Gleason’s and The Garden: Randy Neumann Remembers

By Dennis Taylor on January 11, 2016
Gleason’s and The Garden: Randy Neumann Remembers
Freddie Brown never lit his chubby stogie as he trained Neumann—he only chewed it.

Gleason’s sat in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx, streets so violent and depraved that Hollywood made them into a movie…

Before he became one of the best-known refs on the East Coast, New Jersey native Randy Neumann was a heavyweight contender—ranked No. 9 in the world at a time when the world only ranked 10.

He was a slick cutie who fought Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Young, Duane Bobick, Boone Kirkman, Pedro Agosto, and Chuck Wepner three times. (Four if you count the night they pounded on each other’s flabby torsos in a benefit for the families of 911 victims.)

He trained at Gleason’s Gym in war-torn South Bronx under the legendary Freddie Brown, a flat-nosed, cigar-chomping, no-nonsense Damon Runyon character who had studied at the knee of Ray Arcel. Later on, Neumann’s cornerman was Chickie Ferrara, a trainer steeped in similar lore.

By the time Neumann arrived, Gleason’s was splattered with the DNA of Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, Benny “Kid” Paret, and Cassius Clay, and would soon host Roberto Duran, Saoul Mamby, Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Julio Cesar Chavez, “Macho” Camacho, Mike McCallum, Oscar Bonavena, Eusebio Pedroza …

If you were a New York fighter, or a visiting stud, Gleason’s was the place, particularly after Stillman’s Gym closed its doors at 919 Eighth Avenue.

“Gleason’s was intimidating to walk into. It was a tough place,” remembers Neumann, 67, who still lives in Cliffside, N.J., where he grew up alongside the sons of his idol, former light heavyweight contender Gus Lesnevich.

“You’d climb these metal stairs to get up there, and one day Bobby Gleason kicked this bum all the way down those stairs for panhandling. Bobby was 83 at the time.”

Gleason’s had one ring—one—and ducking through those ropes was a privilege only bestowed upon the worthy.

“That ring was real estate that had to be won,” Neumann says. “A lot of guys, especially the small, Hispanic guys, would do their boxing on the floor, right in front of a ceiling-to-floor window. I’m shocked that nobody ever went out that window.”

Gleason’s sat in the Fort Apache section of the South Bronx, streets so violent and depraved that Hollywood made them into a movie. Neumann drove there every day from New Jersey, but most New York fighters rode the subway.

“They’d come up out of that subway hole, look three ways, then run all the way to the gym,” he says. “They’d climb the stairs, beat the hell out of each other, then try to get back to the subway safely. Fort Apache was a bad place.”

Neumann has disturbing memories of a place outside Gleason’s called The Butcher Bar, from which he once saw two guys come tumbling onto the street in a vicious fight. One stabbed the other. The victim staggered onto a bus and was gone, fate unknown. The bartender came out, sprinkled sawdust over the blood, and everybody went back inside to finish their highballs.

Freddie Brown never lit his chubby stogie as he trained Neumann—he only chewed it. Nobody smoked at Gleason’s, but maybe it would have helped if they had. Neumann fought 13 times at Madison Square Garden, where the ring was perpetually engulfed by a cloud of smoke so thick that it obstructed the view from the cheap seats.

“I had a friend who tried to shoot some photos once from the mezzanine, but his camera couldn’t pick up the ring through all of that smoke,” he says. “So he tried to sneak down to ringside and got kicked out.

“I also had a college professor who was friend, and a mentor, and a fan. He also was a habitual cigarette smoker,” he recalls. “People would see him smoking around me and say, ‘Hey, don’t smoke around Randy! He’s got to stay in shape!’ And he’d say, ‘No, no … I’m getting him in shape to fight at Madison Square Garden.’

“We’d breathe in all of that smoke when we were fighting, but didn’t think much about it back then,” Neumann says. “At the time, we didn’t know any better. It was just accepted.”

The Garden, in those days, sat on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th streets in Manhattan. The office of the boxing commission also was on 50th Street. It was a short walk to Jack Dempsey’s on 48th Street, the restaurant where the legendary champ held court.

“I used to hang out there all the time. Dempsey liked me, probably because I was a big, Irish-looking heavyweight,” Neumann says with a laugh.

“The place was famous for his cheesecake, and one day I ordered 10 of them—two boxes of five. They tied the boxes up with string, and they were so heavy that my hands were bleeding by the time I got them home. It was like carrying a bag of rocks, but they were great. And just having Jack in the joint was so cool.”

Neumann was 31-7 as a pro (he lost three of his last five)—including victories over Jimmy Young, Pedro Agosto, Boone Kirkman and Wepner. He had a signed contract in his pocket to fight Muhammad Ali for the world championship when he took on Wepner for the third time, this one at Madison Square Garden for the New Jersey State heavyweight championship, in March of 1974.

Two judges had him leading 4-2, and the other had him up 5-1, when a collision of heads opened an arterial artery on Neumann’s forehead.

“Every time my heart pumped, blood would squirt out—there was no way to for my corner to stop the bleeding—so Arthur Mercante just stopped the fight. Chuck won by TKO, wound up getting the Ali fight that became the basis for ‘Rocky,’ Neumann says with an ironic laugh. “Now, they’re making a movie about Chuck called ‘The Bleeder,’ starring Liev Schreiber as Chuck.”

Fate can be cruel, of course, but there’s no need to weep for Neumann, who graduated from Farleigh Dickinson University, became an independent financial planner, and evolved into a world-class ref who has had the closest-possible view of Pernell Whitaker, Roy Jones Jr., Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Iran Barkley, Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, and Nigel Benn. He’s worked more than 50 world title fights since 1983.

He’s a writer who has penned articles for Sports Illustrated, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News. And, yeah, he once posed for ITALICViva, a beefcake magazine created by Bob Guccione as a female version of Penthouse.

“Burt Reynolds was the first centerfold for Playgirl. I was the first one for Viva,” he muses.

That’s something neither Wepner nor Ali can claim.

Dennis Taylor is editor/publisher of www.ringsideboxingshow.com and host of The Ringside Boxing Show every Sunday at www.radiomonterey.com, beginning 4 p.m. Pacific, 5 Mountain, 6 Central, 7 Eastern.

Information for this feature story came from Sunday’s live, in-depth interview with Randy Neumann, which can be found at http://ringsideboxingshow.podbean.com.

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  1. peter 06:38pm, 01/12/2016

    I trained at Gleasons in The Bronx when both Randy and Duane Bobick trained there. Sometimes they would be working out on the floor at the same time, but I doubt they spared each other. I don’t remember who they sparred. Heavyweight Joe Alexander and journeyman Billy Daniels trained there at the time. Maybe both stepped in the ring with Bobick and Neumann. Bobick later defeated Billy Daniels in a 10 rounder….I remember Neumann getting dressed after a workout at Gleasons saying, “Tough day at theMidwesterner, Bobick always looked out of place in The South Bronx wearing office!” Bobick, unlike Neumann, always had a smile on his face. And his sock hat had a little pompom on top. Bobick was a very good boxer—better than most people think. But there was something missing in him.

  2. Mike Casey 10:04am, 01/12/2016

    I remember Rodney Bobick too, Eric. He died after crashing his car, I believe. Yes, shame about Duane, because he had plenty of courage too.

  3. Eric 10:00am, 01/12/2016

    Mike Casey….Bobick can always take some pride in beating Stevenson & Larry Holmes in the amateurs, along with stopping future heavyweight title holder, Mike Weaver. Of course this was the same Weaver who lost to Duane’s brother, Rodney, and the same Weaver who avoided any serious training while not taking boxing that seriously at the time. Duane looked very promising in pounding out a pretty easy victory over a skinny, young, Larry Holmes in the amateurs. Duane had pretty good power, decent boxing skills to go with his rather weak chin.

  4. Mike Casey 08:16am, 01/12/2016

    Always remember Duane Bobick’s comment after the John Tate KO: “These guys know I start slow and come out bombing.”
    Jim Crue: I remember big Jim Beattie. He was featured in the now defunct Boxing International magazine.

  5. marvin moskowitz 08:09am, 01/12/2016

    Jim, Met Beattie during the 1990s when I lived in California.. was a great, great guy..  he really got a kick that I knew who he was..

  6. Eric 07:12am, 01/12/2016

    Duane Bobick is rarely thought of as a good fighter and often the most common images of Bobick’s career are poor Duane being beaten senseless by Teofilo Stevenson, Ken Norton, John Tate and Kallie Knoetzee. Bobick did beat some decent fighters like Neumann, Ledoux, and Wepner. Bobick looked pretty damn good in the Wepner fight, stopping Wepner in the 6th round in a pretty one-sided affair. Wepner must have hit Bobick with at least 100 illegal rabbit punches during that fight. Wepner has to have been one of the most awkward, relatively unskilled, and clumsy fighters in the history of boxing to have ever been ranked in the top 10, the guy had almost no boxing skills whatsoever. Chuck did have size, heart, spirit, and an iron chin, but not much else.

  7. Jan Swart 06:35am, 01/12/2016

    I saw Duane Bobick twice in RSA: once vs Kallie Knoetze (L KO3) at the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg and again vs Mike Schutte (W by KO) at the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town. Schutte had no chance; not because of inferior ability, but because a prick of a lawyer had divorce papers served on him at his hotel ON THE AFTERNOON OF THE FIGHT!!! Schutte at one stage was also considered for a shot at Ali, but the Bobick loss finished him.

  8. Jan Swart 06:28am, 01/12/2016

    Great piece, Dennis. Randy fought during the golden era of the heavyweights. He must be one of the very few who lost to Chuck Wepener ON CUTS (!). BTW, are we not selling Gus Lesnevich short here by referred to him as a ‘çontender’? He was recognized as light heavyweight world champion at one stage.

  9. Jim Crue 06:16am, 01/12/2016

    wonderful story
    My friend Big Jim Beattie trained at Gleasons in the early/ mid 60’s under Freddy Fiero who was in the corner of Mickey Walker, Billy Conn, Gus Lesnevich, and Joey Maxim and many others. Jim has told me similar stories of Gleason’s and Jack Dempsey. Jim gave me pictures of him with Ray Arcel and Dempsey taken at Jack’s restaurant. As I have written here before, Jim told me Arcel took him into the basement of Dempsey’s where Ray taught him more in 2 hours than he had learned up to that time. Jim is 74 now so he was just ahead of Randy Neumann. His health is not good and he does not do much with the internet so I will show him this story.

  10. Mike Casey 04:21am, 01/12/2016

    Great gym and possibly the greatest boxing venue of all. What can you say? Yes, it’s New York and that name alone will always be magical. But it’s just as much about feel, emotion and history. When you speak simply of ‘The Garden’, nobody has to ask you where you mean.

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