Bufano’s Gym—A Small Factory Where Men’s Muscles Were Made

By Peter Weston Wood on June 23, 2017
Bufano’s Gym—A Small Factory Where Men’s Muscles Were Made
Bufano’s Gym is where Sonny Liston trained for the gruesome slaughter of Chuck Wepner.

From the 1950s through the 1990s, Bufano’s was a boxing hotbed, a big name in boxing circles. Now, it’s so small it fits only inside my head…

Bufano’s Boxing Gym doesn’t exist anymore. Its lockers and shower are ripped out, the ring torn down. I explore it now in the only place left for it—my memory. Bufano’s, formerly on the corner of Beacon and Oakland Avenues, is legendary—perhaps not as legendary as Gleason’s Gym in New York City or the Kronk Gym in Detroit—but it’s legendary to Jersey City.

Big Chuck Wepner trained at Bufano’s for his 1975 title fight with Muhammad Ali…Light heavyweight contender, Jimmy Dupree trained at Bufano’s for his 1971 title shot with the Venezuelan slugger, Vincent Rondon…Rubin “Hurricane” Carter trained at Bufano’s for his electrifying 1963 first-round knockout of the great Emile Griffith in Madison Square Garden.

Bufano’s Gym is where former heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, trained for his 1970 bout with Chuck Wepner, a gruesome slaughter, stopped after the ninth round due to severe cuts over both of Wepner’s eyes. Wepner required 72 stitches and also suffered a broken nose and a cracked left cheekbone.

Bufano’s is the last gym Sonny Liston ever trained in. He died six months later. His death was extremely suspicious, and many believe he was murdered. One theory is that Liston was supposed to take a dive against Wepner, and killing him was payback for his failure to do so.                   

Parts of Rocky, the 1976 Oscar winner, was filmed in Bufano’s Gym. From the 1950s through the 1990s, Bufano’s was a boxing hotbed, a big name in boxing circles. Now, it’s so small it fits only inside my head.

I’ll take you there, even though it no longer exists…You must imagine the darkness at the bottom of a long staircase. You climb up and enter a dimly-lit room with two battered, green-felt pool tables—a small wooden table sits by the window. Dom Bufano is sitting at the table, giving a fighter a tongue-lashing.

Up, one more step to the right, and you’re standing in a room with a wooden bench and dusty gray-metal lockers. It’s hot and humid and you hear—and feel—the pounding in the next room. It’s all there: the smell, the sweat, the vibration of bags being beaten, the radiators belching steam, the wainscot walls and high ceiling…Up in the ring is Big Chuck Wepner swinging wildly at Wild Bill Carlson’s head… Jimmy Dupree, the well-muscled light heavyweight contender is punching the leather heavy bag…Otho Tyson, the slender lightweight, is hitting the speedbag quicker with one hand than anyone could with two…

Bufano’s, like most boxing gyms was a redeemer of lost and violent souls—young and old. But—I must be honest—the gym lacked one redeeming quality, itself—a decent shower stall.

The shower stall in Bufano’s was filthy and fetid, and it gave everyone pause. It still pains the eye and chills the heart to think of it. We all feared that shower stall—even the toughest and most confident fighters. Everyone was secretly concerned about the germs, scabies and ringworms that lurked in there. Walking in naked, we arched our backs not to touch the flowery shower curtain encrusted with black mildew. Once inside, it was the thick cheese-like sludge on the concrete floor emitting a foul odor that disgusted us. After showering, we all tiptoed out, hoping for the best. I guess the smart thing to do would have been to wear rubber slippers, but that would have been admitting weakness.

But Bufano’s was still beautiful in an ugly sort of way—even spiritual and therapeutic.

Bufano’s Gym was right out of an Edward Hopper canvas, or a black-and-white film like Requiem for a Heavyweight. In fact, the gym was so colorful, it was used as the backdrop for George Thorogood’s hit song, “Bad To the Bone.” The song’s video featured the revered blues musician, Muddy Waters, and billiard extraordinaire, Willy Mosconi, a man who still holds the world’s record for sinking an astonishing 526 balls in a row.

Bufano’s Gym was a magnet for people with personal problems. A boxer’s body is flesh and blood, but his mind is sometimes a twisted and unstable bolt of lightning. If it weren’t for a gym like Bufano’s, they would be in jail or dead, destroyed by their own destructive urges.

Eddie Parks, the pro lightweight and former A.A.U. national champ from Paterson, is a perfect example. He was a tortured soul who screamed after nearly every round when he sparred. It was very annoying.

If you turned Bufano’s Gym upside down and shook it, you would be amazed by the insecurities that would fall out—the personal demons, the self-destructive urges, the suffering, the depression, the personal traumas, the bitterness, the potent hate, the psychic wounds, the poisons, and the fear.

But everyone in the gym got along. Lifetime friendships were forged. Boxers are, basically, beautiful men—but sometimes self-destructive. Their deeply-rooted personal afflictions go well beyond ruffled feathers, petty family soap operas, or micro-aggressions. They are complex and conflicted men who rescue themselves with their own courage, determination, and talent.

Am I projecting my own personal demons here?

The ecosystem of Bufano’s Gym was decidedly baffling. It seemed to me highly improbable, if not totally incredible, that when brought together, all of these tough, carnivorous men would get along with each other. Perhaps it was because they all shared something—a fistic dream.

Bufano’s Gym is long gone, but it was beautiful in an ugly sort of way. It was more than a simple boxing gym—it was a safety-net, a psychiatrist’s couch, a playground, or “a small factory where men’s muscles and self-esteem were forged,” wrote Norman Mailer, the fiery author.

The difference between an artist like Norman Mailer and a fighter like Chuck Wepner is that an artist suffers for his art, but for a boxer, suffering is his art. I don’t want to sound precious, but boxers are poets and philosophers with boxing gloves. A ten-round fight is a boxer’s novel.

Jersey City’s Frankie DePaula, West New York’s Arturo Gatti, Newark’s Marvin Hagler, and Brentwood’s Buddy McGirt—all world-class fighters—trained at the legendary Bufano’s Gym.

As a teenager, my drive down Kennedy Boulevard to Bufano’s was always gut-wrenching. I’d always be worrying myself sick. Was I really a fighter? Was I tough enough? I didn’t allow myself to actually think those thoughts because I pushed them down deep. But, yes, I was one of those deeply afflicted souls lucky enough to have discovered the beautiful ugliness that Bufano’s Gym offered.

Bufano’s is long gone—but not entirely…

… A few years ago, Bayonne’s Bob Rooney, a former pro boxer and fight manager, drove by the corner of Oakland and Beacon and noticed something. He stopped the taxicab he was driving and looked up. What he was looking at made him smile—it was the old Bufano’s Gym sign still hanging up on the condemned building.

“It was old and worn and paint was peeling off—it was beautiful! So I climbed outta my cab, stood on a garbage can, reached up, and yanked it off. I went home and gave it to my good friend.”

Who was his good friend?

“Chuck Wepner. I gave it to him for his birthday.”

“What did Chuck do with it?”

“It’s hanging up in his trophy room,” said Rooney. I hear the smile in his voice.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

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  1. Jeffrey Sussman 05:39am, 06/27/2017

    Peter Wood, as usual, is boxing’s golden songbird. He makes Bufano’s Gym alive with the sound of determined men honing their skills for their inspired artistry in the ring of combat where they test each other like no other sport. They risk humiliation and honor before thousands of anonymous fans. How many of us could be such existential heroes? Boxing is the most personal and profoundly exacting sport, and Peter captures it all in a few perfect sentences.

  2. Bob 07:26pm, 06/26/2017

    This story should be posted in a Jersey City museum or municipal archive, as well as Hall of Fames everywhere. The author turned Bufano’s “upside down” and although it is now long gone his words shook me to my core. All that needs to be said about boxing and boxers was said here. Incredible story by a very gifted writer and a tremendous left hooker who never forgot we he came from.

  3. Lucas McCain 02:19pm, 06/24/2017

    There are as many moods—tough guy, satirist, pathologist, romantic idealist—bubbling in this great piece as there were in that shower!  OK, so now I’m going to have to put Peter Wood on my Amazon Wish List.

  4. Alan W 10:34am, 06/24/2017

    I’d never been to Bufano’s, Pete, but I have now.  Thanks for the vicarious—and visceral—tour.  I know I’m not man enough, however.  I’ll pass on the shower!

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:30am, 06/24/2017

    Howie Steindler, whose homicide in public view on an LA Freeway all those years ago has never been solved would sit at the top of the stairs at his Main Street Gym and charge a buck or two “admission” to get in to watch Jerry Quarry and so many others train, including Ali. Money seems to be on my mind a lot these days….that’s why I was wondering how the Bufano’s made their nut. BTW from the back row here at City College my take is that this Professor can really tell a story!

  6. Beau Williford 08:51am, 06/24/2017

    My first trip to Bufano’s Gym was in 1968, I was very nervous and uncertain. Just a country boy in the big city! Chuck Wepner introduced me to Dom and Dan Bufano and it very obvious that they were both nice guys, who could get irritated with you when you made mistakes. I sparred with Jimmy Dupree that day, and was amazed at his skills and power. Brian O’Melia, Al Brooks, Pat Kelly and numerous other boxers were met that day, and I left feeling very good about myself. Years later I was in NYC on business, ran into, Ron Stander, and he invited me to go to Bufano’s where he would be sparring with, Chuck Wepner, the next day. I jumped at the chance and accompanied Ron to Bufano’ the next day. Seeing Chuck, was beautiful, as he had helped me as a young boxer and has been a great friend forever. When I walked into the gym, all the memories came back and my first thought was, is the shower still a putrid cesspool. It was! Great times there and I will never forget the fun and hard work that myself and many others enjoyed!!!!!

  7. Charlie 05:07am, 06/24/2017

    The old Gyms, like the old clubs, that were havens for boxing pros are gone and with them the millions of stories that would color your world crimson. If you were lucky enough to get a piece of them in your life’s memories, consider yourself Blessed. The cookie cutter gyms today along with the bright light arenas will never match the color that these places brought.For me, the aluminum bowls of the large tungsten lights that hung over Sunnyside Gardens ring with cigar smoke so thick you can barely see the seats on the other side of the ring. That was bliss. And so was Bufano’s.

  8. Jack the Lad 06:54pm, 06/23/2017

    Terrific piece, Peter.  I can smell it from here in the UK!

  9. peter 12:35pm, 06/23/2017

    @ Irish—I don’t think there was a charge. I don’t remember ever paying Dom Bufano, or his brother, Don.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:06am, 06/23/2017

    Peter Wood-Thanks for the tour! God! What a memory and sense memory at that. I just know that if you close your eyes you can still catch a whiff of the smells in that gym! Just wondering….what did Bufano charge to train there? He needed to do something about that toxic shower stall….or maybe not. George Thorogood! “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer”!

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