My Most Vivid Memory of Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym in Manhattan (Part 2 of 4)

By Peter Weston Wood on August 23, 2017
My Most Vivid Memory of Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym in Manhattan (Part 2 of 4)
As I lace up my boxing shoes, I whisper to myself, “What, the hell, is wrong with me?”

“Cooney’s gonna funeralize Denis on fight night,” says Victor Valle. When I turn my head to look at Cooney’s trainer, I hear an explosion, like a gunshot…

(Most people have heard of the legendary Gleason’s Gym. After all, it’s the most iconic boxing gym in the world. However, most people don’t know that Gleason’s Gym has been in existence for half a century and has gone through four iterations. Gleason’s started in the meat packing section of the Bronx, moved to downtown Manhattan, and now finds itself in DUMBO, a fashionable section of Brooklyn.

This four-part series offers four quick snapshots of Gleason’s Gym seen through my eyes.)

I have many vivid memories of Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym in Manhattan—but there is one memory I’ll never forget…

I’m a former middleweight who now weighs a chubby 173 pounds—ten pounds over the middleweight limit.

It’s 1979—I’m in Manhattan, walking down West 30th Street towards Bobby Gleason’s Gym.

I open the door and walk in. The vibe inside is exactly the same as it was ten years ago in the Bronx—passionate.

The gym is smaller and more cramped—but packed with boxers.

Saoul Mamby, a tall, sinewy fighter, lacquered with sweat, is hogging up the narrow walkway leading to the dressing room. He’s shadow boxing with great passion, preparing for his forthcoming title shot for the WBC World Super Lightweight Title against Sang Hyun Kim in Seoul, Korea. I politely wait for the bell to end the round in order to walk around him. Why annoy a world-class fighter?

Watching Mamby scares me. He throws a wicked hip-jab that’s insanely-quick. It’s the best hip-jab I’ve ever seen. His left arm swings up and his fist cracks your nose. It bothers me that I never figured out how to successfully defend against a hip-jab—even an ordinary one.

But Mamby’s frightening hip-jab is not my most vivid memory.

…Up in the ring, shadowboxing independently from each other, is pro heavyweight, Renaldo Snipes, pro light-heavyweight, David Conteh, and pro welterweight, Tyrone Phelps. Each fighter is punching at his imaginary opponent, and each fighter is good enough, and, I suspect, emotionally tormented enough, to eventually win a world title.

Winning a title is a boxer’s dream—until it becomes a nightmare. When a guy becomes a champ, he’s sitting on top of the heap and he can’t sleep at night because every menacing monster and brooding, brawling, brainless beast in his division is clawing at him. Winning a title means the romance is over and the fun stops.

But Snipes, Conteh and Phelps—pursuing their fistic dreams, punching at imaginary opponents, is not my most vivid memory.

…As I step into the dressing room and start undressing, I ask myself, “Why am I still doing this?” I am a drastically different person than who I was ten years ago. No longer do I want to punch or get punched.

Yet after twenty years, my feelings about boxing are still rich and complex—I loved and hated boxing then and I love and hate boxing now.

As I lace up my boxing shoes, I whisper to myself, “What, the hell, is wrong with me?”

But my soul-searching is not my most vivid memory.

…I’m hitting the heavy bag and notice someone watching me—Teddy Atlas. I know it’s Atlas because of his hideous facial scar. He took a knife to the side of his face and the attack left him with an ugly vertical scar from his eye to his mouth. The wound required 400 stitches to close—200 on the outside of his face and 200 on the inside.

Atlas works with a young heavyweight named Mike Tyson up in the upstate Catskill Boxing Club with Cus D’Amato.

At the end of the round, Atlas walks up to me and says, “I like the way you finish up your combinations with two jabs.” It was a very nice thing to say—and very gratifying for an old chubby middleweight to hear.

But Atlas’s flattering comment is not my most vivid memory.

…Standing beside me is an up-and-coming middleweight from the Bronx. He has finished training and is looking in the mirror, struggling to perfect the knot of his tie around his neck. It’s Iran “The Blade” Barkley, a member of the “Black Spades,” a notorious street gang. In six more years, Iran will refine his street thuggery and become the WBC Middleweight Champion of the World by knocking out Thomas Hearns.

But today, Iran is an illiterate high school dropout, a street thug, decked out, head-to-toe, in a beautiful, white, three-piece suit. He’s smiling proudly at what he sees in the mirror. Iran is friendly and easy to talk to. To his credit, he is domesticating himself long enough to learn the rules of boxing law, and is adhering to the sport’s strict rules and principles.

Me? I’m the opposite of Iran “The Blade” Barkley—I’m an educated high school English teacher. But, like Iran, I never was a great student. Me, becoming a high school English teacher, I feel like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime.

However, the more I’m with sophisticated and pompous teachers in the teacher’s lounge, the more I respect the simple and hard-working boxers in the gym, like Iran.

But Iran “The Blade” Barkley is not my most vivid memory.

…Vito Antuofermo, a tough middleweight is mixing it up in the ring with his third sparring partner of the day—Larry “Tumbler” Davis—a rugged middleweight. Vito is training for a title shot against the Argentinean title-holder, Hugo Corro.

What’s most impressive about Vito is not his punching power, or his agility, but it’s his enthusiasm to rumble. His bobbing and weaving, and willingness to absorb punches is noteworthy.

Vito’s flat nose and scarred eyebrows tell the story—he’s elusive enough to slip and parry only 75% of his opponent’s punches—25% land. The scarred eyebrows and flat nose of his trainer and mentor, Freddie Brown, further explains Vito’s battered face.

But Vito and Freddie are doing something right because Vito’s ring-record is an impressive 44-3-1 and they have landed a title shot with Hugo Corro.

A few months later, Vito Antuofermo won the middleweight championship—but his face, as usual, took a frightful beating.

But it was worth it. Vito’s scarred face has made him a lot of money. After retirement, he has pursued an acting career, and his damaged visage has landed him lucrative movie roles as a mob bodyguard and a gangster in the films Godfather 3 and Goodfellas.

But Vito Antuofermo is not my most vivid memory.

…Hitting the largest heavy bag in the gym is Gerry Cooney, an undefeated heavyweight contender. His green trunks are sweat-soaked and quarter-sized sweat drops are on the wooden floor around the bag. He’s training extra hard for his ten-round main-event next month in Madison Square Garden against John “Dino” Denis from Boston.

Cooney is huge, standing 6’ 6’, and he throws a devastating left hook.

“Cooney’s gonna funeralize Denis on fight night,” says Victor Valle, Cooney’s trainer. When I turn my head to look at Valle, I hear an explosion, like a gunshot.

Everything stops. Dead silence…What just happened?

Cooney dropped the heavy bag throwing one of his thunderous left hooks. The long metal chain holding up the bag ripped from the ceiling, and part of the ceiling, the chain, and bag crashed to the floor.

The world stopped…A stunned silence lasted five seconds…This five-second hush is my most vivid memory. Every fighter froze for five short seconds, and then resumed his workout like nothing ever happened.

And continued their passionate punching.

What personal pain brings these tough guys to Gleason’s Gym to punch bags, shadows, and imaginary opponents?

What motivates Gerry Cooney or Vito Antuofermo or Iran Barkley? What is Saoul Mamby’s emotional baggage? How about Snipes, Conteh and Phelps? What are their personal demons?

If you turned Gleason’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.

Am I projecting here? Are my personal demons still haunting me?

I thought I left boxing ten years ago, but I guess I didn’t. That’s, primarily, because I’m still fascinated by its ugly beauty.

Boxing is pure theatre—a drama where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening—nobody in the ring, at least. It’s pure, gut-level, theater of the real.

A week later, on fight night in Madison Square Garden, in the third round, John “Dino” Dennis was funeralized by one of Gerry Cooney’s devastating left hooks. Denis crashed to the canvas—just like that heavy bag in Gleason a week before.

I was there. It was excellent theater. Ugly beauty.

My Most Vivid Memory of the Original Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym (Part 1 of 4)
My Most Vivid Memory of Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym in Manhattan (Part 2 of 4)
My Most Vivid Memory of Gleason’s at 83 Front Street in Brooklyn (Part 3 of 4)

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. Bob 06:48pm, 08/23/2017

    It is hard to imagine a more stirring and compelling compilation of fistic memories than this tremendous series of stories from the fabled Glendon’s Gym. This is boxing journalism at its very best. The author was a great fighter, but is an even better author. It does not get better than this.

  2. Ted Sares 06:24pm, 08/23/2017

    Peter has quickly and quietly become my favorite boxing writer. There are very few articles that I look forward to because they all seem to come out of the same cookie cutters. Flowery revision of history aka warrior poetry or just plain blandness that fails to peel the onion. Peter’s are the exception.

  3. Alex 05:47pm, 08/23/2017

    These articles are fantastic it makes you feel like your physically there great job

  4. Alan W. 05:12pm, 08/23/2017

    For this line and this perception alone:  Boxing is pure theatre—a drama where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening—this piece is so worth reading.  This is turning out to be such a rich series of writings!  I savored this one and am so looking forward to Part III.

  5. Peter 07:44am, 08/23/2017

    Pedro, Don, Ted—Thank you for your wonderful comments. They are much appreciated! Especially, you, Pedro! You jolted and shocked my brain—just like a Saoul Mamby hip-jab would do. But in a good way!

  6. Pedro Armendariz 07:23am, 08/23/2017

    Great! Just great! Mind blowingly great! But here’s the real deal, that Peter Wood or that Jose Ventura that fought it out in that long ago 1971 NYC GG Championship bout .....each with a totally different style….were better boxers/fighters than Conor McGregor! Christ! Good Christ Almighty! How’s that for exploding your mind on this Wednesday morning in August of 2017 !

  7. Don from Prov 07:16am, 08/23/2017

    Whatever else Cooney could or couldn’t do—


    he was certainly capable of funeralizing anyone with that left hook.
    Good article.

  8. Ted Sares 06:28am, 08/23/2017

    My Lord, what a great and enjoyable read that was, especially the Vito and Cooney segments. Keep ‘em coming Peter. You have the beat. This is soulful stuff and I love it.

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