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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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In Every great city certain quarters take on the color of an industry. Fifty-second Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues in New York, for example, is given over to strip-tease palaces. In addition to electric signs and posters advertising the Boppa La Zoppas and Ocelot Women inside, it can be identified in the evening by the thin line of nonholding males along the curb who stand on tiptoes or bend double and twist their necks into periscopes in what must surely be an unrewarding effort to see through the chinks in the draperies. This is known as the old college try, since it is practiced largely by undergraduates.

Forty-seventh Street between Sixth and Fifth, for another example, is devoted to polishing and trading diamonds. It is lined with jewelers' exchanges, like North African souks with fluorescent lighting, inside which hordes of narrow men rent jumping-up-and-sitting-down space with a linear foot of showcase immediately in front of it. The traders who don't want to sink their funds in overhead stand out on the sidewalk. There is a social distinction even among them: between two-handkerchief men, who use one exclusively for diamond storage, and one-handkerchief men, who knot their diamonds in a corner of their all-purpose mouchoirs.

The block on the west side of Eighth Avenue between 54th and 55th street is given over to the polishing of prize fighters. It has a quiet academic charm, like West 116th Street when you leave the supermarkets and neighborhood movie houses of upper Broadway and find yourself on the Columbia campus with its ivy-hallowed memories of Sid Luckman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is a sleepy block whose modest shops are given over to the needs of the student body—a couple of hock shops, a pet store and a drugstore which sells bandages and gauze for taping fighters' hands. A careful etiquette reigns in this student quarter, as it is impossible to know if you can lick even the smallest man looking into the pet shop next door to No. 919 Eighth Avenue, which is the Old Dartmouth, or Nassau Hall, of the University of Eighth Avenue.

Old Stillman, as this building is named in honor of the founder, is three stories high, covered with soot instead of ivy and probably older than most midwestern campuses at that. It is a fine example of a postcolonial structure of indefinable original purpose and looks as if it had been knocked down in the Draft Riots of 1863 and left for dead. It hides its academic light behind a sign which says "Stillman's Gym," against a background resembling an oilcloth tablecloth from some historic speakeasy specializing in the indelible red wine of the age of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Warren Gamaliel Harding. Maybe that is where the artist got the canvas; it is an economical neighborhood. The sign also says "Training Here Daily," and in smaller letters "Boxing Instruction—See Jack Curley." This is the university's nearest approach to a printed catalogue. Doctor Lou Stillman, the president, knew when he put out his sign in 1921 that an elaborate plant does not make a great educational institution. In the great schools of the Middle Ages, scholars came to sharpen their wits by mutual disputation. Prize fighters do likewise.

The narrow window of the pet shop is divided by a partition, and the show is always the same. Monkeys on top—which is Stillmanese for "in the feature attraction"—and a tolerant cat playing with puppies underneath, which is Stillmanese for the subordinate portion of the entertainment, as for example a semifinal. Dangling all over the window are parakeets and dog collars. The window draws very good, to stay with the scholastic jargon, before noon when the fighters are waiting for Old Stillman to open and around 3, when the seminars are breaking up. A boy wins a four-rounder, he buys a parakeet and dreams of the day he will fight on top and own a monkey. There was a time when a boxer's status was reflected by the flash on his finger, now it is by his pet. Floyd Patterson, a brilliant star on the light-heavyweight horizon, owns a cinnamon ringtail.

Whitey Bimstein, the famous trainer, had one of the pet-shop monkeys hooking off a jab pretty good for awhile. Whitey, a small bald man with sidehair the color of an Easter chick, would stand in front of the window darting his left straight toward the monk's face and then throwing it in toward the body, and the monk would imitate him—"better than some of them kids they send me from out of town," Whitey says. Then one day he noticed a cop walking up and down the other side of the street and regarding him in a peculiar manner. "I figure he thinks I'm going nuts," Whitey says. "So I drop the monk's education."

"You probably couldn't of got him a license anyway," Izzy Blank, another educator, said consolingly.

The affinity between prize fighters and monkeys is old; the late Jack McAuliffe, who retired as undefeated lightweight champion of the world in 1896, once had one that rode his neck when he did roadwork. Twenty miles was customary in those days—they trained for finish fights—so the monkey and McAuliffe saw a lot of territory together. "The monk would hold on with his legs around my neck, and if I stopped too fast he would grab my ears to keep from falling off," the old hero told me when I had the good fortune to talk to him. McAuliffe was a great nature-lover and political thinker. When he told me about the monkey he was 69 years old and running in a Democratic primary for assemblyman to annoy his son-in-law, who would give him no more money to lose at the races.


"I went into this contest," he said, "because the taxes are too high, the wages of the little fellow are being cut, and nobody has ever went right down to the basis. There are men in our Legislature today who remind me of Paddy the Pig, who would steal your eye for a breastpin." Not drawing a counter in the political department, he told me about the monkey.

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