May 18, 2016
New York Versus: Boxing on the Brink
Growing up, there was a certain primal appeal to the sport of boxing. It was the era when Mike Tyson was one of the biggest sports celebrities around and the Rocky films were still getting regular play on television. The closest I came to boxing was playing Tyson’s Punch Out on the Nintendo until college, when I found a gym near my school and boxed on and off. But, with the sport on the decline, it was hard to find a steady place to train, and many of the gyms I found quickly closed. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and moved to New York that I found a gym and was able to really begin learning how to box. And the more I learned about boxing, the more interested I became about the larger significance of the sport in New York’s history, and, more importantly, its present. With the Golden Gloves, one of the country’s premier amateur boxing tournaments happening, I thought it would be a chance to finally learn what the sport still means to its participants and to the city.
In 1927, when the first Golden Gloves tournament was held, New York was a boxing town. While baseball kept fans occupied in the summers, the NFL was only six years old and the NHL had only had an American team for about three years. Horse racing and boxing were kings. Brian Adams, the Director of the Golden Gloves, explained to me that “The tournament was formed so the editor of the paper at the time could have a sports story to cover. Back in 1927 the only sports that were popular was football and baseball. Football ending in January and Baseball starting in April. So for that time gap, the editor needed something to cover in the paper and that is how the Golden Gloves was born.”
If you were a fan of boxing you didn’t have to go far to find a crowd clamoring for a fight. Venues in all five boroughs would pack thousands of fans in for nightly fights across the city. Brooklyn had regular fights at the Broadway Arena in Bushwick and Coney Island Stadium. Queens had fights on Saturdays at Ridgewood Grove Arena, Queensboro Arena in Long Island City, or the Sunnyside Gardens. Staten Island had Thompson Stadium. The Bronx had the Bronx Coliseum, the Bronx Velodrome, and the Fairmont Athletic Club. And in Manhattan there was the Pioneer Sporting Club, the rough and tumble Star Casino, the Rockland Palace, the Commonwealth Sporting Club, St. Nicks Arena, and Stillman’s Gym where you could pay a quarter to watch the best boxers workout. Each of these places could pack in between two and five thousand fans a night. The Polo Grounds, where the Giants played, drew 40,000 fans for the Mickey Walker fight. And a few years earlier, across the river a stadium was built in Jersey City for the 90,000 people that turned out to see Jack Dempsey fight George Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in the first million-dollar fight.
The first Golden Gloves was held in Madison Garden—its third location (the current one, the fourth, opened in 1968) on eighth between 49th and 50th—and 1200 boxers applied to compete. Since the first matches in 1927 it has been running continuously, producing more pro fighting champions than the Olympics including: Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Emile Griffith, Jose Torres and Riddick Bowe. Yet even with the weight of this history, the years were not kind to boxing. From a high of about 120 boxing clubs in New York there are now about 70. The rise of television throughout the 30s and 40s drew many of the fans away, and a number of the clubs, arenas, and venues closed; in their place was fights on television, like the Gillette Friday night fights on CBS. The sport also began to see criticism for its brutality. In 1960 the NCAA stopped sanctioning boxing after the death of a Wisconsin fighter at a tournament.
While there was a brief resurgence in 1978 as a result of the US success in the Olympics, this was short lived. In 1982 after the death of Kim Duk-koo at the in a fight with Ray Mancini live on CBS, public opinion on the sport began to shift. Physicians in the country called for the sport to be banned, the Journal of AMA called for the sport to be banned, and the American Academy of Pediatrics called for an end to youth boxing. As a result, boxing was no longer permitted in primary schools around the country. In addition, regulations grew tighter, with physicians and officials required at every fight, and it became too expensive for many of the remaining clubs to host matches.
In addition to changes in boxing, New York was also changing. The city, a once industrial powerhouse, lost many of its manufacturing jobs and transitioned to a post industrial economy, with heavy emphasis on the service industry and financial industries. Sociology Professor Lucia Trimbur, of John Jay College, details in her book about Gleason’s Gym, Coming out Swinging, this transition disproportionately impacted minorities in New York. With few well paying jobs remaining, coupled with the growth of the war on drugs, crime, poverty, and incarceration skyrocketed.
There have emerged two New Yorks and within them there are two types of boxing. In the post-industrial boom, many neighborhoods have been “rediscovered” and seen regrowth and for denizens of these neighborhoods boxing as a sport has become “rediscovered” as well. Local gyms offer boxing fitness classes, there has been a growth of boutique boxing gyms, which trade on the authentic New York aspect of boxing, in a SoulCycle-like environment replete with ClassPass participants and $35+ per class fees. For those left behind by this resurgence, boxing still appears to provide an avenue out of the neighborhoods and conditions that have not been lifted up in this cycle of growth.
Which left me wonder, 89 years after the first Golden Gloves, does boxing still fit into this new New York City? And, more importantly, where do the kids and young adults who make up the bulk of its participants fit in the city?
JOHN’S GYM, THE BRONX
My first stop was John’s Gym in the Bronx. Take the 4 train to 176th street, walk up Jerome Avenue past a row of auto body repair shops, tire places, hip-hop booming in Spanish to John’s gym. It’s on a stair street—a uniquely Bronx phenomenon in which small pedestrian-only streets connect two parallel roads by stairs, with a break in the middle providing a “ground level” entrance to the second floor of a building. Formerly a women’s clothing outlet, it’s now one of the rare community fight gyms, where people go to learn how to box as opposed to primarily for fitness.
Frances Torres works at the front desk. She is the co-owner with her partner Gjin Gjini. Membership costs $50 a month but Frances explains that about 20 percent of their members have a discounted or free rate. She sees the place as more than just a gym, but also as a community center, in a place desperately needing something for kids to do after school. As we talk a kid comes in to ask about the free membership offer. If you win the Golden Gloves while affiliated with John’s, you get six months free.
The gym’s been around for about 35 years, but only in the new location for about three months. The trainers work with kids at various stations around the gym while women sit in folding chairs and younger students run around, corralled by a trainer. Toward the back, Ismael Villareal, a square, confident 165-pound amateur who was the 2015 Golden Gloves novice champ in his weight class, is getting ready for his championship match at Barclays. He lives in the Bronx River Houses and can be found at John’s most afternoons and nights. When I find him, he’s jumping rope, something he does for up to forty-five minutes at a time before going into the rest of his practice with mitt and ring work. He trains six days a week, runs every other day, and has added Sunday to his running routine since the Gloves have started. He’s been boxing for nine years under the training of his father, Ecuadorian professional fighter Otilio Villarreal, who moved to America to fight. At only eighteen he has about 48 fights under his belt, but is already thinking about going professional.
He takes a break from jumping rope to talk with me about the upcoming fight. He has no worries, he’s faced his opponent twice before and beaten him, though he can’t recall his name. After winning he plans on winning at nationals. All Golden Gloves winners are eligible to compete at the national Golden Gloves championship, from May 16 – 21, in Salt Lake City. Not all of them will take up this offer. He has no interest in waiting the four years for the next Olympics; instead, after winning nationals he intends to turn professional. Professional boxing, as I’ve learned, is all about finding the right manager and promotion team. Often, the pay can be low, with boxers earning $2000 or less a fight when they start out. But Ismael and his father/trainer Otilio are confident that he has a bright and lucrative future ahead. For now, his plans are to finish high school, and box while he attends college.
NEW YORK ATHLETIC CLUB
My next stop is to find another fighter competing in the finals, but with a much different trajectory. Brian Ceballo competes out of The New York Athletic Club (NYAC) and has his eyes fixed on Olympic Gold. Going from John’s Gym to NYAC can give a person whiplash. It is located on the southern edge of Central Park in a Gilded Age masterpiece of a building. If you walk in the front you’re greeted by fine-grained mahogany, statues, chandeliers, brass fixtures, and large oil paintings. However, there is a strict dress code, so most of the athletes prefer the rear entrance, which is where I meet Joe Donovan, the chairman of the boxing program.
The boxing facilities are on the seventh floor and may be one of the few places you can train in the city without the pungent smell of sweat flooding the air. There are two rings, several heavy bags and swinging uppercut bags, and a long clean mirror. They are down the hall from the squash courts, which we pass on the way to the office of the athletic programs director, former Patriots wide-receiver Cedric Jones, which overlooks the expanse of Central Park. I sat down with Joe and Brian to learn more about NYAC.
Joe explains the mission of the NYAC program to me. It prides itself on providing a training facility for elite amateur athletes, and boasts an Olympic medal count that rivals most nations. In fact, if you were to rank it, the club would beat all but a few countries, with it’s 248 medals, 130 of which are gold. Their boxing program is relatively new and they have no medals yet. Joe explains that a good portion of the NYAC members’ dues go to the amateur athletic sponsor program and that NYAC had 90 athletes in the last Olympic Games. The club employs an extensive coaching staff, that is always on the lookout of top talent. However, there’s a certain type of athlete they’re looking for, one that can benefit from their program, and one that can pass their background check. Unfortunately, this ends up excluding some of the kids that have had trouble with the police who are able to find stability with the sport.
Brian, is twenty-two with close-cropped hair and light brown skin. He started boxing when he was seven years old at his father’s urging. Brian didn’t like the training but when he learned that he could start fighting at the age of ten he was hooked. He grew up in Sunset Park but his family later moved to Downtown Brooklyn where they discovered Gleason’s Gym. It was at Gleason’s where he met his coach, Robert Pagan, with whom he’s been training ever since.
With boxing, Brian has traveled the world, and credits the sport with his first airplane ride. He has won a number of titles and championships, and it was after he won the Junior Olympics that the team at NYAC sought him out. At first, his coach was wary of the program. Robert Pagan tells me,“They wanted to sponsor him. I came and I sat with them. Usually in boxing it’s nefarious people that when they sponsor you, they want to be a manager. I was a little leery because I didn’t know anything about them. There are a lot of unscrupulous actors in the boxing world.” But after researching it, Robert decided it was a fantastic program. In addition to taking on Brian, they hired Robert as the national coach. NYAC has provided Brian with the resources to travel to competitions. Joe said, “Travel is one of the biggest expenses. You have to go to certain tournaments. Nationals Spokane. PAL in Colorado. It’s not a cheap flight for New Yorkers.”
So far, Brian’s had an astounding 188 amateur fights. At this point he’s more interested in the Olympics than going pro. Hopefully he’ll make the games this summer, and if not he’s looking toward the 2020 games. According to Brian, “The Olympics was always my goal. I never looked at pros growing up. Only recently did I start considering it. I just want a successful career and to get out early if I can.”
Church Street Boxing is located a few blocks from City Hall in lower Manhattan. It is a hybrid fight gym, similar to Gleason’s in its reliance on clients looking for a workout and not to be the next champ, but different in that it has regular classes, similar to the popular boutique gyms, and accepts class pass customers. There’s one elevated ring in the middle of the floor, rows of heavy bags, a few speed and double end bags, and a back room with more equipment and kickboxing and MMA classes. It’s located at the bottom of two flights of stairs between lunch spots popular with downtown office workers and a new ultra-thin luxury condo building. In addition to the clients taking classes there are people training and a cadre of amateur and pro fighters. They hold USA sanctioned fights and send boxers to the Golden Gloves and other tournaments.
I know Michael Hughes from training with him on occasion. He is exhausted when we meet. He’s been up sparring since 8:30 and working much earlier than that. It’s four in the afternoon and he has hours to go at the gym, working the front desk, training other boxers, and finally himself. He says he fell asleep on the train on his way in and he wasn’t sure when he woke up if he was heading home for the day or heading in. He’s a quick fighter, boxing at 141 lbs, the weight he won the Gloves at in 2012. He doesn’t come across as aggressive, either in or out of the ring and has a relaxed energy, but when he moves it’s fast and precise. He’s proud of his strong chin, boasting on occasion that he’s won fights after hits that would have knocked out lesser opponents.
He graduated a four-year college and started boxing in 2010. He got a late start in the sport, but trains hard. Mike lost early this year to the boxer who would go on to win the tournament in his weight class in 2012. He’s had about 34 fights and loves the competition in the amateurs. “In amateurs you’re training 24/7. There’s competitions monthly. So you’re training to fight as often as possible a lot of dedication and focus and you’ve got to be willing to move and progress and go as far as you can.” In some ways, he thinks fighting amateurs in New York is harder than some early pro fights. He’s been lucky enough to get sponsorship when he fought in the nationals, which covered his travel and provided a per-diem. Otherwise it would have been a large out of pocket expense.
He plans on finishing out the year in amateurs and then take his chances in the pros “It’s been a long time coming. I’m not getting any younger, I’m 26, and you got to make the jump sometime.”
Across the river from Church Street is New York’s oldest boxing gym, Gleason’s. Gleason’s Gym is in the mall-ified DUMBO neighborhood, its entrance between an West Elm and a Bo Concepts; it’s one flight up, and across the hall from something called The Lab: Fitness Reinvented. It trades heavily on its authenticity, and with 1100 members, in addition to being the oldest gym in NY it is also the largest. A few hours before I arrived the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was boxing there as part of a press event on his tour of New York.
Inside there are four rings, one dedicated to wrestling, extensive weight equipment, and plenty of room to shadow box. Bruce Silverglade, the president of Gleason’s and Sonya Lamonakis, the IBO female heavyweight champion and the vice president and interim president of Metro USA Boxing, were there.
Bruce grew up in Trenton where his father started the PAL and has been an integral part of boxing in New York for most of his adult life. He’s seen the highs and lows of boxing in New York, and sees boxing as coming back from the doldrums. When we spoke he was interrupted regularly. Gleason’s runs regular shows, hosts media events, and promotes boxing in general. He’s managed to keep his gym opening by embracing white collar boxers, i.e. professional businessmen and women who are looking to train for exercise and occasionally compete. He says there aren’t as many shows as there once were but there are still plenty of tournaments and places to watch it, although the lack of underground shows has cut into the sport. The proliferation of other sports has cut into the boxing and lack of sports in general in schools and city sponsorship. But the kids are the same that seek out boxing, there are just fewer of them.
Sonya moved to New York to box. Born in Greece, and raised in Springfield, MA she found boxing after being mugged at an ATM. When a friend suggested she learn self defense, she didn’t realize she would one day be the Women’s Heavyweight champion. She moved to New York so she could train at Gleason’s Gym. Women’s professional boxing is not very lucrative, even for champions, so while not boxing she’s a social studies teacher in Greenpoint. She tells me that there are about 1500 registered amateur boxers in the metro region in 2016, which is about average. When I ask her what she thinks draws kids to the sport, she says that for some it’s the glamour. They see professional fighters like Floyd Mayweather displaying their wealth and they think that they too can achieve that. But for her, that’s not what boxing is all about and while the flash may draw some in, it also provides an opportunity to reach kids that the system has trouble connecting too. What excites her most right now in metro boxing is the educational component of the program, including requiring Junior Olympic competitors to provide report cards, and Bruce’s charity, Give a Kid a Dream, which has boxing for kids but requires tutoring as well. Sonya has won the NY Golden Gloves four times and was inducted into the Daily News Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.
OLYMPIC TRAINING CENTER
I had the chance to speak with Christina Cruz, a nine time Golden Glove champion, who was looking to get a record breaking tenth title this year. She is originally from Hell’s Kitchen, and fights for Atlas Cops and Kids because of her past in the PAL, but she makes her home in Colorado these days. Some elite boxers are lucky enough to get called to the Olympic training camp, where they are provided room and board and get to train upwards of five hours a day. Christina was always athletic, but started boxing at the age of 22 at Kingsway. When we spoke she was in training camp for world championships in May, and will miss the Golden Glove nationals. Next she’s headed to the World Championships, where all the top ranked boxers from every country go to compete. I was having trouble understanding how she was the highest ranked boxer for her weight class, but didn’t qualify for the Olympics. She explained that in the Olympics, there are only 3 weight classes for women (there are ten for men) as opposed to amateurs where there are ten. Her weight class, 119, is not represented in the Olympics so she had the option of dropping to 112 or going up to 135. Considering her size, she dropped to 112, but was beat in the qualifiers. This year will be her last Golden Gloves. She plans on finishing 2016 as an amateur and doesn’t know what her plans are after this year. She said she’s been considering professional boxing, but go pro was never her main goal. If she wants to compete in the Olympics she’ll have to wait until 2020, at which point she’ll be 36.
ATLAS COPS AND KIDS
My last stop was in Flatbush Gardens, off the Newkirk stop near the end of the 2/5 lines, where one of the three Atlas Cops and Kids programs is located. In 2009, after nearly a century with the program, the New York Police Athletic League ended its boxing program. The PAL once had gyms in all five boroughs which offered free boxing for kids to learn the sport and have something to do after school. Many people in New York boxing got their start in the PAL. However, the head of the program at the time, Felix Urrutia said that the PAL was undergoing a “paradigm change.” In a 2010 Daily News interview he said that boxing insurance costs too much; that certain funding streams complain that boxing is “barbaric;” that “old school” boxing guys aren’t accountable to the “corporations.”
Pat Russo, a retired NYPD officer, ran the PAL boxing program for six years. When the PAL decided to end the boxing program the NYPD boxing team took over the program. While the PAL had boxing programs had seven gyms, one in all five boroughs the new Cops and Kids program only has facilities, two in Staten Island and one in Brooklyn. Pat reached out to Teddy Atlas and was able to get him to fund the program through his foundation, and Atlas Cops and Kids was born.
The Brooklyn gym is down a truck ramp in between buildings at the Flatbush Gardens apartments. Inside, the walls are covered with boxing posters, nutrition PSAs, fight announcements, posters offering $50 for all report cards with As, and one poetry paper with an A on it prominently displayed on the wall. Before I can get to the two rings I stop by an office filled with books and yoga mats where Sarah Deming is helping a student with a research essay. Sarah, a Golden Gloves champ, Brown graduate, Pushcart Prize-winning writer, and yoga instructor works as a tutors and trainer. There are several Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB exam) prep books on her desk. To get into the armed services you need to pass the ASVAB and several students, when they first came to her, were unable to do so. The army is one of the viable options for the kids at Atlas, who range in age from 10-21, but their poor education makes passing the ASVAB daunting.
She notes that the boxing helps provide many kids from difficult backgrounds with a fast lesson in discipline. In an educational system that fails them it appeals to kids that the system may have trouble reaching. But even the toughest kids quickly realize if they want to get better, they need to train. It’s a sport that makes them see quickly that hard work pays off, a lesson Sarah and Pat hope transfers to other areas of their life.
The Atlas program is free and draws from all the kids in New York who are looking for a place to train and are willing to travel. That may be why it’s the most dominant program in amateur boxing in the city. It also provides ample opportunity to improve upon each other, with the best sparring against the best. When I approach the gym I’m amazed at the level of competition. Sarah introduces me to several boxers who will be in the finals. I meet Richardson Hitchins, who is 18 going on 19 and fights at 141 lbs, covered in sweat after sparring several rounds with professional and Olympic level boxers. He is surprisingly sharp considering how exhausted he looks—I’d hardly be able to talk after that much exertion—and tells me his quick bio. He attends Science Skills High School in Brooklyn, he’s been with the program for 7 years, he lives in Crown Heights and says that he thinks he could be one of the best ever to box. It has the practice air of a post fight interview. He tells me that he has trained with the US Olympic team and attended trials but didn’t make the cut. But he’s eligible to box for Haiti, so he’s going to the 2016 AIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Azerbaijan to try to qualify for the games. He insisted I mention his Instagram account if I got the chance, a not uncommon request among up and coming boxers these days. When a successful professional career requires growing your fan base, modern branding mechanism and social media become as integral to the sport as speed bags and jump ropes.
When I ask him why the Atlas program is so good he looked around the gym and said, “Because this is the trenches.” He said he came in and saw it as a way he could feed his family. Now he has fans all over the world, and mentioned that his dad—”who I haven’t seen in years”—came out to watch him after seeing all that was written up on him online. He’s had 110 amateur fights and, like many of the elite amateurs I spoke to, sees the pros in his future.
Sarah also introduces me to Bruce Carrington Jr, who is nineteen and goes by Shu Shu. He is an Olympic alternate and plans on staying amateur until the 2020 Olympics. He has had nearly 100 fights and if he wins plans on going to the Golden Glove nationals. He’s from Brownsville and would travel to Staten Island to train with the Cops and Kids program there. Recently, the support of the Olympic Team has enabled him to travel for competitions and given him exposure that has honed his skills. When asked his motivation he mentions his older brother, who was shot and killed. He wants to support his family and get them out of the neighborhood they’re in. He says that the violence and poverty of the neighborhood has taken its toll. He’s inspired by Mayweather. “Because he’s rich but works out like he’s not.”
Before I leave I get the chance to speak with Nyisha Goodluck, who is one of the only female boxers I saw at the gym. She’s been boxing for a year and made it to the Golden Glove finals in her first outing in the 125 lb. weight class. Unlike the men, there is no novice division in the Golden Gloves (classified as having under ten fights) for women. A friend showed her the gym because she was always getting into street fights. She initially joined to stay in shape but fell in love with the sport. Training has helped her turn her life around. She tell me that boxing has “boosted my confidence to a whole other level. It has taught me patience and consistency. Maybe before this I had something to prove, I didn’t want to be a punk. But boxing broke me and rebuilt me.” She no longer gets in fights outside of the ring, and has held down a job in food service and house cleaning. While she was very excited about the Golden Gloves, if she wins she doesn’t think she’ll be able to make it to the national tournament. She’s new to the sport so she doesn’t have sponsorship or the support of the Olympic team or another foundation, so she’s on her own. But next year she’s going to plan on it, so she can make it if she wins again.
I arrived early for the finals through the side entrance and had to convince the security that I was there to cover the event. The press section was sparse. Only four other people covering it for boxing outlets were following the fights. This year, there were 620 entries into the competition, and after all the preliminary rounds, there were about sixty fighters left. The two night attendance was 3,500, less than a regular night in the 20s but good for a Monday or Tuesday in April. The crowd filtered into the arena, which had a large ring in the center of the basketball court and a large curtain which halved the size so it looked a little less empty. Most of the fans were there to see a particular fighter, usually a friend or family member, and you could tell when their fighter came up because that section of the audience would light up with cheers and shouts for the rounds, and slowly disappear one by one after the fight. However, the bigger gyms had consistent cheering sections, including a large Atlas Cops and Kids showing. There were several people I saw wearing Team Carrington t-shirts.
Mike Hughes lost in an earlier round to Richardson Hitchins. Richardson Hitchins went on to win the tournament at the 141lb open weight division in a 3-0 decision. His teammates from Atlas Cops and Kids also fare just as well. Bruce Carrington Jr. and Nyisha Goodluck both win their fights. In fact, by the end of the night on Tuesday, a full one-third of the champions are from Atlas Cops and Kids. Ismael was ready to go, but when he got to the ring for his fight, he learned that his competition was three pounds over-weight and he won in a walk over. He’s planning on going to nationals and winning there. Christina Cruz won a 3-0 decision after proving nearly untouchable. The Olympic trained fighter was the most strategic, keeping her opponent at bay early while scoring points in the first round and crowding her and punishing her at the end, nearly edging close to not needing the judges to settle the fight.
I learned a lot about boxing and even more about New York from my journeys in the sport. While boxing isn’t nearly as popular as it once was, and has become somewhat niche, for those few who still compete, it is as important as ever. It takes some effort but there are still great fights throughout New York City, and people that pour blood and sweat daily into the sport. While the Barclays’ audience was small in comparison to audiences in the early days of the Gloves, the fans were just as fanatical as any other sports fans. Many of the boxers I spoke to still dream of going pro after finishing their amateur career. Very few will make it and even fewer will find a decent living, let alone riches. But the dream is as alive as ever—whether it’s Olympic Gold or just plain money. And hopefully all the new New Yorkers that are just now starting to “rediscover” boxing give those that never lost it the chance to live out their dreams.
All photos by Jane Bruce
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