SI Vault
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Only knowing coves come to Stillman's these days—fellows who have more than a casual interest in boxing or are out to make a buck, like the diamond traders. Few managers today have offices of their own—there are only a half-dozen such grandees—and the rest transact their business walking around Stillman's or leaning against the radiators. There are seats for ordinary spectators, but managers consider it unprofessional to sit down. Even managers who have offices use them chiefly to play klabiash or run up telephone bills; they think better on their feet, in the mingled aura of rubbing alcohol, sweat and hot pastrami-on-the-lunch-counter which distinguishes Old Stillman from a gym run by Helena Rubinstein or Elizabeth Arden.


The prevailing topic of conversation at Stillman's nowadays is the vanishing buck. Boxers are in the same predicament as the hand-loom weavers of Britain when Dr. Edmund Cartwright introduced the power loom. Two boxers on a national hookup with 50 major-city outlets can fill the place of 100 boxers on top 10 years ago, and for every two eliminated from on top, at least 10 lose their work underneath. The boxer who gets the television assignment, though, is in the same spot as the hand-loom weaver who found work driving a power loom—he gets even less money than before. This is because while wads of the sponsors' tease go to networks for time and camera fees, to advertising agencies in commissions based on the purchased time, to producers for creating the drivel between rounds and even to the promoters who provide the boxers, the boxers themselves get no more than they would have drawn in an off night in Scranton in 1929. Naturally, this is a discouraging technological circumstance, but the desire to punch other boys in the nose will survive in our culture. The spirit of self-preservation will induce some boys to excel. Those who find they excel will try to turn a modest buck by it. It is an art of the people, like making love, and is likely to survive any electronic gadget that peddles razor blades.

Meanwhile the contraction of the field has led to a concentration of talent at Old Stillman. These days good feature-bout fighters, who were sure of $10,000 a year not long ago, are glad to sell their tutorial services as sparring partners for $5 or $10 a session. This is particularly true of the colored boys who are not quite champions. Trainers who in the flush times accepted only stars or near-stars as students will now take on any kid with a solvent sponsor. The top trainers, whose charges appear frequently on televised shows, still make out pretty well.

Trainers, like the teachers in medieval universities, are paid by their pupils or their pupils' sponsors. A couple of trainers working as partners may have 15 fighters, all pretty good, if they are good trainers. If they cannot teach, they get no pupils and go emeritus without salary. There are two televised boxing cards originating in New York clubs every week—the St. Nick's on Monday evening and the International Boxing Club show from the Garden on Friday. When the Garden is occupied by other events, the IBC runs its show from out of town, which is a blank margin around New York City, extending for several thousand miles in every direction but east. A team of trainers like Whitey Bimstein and Freddie Brown, or Nick and Dan Florio, or Chickie Ferrera and Johnny Sullo, figures to have at least one man in one of the three features every week, and a couple underneath. The trainer customarily gets 10% of his fighter's end of the purse. Because of their skill as seconds they are also sure to get calls to work in the corners of men they don't train. Noted Old Stillman trainers are called out of town for consultations almost as often as before television, because while there are many less fights, the out-of-town trainer as a species has for that very reason nearly vanished. In most places it is a part-time avocation.

Their reputation is international—last year, for example, Whitey Bimstein was retained to cram a Canadian giant named James J. Parker for a bout for the Canadian heavyweight championship at Toronto. Parker is not considered much of a fighter here—a good banger, but slow of intellection. In Canada, however, he is big stuff—he weighs over 210 pounds. The Canadian champion (now retired), whom Parker was to oppose, was Earl Walls, also a pretty good banger but a slow study.

Whitey took Parker up to Greenwood Lake, N.Y., where his troubles started when the Canadian insisted on doing his roadwork on the frozen surface of the lake. "He might fall through and roon the advance sale," Whitey said. Not wishing to increase the weight on the ice, Whitey declined to accompany him. He would watch him from a window of the inn where they were staying, prepared to cut loose with a shotgun if Parker slowed to a walk. Trainers blanch when they tell of the terrible things fighters will do to get out of roadwork. Nick Masuras, one of Whitey's friends, once had a fighter up at the Hotel Peter Stuyvesant, across the street from Central Park at 86th, and every morning he would send him out to run a couple of times around the Central Park reservoir, which is right there practically. Masuras would then go back to sleep. By and by the fellow would come in panting and soaking wet, and it wasn't until three days before the fight that Nick learned he had just been sitting on park benches talking to nursemaids, after which he would come in and stand under a warm shower with his clothes on. After that Nick moved to a room on the eighth floor, with a park view. But it was too late. The guy's legs went back on him and he lost the fight. "He done it to himself, no one else," Nick says, mournfully, as he polishes beer glasses in his saloon, the Neutral Corner, which is the Deux Magots or Mermaid Tavern of the fighters' quarter. Instead of training fighters, Nick has taken to feeding them.


Parker, on the other hand, didn't skimp his training. He heeded everything Whitey told him. As a consequence, Whitey says, "He give this Walls a hell of a belting and in the sixth round cut his left eye open so bad that if you were a doctor you had to stop it." The Canadian doctor, however, didn't stop it. "He was perfecting Walls," Whitey says. "The guy could of lost his eyesight." Walls had in his corner another ambassador of culture from Stillman's, Nick Florio. Florio patched the eye up so well that Walls went the distance, 12 rounds. Whitey felt like calling Florio a carpetbagger. The announcer then collected the slips of the two judges and the referee, read them, and proclaimed James J. Parker, Whitey's candidate, "Winner and new champion"—of Canada, naturally. "But," Whitey says, "they take it very serious." Whitey posed for victory pictures, allowing Parker to get into the background, and then led him away to his dressing room. There, five minutes later, another man came in and said the announcer had made a mistake—it was really a draw, so Walls was still champion. "It was a outrage," Whitey says. "They perfected him." He came back from Canada with a bale of Toronto newspapers, which said Walls's cut eye had required 16 stitches. "They were those wide Canadian stitches," Whitey said. "Here they took them kind of stitches to make him look better." The fight, which was not televised, drew $30,000 and the fighters whacked up $18,000. This was much better than they would have done at the Garden, where each would have received $4,000 from television and a purely nominal sum from the almost nonexistent gate.

For most fighters, however, pickings are lean between infrequent television appearances—so lean that they are beginning to recall the stories old-timers tell about the minuscular purses in the '90s. One of the best lightweights in the world, for example, went up to Holyoke, Mass. from the campus on Eighth Avenue not too long ago and fought on top of the gate against a tough local boy whom he knocked out in five rounds. He had signed for a percentage of the gate which turned out to be $115. After he had deducted railroad fare, the price of a Massachusetts boxer's license and a few dollars for a local helper in his corner, he wound up with $74. Freddie Brown, the trainer, wouldn't accept a fee, and the fighter's manager wouldn't cut the fighter because the guy was broke and he would have had to lend him the money back anyway. He had been out for several months with a broken rib sustained in another fight.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6