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Until it fell into disuse and finally closed in 1959. Stillman's Gym on Eighth Avenue in New York was boxing's foremost institution of higher learning. For near!) 40 years it was the city's most celebrated school of hard knocks. During the palmy days of boxing. 375 fighters trained regular!) at Stillman's. It was headquarters for champions like Joe Louis and Rock) Graziano. and it was a haven for an assortment of bums. too. Even during the most difficult of the Depression years, this collection of kings and cauliflower heads evoked the feeling that boxing—at least at Stillman's—was a growth industry.
But the gym never was exactly redolent of prosperity. The joint smelled bad and looked worse. In Stillman's there was spit, but no polish. The place was so filthy that, according to one veteran trainer, "lighters could not train at the gym without fear of contaminating themselves." Lou Stillman. the pistol-packing dean of the University of Eighth Avenue, ran the campus with an iron fist and an indifferent feather duster. "The golden age of prizefighting." Stillman used to say. and not without feeling, "was the age of bad food, bad air. bad sanitation and no sunlight."
It would be an exaggeration to say that the climate in fight gyms has improved substantially since then. Boxing is a sport remarkably resistant to change. The game either hasn't gotten the word on cross-ventilation or has chosen to ignore it. What passes for air in a boxing gym swims with body odor, the pungent smell of liniment, the aroma of disinfectant and the stale smoke of too many cheap cigars. The smell hangs above the ring, the punching bags and the jumble of bodies. It is in these close quarters that boxing lives, not in Caesars Palace or any of the other Las Vegas hotels among which the heavyweight division divides its millions.
The newest of these sweatshops is the Times Square Boxing Club, located fittingly in New York's Times Square. The gym is owned by Jimmy Glenn, who has attended to the brightwork in a fashion uncommon to both his breed and the neighborhood. Glenn's gym is outfitted with six heavy bags, three speed bags and an almost spotless new ring set close to the window. Passersby on 42nd Street, if they look up three stories, can take in a free show of young fighters sparring. And while that may not sound like much of a show, it's worth a glance because it is from chrysalises like the Times Square Boxing Club that champions emerge.
To get to the gym one must first shoulder through young jackanapeses slouching in the doorway selling "loose joints," a product that is no miracle cure for arthritis. Up two flights of stairs, past a tavern and a formalwear shop, and you are there. But you are not in until either you have convinced Scotty that you have a compelling reason to be there or you have forked over a dollar, the standard charge for spectators. The admission fee is waived for fighters' wives, girl friends and children, who are assigned to a small waiting area. Many of the Latin fighters bring entire families with them to the gym, the wives sitting attentively while the children do raucous roadwork around the heavy bags.
Scotty is 62-year-old William Scott, at one time an electrical contractor on Long Island and more recently a maintenance man for a string of pornographic movie houses in the Times Square area. Scotty left his Philadelphia home at 23 and has never returned. For a while he prospered in New York, but eventually life began body-punching him. "At one time in my life I made big money, giant money," he says. "But I lost it all drinking and gambling and chasing women."
For seven years Scotty lived in a small apartment above the Love Theater, an establishment whose marquee promises LIVE SEX ACTS ON STAGE. A falling-out with the management of the Love left Scotty in a position to seek other career opportunities more suited to his amiable disposition. That was when he met Jimmy Glenn.
Glenn is also the proprietor of Jimmy's Corner, a bar situated in the middle of a block on 44th Street. Thus the name reflects Glenn's longtime affection for boxing, not the tavern's location. Glenn fought professionally as a middleweight for three years and later became a cornerman for Floyd Patterson, when Patterson met Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1972. He also ran a community-center gym at the Third Moravian Church in Harlem for 20 years, until the city finally tore the building down.
Glenn is fully aware of somewhat similar wreckage in his new venture as an independent businessman in Times Square. The area has been overrun with porno theaters, dope pushers, peep shows, massage parlors, prostitutes and all the miseries attendant on so-called victimless crime. Forty-second Street was once the "street of dreams," and it radiated the heat of genius. As a story in The New York Times noted, "so important was 42nd Street that theaters that were actually on 41st or 43rd Streets had entrance passageways to 42nd Street so that their marquees could be part of the glamour and excitement of that street."
The swells no longer congregate under those marquees, and the street of dreams now traffics in despair. Reedy-voiced evangelists hand out leaflets for the Lord and declaim, "We are a doomed civilization, brother, just look around you." Derelicts distribute handbills for a nearby place that offers "$10 encounter sessions—no tipping, no ripoffs, no extras." They wink and grin and in a boozy conspiratorial whisper say, "Hey, man, check it out brother, check it out."