Last week, a man on a ladder unscrewed the sign in the stairwell. Yesterday, a crew was disassembling the rings and packing up all the heavy bags. After more than 30 years, Gleason’s Gym is moving.
You may not believe it, but back when your grandfather was in his prime, boxing was king in New York. Gleason’s is the last real surviving link to that era. The gym opened in the Bronx in 1937, migrated to Manhattan in 1974, and then moved to Dumbo, Brooklyn in the early 1980s. During its combined lineage virtually every fighter worth a damn has trained there at one point or another. Jake Lamotta, the Raging Bull, trained at Gleason’s. Roberto Duran trained at Gleason’s. Ali and Tyson trained at Gleason’s. Paulie Malignaggi and Zab Judah trained at Gleason’s. Every big time fighter who comes to New York City for a fight ends up training at Gleason’s sooner or later, at least for a little while. For less than a hundred bucks a month, you can train there too. Models train there and bankers train there and janitors train there and writers train there. Pros train there and amateurs train there. People who suck train there, right next to people who are very good. People with Parkinson’s disease train there, and Usher trains there.
Its permanent look of grime and concrete floors and intimidating red walls make Gleason’s one of the city’s most frequently written-about haunts. Every article ever written about the gym begins like so: “Ascending the stairs to the second floor, you can hear the cacophony of the gym before you enter. The thwap-thwap of the speed bags and the whip-whip of the jump ropes echo off the hard concrete floors. Inside, where sweat hangs heavy in the air, is a hive of activity. People shadow box in front of a scarred mirror as large, intimidating men bang the heavy bags, and others strap on headgear and prepare to enter the ring for battle...” Etc. Gleason’s has enough atmosphere that very little additional imagination is necessary to produce a story. It has the same photogenic decrepitude as Havana. On certain weekend days the gym is flooded with photography students whose teachers bring them into Gleason’s for the same reason a parent brings a child into a toy store on their birthday. The morning after Muhammad Ali died, reporters from every news network in the city were wandering around the gym, standing wherever it was that you wanted to be.
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Gleason’s is a place where you learn to respect everyone, without regard to outward appearance. Some of the worst ass whippings I got in the gym came from small, unprepossessing guys who were fast enough to slip under a jab and pop up on your outside shoulder and crack you. If they were well rounded enough to do this on both sides you could walk out with not one black eye, but two—the full raccoon. Boxing is kind to the fast; for everyone else, it’s character building. Taking stiff punches is like eating a two-by-four, and then discovering you’re not a beaver. Character building.
Only the supremely gifted or the pathologically impaired can stay cocky in this environment. You can almost always find several people who could kick your ass just by looking around. No matter how high your ceiling is in boxing, when you find it, there will be someone standing there punching you in the face. I once saw Oleg Maskaev knock a cocky young heavyweight’s entire headgear off with a lazy jab. Humility blooms in such places, by necessity.
How many broken noses, busted lips, and ringing concussions have been sustained within these walls? How many grains of sand are there on the beach?
Those who love boxing enough to pursue a career in it end up as trainers. Several of the most prominent pro fighters at Gleason’s train people on the side for cash. Almost all of the other trainers are former fighters. The only retirement plan that boxing offers is the chance to stand around holding pads for someone for forty bucks an hour. It’s not the worst job in the world. Gleason’s is like Cheers for boxing trainers, if everyone on Cheers secretly loathed several other people on the show. Occasionally trainers will get in shouting matches, or even fights, but mostly everyone gets along. Some trainers still spar with students, due to either an insuppressible macho streak or simple love of the game. If anyone is watching, and if the student is any good, there is quite a bit of unspoken pressure on the trainer to do well. This can be a taxing way to make a living. But no one said boxing was easy.
As in any workplace, rumors fly in the gym. This trainer is sleeping with his students; that trainer threatened to take all his clients and leave unless he was named “Best Trainer” at the gym; this fighter got so mad after a losing sparring session that he snuck up behind his opponent afterwards and hit him with a weight. Some rumors are true, some are half-true, and others are just shit talking, or the hazy, malleable recollections of a group of people who have taken millions of shots to the head. Regardless, Gleason’s has real meaning for everyone there. Some come for only a little while. Others wake up and find that they’ve been there longer than they expected. “It’s like an overcoat of memories,” one trainer told me. “I spent the best years of my life here. The most exciting part of my life. I mean, when I think about my life before boxing...” he gives a shrug. “It wasn’t so good.”
Now, Gleason’s is moving. Just a couple blocks away, around the corner and down the street. Dumbo, a warehouse-filled wasteland when the gym arrived, has become one of the priciest areas in Brooklyn. The enormous space of the current location on Front Street will be converted into offices, bringing in many multiples of the rent Gleason’s has been paying. The new space is nearly as big. The floor is clean. They’ve painted the walls the same shade of red. The blood that will coat the clean floors to match begins flowing today.