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A. J. Liebling
December 05, 1955
A distinguished writer on the fistic arts illuminates the history of an extraordinary institution, the center of boxing in America: Stillman's Gym. First of two installments
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December 05, 1955

Part I:the University Of Eighth Avenue

A distinguished writer on the fistic arts illuminates the history of an extraordinary institution, the center of boxing in America: Stillman's Gym. First of two installments

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McAuliffe in his glory had been a great friend of John L. Sullivan and of a bantamweight named Jack Skelly from Yonkers. The three were engaged to perform in a Salzburg festival of the Sweet Science promoted by the Olympic Club of New Orleans in September 1892. On Sept. 5 McAuliffe was to defend his lightweight title against Billy Myer, the Streator (Ill.) Cyclone. On the 6th, Skelly would try to win the featherweight championship from the incumbent George Dixon, the great Little Chocolate. And on the third, climactic night, the great John L. would annihilate an upstart from San Francisco named Jim Corbett.

"I thought the monk would bring us all luck," the old man said. "He started good. When I knocked Billy out in the fifteenth the monk was up on the top rope as the referee said '10!' and hop, off onto my shoulder before the man got my hand up. I took him and threw him into the air and caught him again, I was so happy.

" 'Oh, you jool of a monkey!' I said, and when I was on the table after the fight he played in the hair on my chest like I was his brother.

"Then Skelly fought Dixon, and when Dixon knocked him out I thought I noticed a very peculiar look on the monkey's face, like he was glad to see Skelly get it. I said to myself, I wonder who you are.' I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but when Corbett stopped Sullivan, I grabbed the monkey by the neck and wrung it like he was a chicken. I've often felt bad about it since. God help me, I had a very bad temper."

I cite this only to prove the ring is a continuum with fixed values and built-in cultural patterns like Philadelphia or the world of Henry James.

Monkeys can fight like hell when properly trained, incidentally, and Jacco Maccacco, the Fighting Monkey, weighing 12 pounds, had a standing challenge to kill any 20-pound dog in Jane Austen's England. He had a considerably greater public reputation than Wordsworth.

On the second floor of a taxpayer at the northwest corner of 54th and Eighth, the International Boxing Guild maintains a brand-registry office for the purpose of preventing managers from stealing other managers' fighters and renaming them. They do not nick the kids' ears or cut their dewlaps, but they keep complete files, so if a rustler lures a boxer under contract to a Guild member from, say, Spokane to Toronto, both out-of-town points, word of the theft goes out. Then no Guild manager will fight him. That is to say, of course, no Guild manager will let his chattels fight him. It is a simpler process than going to law, because the rustler may have an edge in his home town and you cannot carry your own judge with you. It is a handy location, because if anybody smuggled anybody else's fighter into town, Stillman's is where he would be most likely to show up, like a stolen diamond on 47th Street. It is harder to ring a fighter than a horse, because in order to disguise him you have to change his style, which is more trouble than developing a new fighter.

The whole block is handy to the building called Madison Square Garden, at 50th Street and Eighth, where the International Boxing Club maintains offices and promotes boxing matches on Friday nights when the house hasn't been rented out to Ring-ling Brothers' Circus or Sonja Henie or the Rodeo. This is of considerable economic advantage to members of the academic community, since they can drop down to the Garden and talk their way into some complimentary tickets without spending an extra subway fare. It is doubly convenient for managers who are discontented with Billy Brown, the IBC matchmaker, a sentiment they usually communicate by sitting around his office and making faces. By walking down from Stillman's, bumming comps and making a face, they effect a double saving. This advantage is purely fortuitous because when Stillman opened his place in 1921 the Madison Square Garden stood at Madison Square. Not even Stillman contends they tore it down and built the present one just to get near him.


The modest entrance to Old Stillman is the kind of hallway you would duck into if you wanted to buy marijuana in a strange neighborhood. There are posters for the coming week's metropolitan fight shows—rarely more than one or two nowadays since television has knocked out the nontelevised neighborhood clubs. There is a wide wooden staircase leading up to the gym. Although Dr. Stillman locks a steel grille across the doorway promptly at 3, keeps it locked until 5:30, when working scholars come in for the poor man's session, and then locks it again religiously at 7, the joint always smells wrong. Dr. Stillman, like so many college presidents nowadays, is not himself a teacher but rather an administrator, and the smell in the hall makes him feel there are limits to academic freedom. He is a gaunt man with a beak that describes an arc like an overhand right, bushy eyebrows, a ruff of hair like a frowsy cockatoo and a decisive, heavily impish manner. He has the reputation of never having taken any lip off anybody, which is plausible, because he seldom gives the other fellow a chance to say anything. In earlier stages of his academic career he used to speak exclusively in shouts, but now that he is in his latter 60s, his voice has mellowed to a confident rasp. The great educator has never, so far as is known, himself put on the gloves; it might prove a psychological mistake. Stillman excels in insulting matriculants so casually that they don't know whether to get sore or not. By the sixth time Stillman has insulted a prize fighter the fighter feels it would be inconsistent to take offense at such a late stage in their personal interrelationship. When that happens, Stillman has acquired the edge.

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