, everything about this unimposing brick pile seems the product of an imagination longing for another chance at yesterday. "Steelworkers," says a fighter who gets work there regularly, "is a little bucket of blood, just like you'd see in the movies."

I. W. Abel, the union boss, peers down from a photograph on the dingy wall, but he can't see the ring for the smoke. There are 1,225 tan metal folding chairs in the arena, and the critics who fill them cease puffing on cigars only to offer such advice as, "Hit him with a coconut, dummy." Everyone is hustling bets, even the housewife at ringside who puts a couple dollars on the red corner for one fight and a couple on the blue for the next. The action is heavier under the balcony, where a betting man can stop a boxer headed for the ring and tell him how many hundred are riding on him. Local fighters get most of the play—a commentary on their opponents as much as it is on their ability—and on those rare occasions when a decision goes against one of them, it rains beer.

"People gonna get excited," sputters resident Promoter Eli Hanover, who is always excited himself. "This is a jumping-up-and-down sport. Who jumps up and down when someone carries a football four yards? Who jumps up and down when someone hits a single? Here people jump up and down just watching two guys trying to knock each other on their butt. Y' unnerstand what I mean about a jumping-up-and-down sport?"

If you don't, check out Eli on a fight night. Up to greet an old pug with a roundhouse slap to the shoulder. And down. Up to find out if a preliminary boy has gotten the message that he is fighting. And down. Up to take another shot at convincing the sporting press that several boxers on the card don't belong in a rest home. And down.

Hanover enjoys the luxury of wearing himself out this way because he knows that all the hands in the till are an extension of his. Daughters Jackie and Gail sell tickets, brother-in-law Bernie runs the hot-dog stand and wife Frances counts the money. The family approach helps keep the overhead low, which helps keep Eli in business, something he is very insistent about.

On occasion Hanover seems to have help from elsewhere. Take the time half of a midsummer's night main event decided he would rather stay in Puerto Rico and celebrate his last victory than fly to Baltimore and get beat on. Eli didn't learn of the change of heart until the afternoon of the fight. He sprayed $150 worth of telephone calls around the East, complaining that his stomach was killing him and assuming that everyone knew his wallet was, too. Four hours of trying produced a 33-year-old Hartford, Conn. toolmaker named Jesus Alicia who hadn't been in a ring for a month and whose record was 10-20-4—but who was available. When Alicia showed up 30 minutes before the fight, the man filling out a medical examination card said, "What's your address, Jesus?" "Heaven, where else?" replied one of Hanover's cronies.

There is nothing heavenly about the location of the gym where Hanover makes his headquarters. It is perched over a strip joint on The Block, that swatch of East Baltimore Street famed for showing sailors and salesmen a good time and now as wrinkled, fat and toothless as any atherosclerotic burlesque queen. The strip joint is the Jewel Box, and until last January Eli owned it. He sold out to Lou Barber, who managed several fighters Eli uses on his cards and who was recently convicted as part of a gambling ring that included local cops. So it goes on The Block.

The red door to Sports Activities, Inc. is next to the entrance to the Jewel Box. Anyone who picks the gym over the watered-down drinks and mush-bellied strippers gets a pained look from the Jewel Box doorman. Yet the gym's occupants aren't removed completely from the house of few lights below. The music from the jukebox pulses through the floor of the gym, massaging the ears and feet of everyone topside.

The Isley Brothers blend a burning question, "Who's that lady, beautiful lady?" into the normal gymnasium cacophony—the beeps and bongs of the automatic timer, the snorts of the sparring boxers, the splat of their gloves, the machine-gun bursts on the speed bag, the frantic lashes of a rope-skipping fighter struggling to keep pace with his trainer, who is singing Tea for Two.

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