My Most Vivid Memory of Gleason’s at 83 Front Street in Brooklyn (Part 3 of 4)

By Peter Wood on September 9, 2017
My Most Vivid Memory of Gleason’s at 83 Front Street in Brooklyn (Part 3 of 4)
Hilary Swank trained at Gleason’s for "Million Dollar Baby." (John Chapple/REX FEATURES)

Gleason’s Gym is a mystical environment, pulsing with passion, where a fighter can punch himself out of his own personal darkness…

(Step into Gleason’s, the world’s most famous boxing gym, home of many legendary champions. Look around. Smell the smell. Listen to the smack of heavy bags, the squeak of rubber soles, the skipping of ropes—it’s the music of Gleason’s.

Even if you are not a boxing fan you have heard of Gleason’s.

Actress Hilary Swank trained here for her 2004 Oscar-winning role in the boxing movie “Million Dollar Baby.”

In 2015, part of the television comedy show “Impractical Jokers” took place at Gleason’s.

However, most people don’t know that Gleason’s Gym has been in existence for half a century—but located at four different places. Gleason’s started in the meatpacking section of the Bronx, moved to downtown Manhattan, and found 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 Gleason’s when it moved to Brooklyn, at 83 Front Street, in 1985…

…but there is one memory I’ll never forget…

…I open the door and walk up the gray, concrete steps leading to the second floor. Since I’m not fighting anymore, climbing these stairs is not the awful gut-check it used to be. I am a retired middleweight who now weighs 186 pounds.

I am the chubby heavyweight I swore I’d never become.

The stairway is brightly-lit, and the 23 steps leading to the gym promise a young man, or an aspiring woman, a unique, if not downright bizarre form of Personal Enlightenment. That’s because boxing is a very bizarre sport.

Why do people even want to box? Prizefighters don’t talk about it, but their deep, dark, desire to fight grows out of dysfunction, sadness, and pain.

But this long stairway leading up to Personal Enlightenment is not my most vivid memory.

…I open the heavy metal door and I’m instantly hit by the noise—speedbags rat-tat-tatting, heavy bags thumping, fighters grunting, trainers yelling, and human bodies slamming onto the mat as wrestlers practice landing on their backs.

The gym is a warehouse of wonder—larger and louder than the Gleason’s Gym in Manhattan, but the vibe is exactly the same—passionate.

“Gleason’s is a well-known tourist attraction,” says Bruce Silverglade, the gym owner. “People walk across the Brooklyn Bridge just to come here. I sometimes have 15 to 20 tourists a day.”

Yes, visiting Gleason’s is a bit like visiting the zoo or the circus—without the clowns, of course, because there is nothing very funny about a boxing gym.

I’m sure tourists find prizefighters fascinating creatures, but have trouble understanding them.

The truth is prizefighters have a hard time understanding themselves.

But the gym is not a zoo, circus, or psychiatrist’s office—it is very much a working gym.

The concrete walls in Gleason’s are painted bright red. “That’s my idea,” said Silverglade. “Before me, no boxing gym had red walls, but then every gym was painted red. Imitation is a form of flattery, I guess.”

The red walls are festooned with boxing history and rich fistic lore—yellow fight posters, autographed photos of legendary champions and contenders; glossy photos of local favorites and up-and-comers. Vibrant primitive paintings, words of wisdom embellish every blood red wall.

Above one ring reads a quote from the poet Virgil: “Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.” (Aeneid 5.363-364)

But the red walls decorated with boxing antiquity, wisdom, and art is not my most vivid memory of Gleason’s Gym.

…The rugged faces of prizefighters—Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Rocky Graziano, Henry Cooper, Sam Langford, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, Marcel Cerdan, Jake LaMotta, Ruben Olivares, Rubin “Hurricane “ Carter, Boone Kirkman, Leotis Martin, Battling Siki, and hundreds more, stare out at me.

But looking at the rugged faces of these legendary fighters is not my most vivid memory of Gleason’s Gym.

…I’ve been watching a crop of new fighters skipping rope and sparring. Will any of them become a world champion like those on the wall?

Could it be young Paulie Malignaggi?...Or the up-and-coming Zab Judah?…Could it be the fledgling Yuri Foreman?…Or inexperienced Pawel “The Raging Bull” Wolak?…How about the raw “Irish” John Duddy?…The un-tested Dmitry Salita?…The innocent Jill Emory?…Or the unproven Alicia Ashley?

Each day, these young fighters climb up the 23 concrete steps of Gleason’s Gym seeking to win a world title.

Will any of them succeed?

Gleason’s is a harsh place that specializes in crushing hopes and dreams. But it’s also a place to mature, and to successfully bury the insecurities and vulnerabilities that hold a fighter back. Gleason’s Gym is a mystical environment, pulsing with passion, where a fighter can punch himself out of his own personal darkness.

In time, each one of those young fighters cited above won a world championship.

Watching them win world titles was exciting, but it is not my most vivid memory.

…Two old men are punching each other in the ring. After three ponderous rounds, they take off their gloves and headgear, and congratulate each other. Both are in their late fifties.

I discover one of the combatants underwent open-heart surgery eleven months ago. He lifts his sweat-soaked tee-shirt to prove it. A long nasty scar is still visibly red.

He smiles. “Boxing’s the best damn exercise going!”

“You are one sick bastard!” I almost say, but don’t. Why start an argument?

But the man’s red scar is not my most vivid memory of Gleason’s Gym.

…Gleason’s is abuzz with the arrival of the 2008 Olympic boxing squad, just returning from Beijing, China.

Deontay Wilder, the heavyweight bronze medal winner, is being interviewed, along with welterweight Demetrius “Boo Boo” Andrade, the three-time Olympian Rau’shee Warren, and Sadam Ali, the first Arab-American to represent the United States in an Olympics.

But the most impressive Olympian is in the ring shadowboxing—middleweight Shawn Estrada, son of Juan Estrada, the 1968 Mexican Olympic boxer. Shawn is the youngest of 16 siblings and credits the sport of boxing as the force that kept him out of gangs growing up.

In Beijing, Estrada lost a close decision to James DeGale, the eventual gold medalist.

Lionel Trilling, the writer, once said, “What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have.” Artist or athlete—I sense that special power is within Shawn Estrada.

But we will never know—at least in the ring. Estrada retired after a promising 16-0 career with 14 knockouts, in order to enter politics, a tough business where he will accumulate many scars along the way. He recently ran for city council in Commerce, California and lost.

But the impressive Shawn Estrada, and the 2008 Olympic Team, is not my most vivid memory.

…I’m shadowboxing in Gleason’s large blurry mirror which is more reflective metal than mirror.

Hector Roca, the elite trainer, walks up to me and says, “Wanna box?”

“Me?” I haven’t fought in decades. I don’t even own a mouthpiece.

He points to a kid sporting the young felon look—he’s street all the way. “Go a few rounds with Sugar?”

I look at Sugar. He’s just staring at me, saying nothing. 

“Sugar won’t hit back,” promises Roca.

Yeah, I know how that works. I’ll step in the ring with Sugar and he’ll try to kick my white ass.

“Just go easy,” smiles Roca. “Sugar won’t hit back.”

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind sparring a few rounds, even if Sugar does hit back—that’s only fair. 

I look at Sugar. “Hey, are you gonna turn this into a ring-war as soon as the bell rings?” I want to ask, but don’t.

Instead, I conduct a quick test—I push his shoulder.

He just stands there calmly.

“Okay,” I say. 

We go three rounds wearing 16-ounce gloves. I nailed him good with a solid right hand in the second round—that’s the only thing I remember.

The only other thing I remember is my aching jaw muscles the next morning. Sugar did hit back, which was fine, but I was unable to chew food for two days. 

Sparring Sugar is certainly a vivid memory, but it isn’t my most vivid memory of Gleason’s Gym. 

…I look up into the ring and can’t believe who I’m seeing! Where has he been all these years?  He’s firing off quick combinations and dancing around the ring like a graceful Fred Astaire. He was once an outstanding amateur, and the handsomest boxer to ever put on a pair of boxing gloves—movie-star handsome—a real Errol Flynn…It’s lightweight Jimmy Magnifico!

Magnifico vanished years ago. Where did he go? Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn’t very nice.

Magnifico’s pro career fizzled, like the careers of so many other classy, but light-hitting, lightweights: Canada’s Ralph Racine, Panama’s Antonio Amaya, New Jersey’s Luke Erwin, New York’s Chu Chu Malave, Ghana’s Love Allotey, Jamaican Percy Hayles, and Long Island’s Howard Davis, Jr. These smooth lightweights were capable of becoming great champions, but never did. Maybe it was lack of punching power, or perhaps, a lack of something within them.

A fear of success?   

Watching Jimmy Magnifico shadowbox in the ring is certainly a vivid memory, but not my most vivid memory.

…My most vivid memory is watching the former heavyweight contender, Mitch “Blood” Green, “hit” the heavy bag.

He is standing at a heavy bag, shouting loudly but punching softly. What is on his alleged mind?

There is a natural human interest in watching aberrant behavior, and I think I’m watching it right now. Green, at 6’3”, is a former gang leader of the Black Spades in Brooklyn. He has always been an arrogant man who enjoys calling people “faggots” and “homos.”

Green has always been the love of his own life.  But after losing twice to “Iron” Mike Tyson—once in the ring, and then on 125th Street in Harlem—his career has unraveled and has won only three fights in nine years.

He was once an outstanding four-time New York City Golden Gloves Champion, but his pro career, like Jimmy Magnifico’s, fizzled. I can’t decide if Green is a successful tragedy or a tragic success.

He seems to be a casualty—an ex-boxer who is not quite right in the head. There’s a toothpick in his mouth and his jheri curls hang limply down his ears as he softly cuffs the bag—yelling loudly.

This former heavyweight contender looks so sad and alone.

I feel like a tourist watching him. Why is he yelling? Why is he always chewing a toothpick? Why does he always call people “faggots” and “homos”? How much money is in his bank account? Does he even have a bank account?

I suspect that for Mitch “Blood” Green, adulthood will always be just out of reach.

I respect anyone who steps into the ring—and that includes Mitch “Blood” Green. I sincerely wish for him a successful mid-life career change—an occupation where he can re-discover himself and enter the next stage of his life with gratitude, humility, and Enlightenment.

If Donald Trump could become President, anything is possible.

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 03:46am, 09/11/2017

    It is impossible to not have vivid and fond memories of Gleason’s Gym, and this evocative series of stories by Mr. Wood makes them flood back in waves. Gleason’s is a dream factory, a truly magical place. It’s owner, Bruce Silverglade, is one of the finest people you will ever meet. One time the gym was very crowded and a reporter was looking for Hilary Swank. Bruce just said, “She’s out there somewhere, I think she’s wearing black.”  For amateur and pro boxers, as well as white collar warriors or people just trying to stay in shape, Gleason’s provides a safe, supportive and familial environment and Mr. Wood captures its essence beautifully.

  2. Timothy Agoglia Carey 12:39pm, 09/10/2017

    Looking at Hilary in the photo above….those sweet lips are for kissing not for getting split open by nasty punches from a juiced/jacked tranny!

  3. Juan Pérez 11:49am, 09/10/2017

    Thanks very mucho from Spain. Excellent piece.

  4. peter 09:56am, 09/10/2017

    @ Bond—Thank you for your kind words…I wrote the article, “Twenty Rules for Retiring From Boxing” awhile back. It’s still on Boxrec. Here is the link: http://www.boxing.com/twenty_rules_for_retiring_from_boxinggraciously.html

  5. Bond 07:54am, 09/10/2017

    The best series of articles I’ve read on this site for some time

    Were you the author of the article entitled (I think) “14 reasons to hang up the gloves” or something like that?

  6. Ted Sares 05:52pm, 09/09/2017

    I actually look forward to Peter’s work because I know it will be soulful and thoughtful.—no—make that thought provoking and compelling. Hell, anyone who knows about Ralph Racine (and his near death experience with Gaetan Hart) knows boxing.

    When I finally catch up with you in the City one of these days, we can have a grand conversation and maybe even get Big Bob and Clarence to join in—and maybe we can have it at Gleason’s.

  7. peter 03:38pm, 09/09/2017

    Fortunately, I was never knocked out in a fight. Unfortunately, I’ve been cut, and my nose was broke in the ring—my left hand was broken outside the ring in a scuffle…I was never knocked down by a punch…I always used a mouthpiece, but by the time Sugar came around, my mouthpiece was long gone…Hector Roca was probably scouting me out while I was shadowboxing. He probably picked me to spar Sugar because I looked good, but not that good, and felt I was safe enough to put in with his boy…Roca might have seen me around, he might have know I was a NYC Golden Gloves Finalist, but I didn’t broadcast it…Thank you for the questions!...BTW—I’m told Sugar still spars at the new Gleason’s Gym. If I run into him, I will certainly interview him for Part 4 of this series. Stay tuned!

  8. Timothy Agoglia Carey 02:58pm, 09/09/2017

    Peter Wood-Pure gold! Serious question(s)....were you ever KOd in a sanctioned bout or in sparring? ? Were you ever knocked down? Did you have a mouthpiece when you sparred Sugar? Why did they pick on you? Did Roca know you?

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