My Most Vivid Memory of the New Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym at 130 Water Street (Part 4 of 4)

By Peter Wood on October 7, 2017
My Most Vivid Memory of the New Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym at 130 Water Street (Part 4 of 4)
Eileen “The Hawaiian Mongoose” Olszewski is another extraordinary outlier. (Peter Wood)

I am no longer under boxing’s spell. I’m not sure I even like the damn sport anymore. But boxing has crawled deep inside me and has stayed there…

(This article concludes my four-part series in which I offer quick snapshots of my 50-year boxing journey. During that time, I’ve trained at four different Bobby Gleason’s Gyms—in the Bronx, Manhattan, and two locations in Brooklyn.

Back in 1969, when I first trained at the Gleason’s in the Bronx, there were punch-drunk fighters, sweaty champions, and probably a gangster or two. Men wore hats and the hazy air was tinged with cigar smoke. There was a sign on the wall: NO SPITTING ON THE FLOOR. “Not that that ever stopped anyone,” laughed heavyweight contender Randy Neumann at the time.

Now the new Gleason’s is much different—and so am I.)

(Note to readers: Put down your boxing gloves and pick up a pencil—you will need it to respond to this article.)

I have vivid memories of the new Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym at 130 Water Street, in DUMBO, a fashionable section of Brooklyn…

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

…I’m walking down the cobblestone street past a corner bookstore, a chic coffee shop, and a trendy health food store. I walk up the eight concrete steps leading into Gleason’s Gym and I immediately spot three ex-champs in the middle of the gym joking around: Iran “The Blade” Barkley (the fierce former WBC & IBF Middleweight champion and WBA Light heavyweight Champion) … Junior Jones (the slick former WBA Bantamweight Champion) … and smooth Dennis “The Magician” Milton, an extremely rare four-time New York City Middleweight Golden Gloves Champion.

They are boxing royalty, and they know it—so does everyone else in the gym. These three badasses have won over a half-dozen championship belts between them and their combined professional ring record is an envious 109-30-2. 

They are wearing street clothes, enjoying each other’s company, just goofing around. The boxing gym is their comfortable home away from home.

Now retired, they are relaxed and their pugnaciousness comes across as playful, combative self-mockery.

But beneath their smiles are there deeper issues at play? All former champions mourn the loss of their championship like it was a loved one. Tumbling out of the limelight can be a shadowy, dark experience. Depression and despair set in and can go deeper than deep—in Iran’s case, it means homelessness and a loss of dignity.

Iran is a man with a God-given gift for violence. He is also a sweetheart. I’ve seen him weep at funerals. But after scoring two of the biggest upsets in boxing history—beating Thomas “Hitman” Hearns twice—Iran is virtually penniless and has needed to sell two of his championship belts to pay rent.

But meeting these ex-champs does not diminish their championship glow. They are accessible, and we enjoy reminiscing past fights. They are still famous in the gym, but it pains me to think that outside on the street they are anonymous, indistinguishable pedestrians.

Mixing with these three badasses is a great memory, but it’s not my most vivid memory…

…“Times have changed,” says Bruce Silverglade, the owner and driving force behind Gleason’s.

He reminds me that Gleason’s, after all these years, is still a kickass boxing gym. At peak times, it’s crawling with hungry young fighters and experienced trainers. “Gleason’s has produced 134 world champions, and currently hosts six world champions—all female.”

But Gleason’s is no longer merely a boxing gym. “It’s rebranded,” he says.

Like a shrewd street fighter, Silverglade has slipped, dodged, and parried the economic punches thrown at him. He’s leveraged Gleason’s name and fame, and has made a fundamental shift for his business that has long relied on one simple formula: developing prizefighters.

Gleason’s now meets the needs of a more diverse clientele and has become—at different times—a/an ___________:

(Instructions: Choose the correct letter to finish the sentence above.)

a)  art gallery.
b)  center for poetry readings.
c)  recital hall for jazz and chamber music.
d)  wedding hall.
e)  bar mitzvah center.
f)  film set.
g)  site for photo shoots.
h)  white collar boxing site.
i)  political fundraising venue.
j)  tourist attraction.
k)  Everlast laboratory to test future boxing products.
l)  community center for youth.
m)  All of the above.

The correct answer is “m” — All of the above.

Learning about the new thriving ecosystem of Gleason’s—the longest-surviving boxing gym on earth—is a good memory, but it’s not my most vivid memory…

…“Blimp” Parsley, a gigantic bulk of a man, is watching his son, Delen, an up-and-coming pro shadowbox in the mirror. Delen is a 6’2” middleweight with a sculpted physique and an impressive 12-1 record that any man would be proud to have.

“Do you remember the heavyweight Bob Stallings?” Blimp asks me. “Bob was a hellava fighter back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My son Delen is his nephew.” 

“He’s an old man,” scoffs Delen, throwing a jab.

Young Delen is allowed to think for himself, isn’t he? He doesn’t have to share his father’s reverence for an old uncle. Perhaps his impolite remark is more of a misdemeanor than a felony?

Delen is not a sinner.

But doesn’t young Delen realize that old man Stallings is still a respected New York State Champ who once defeated fearsome heavyweight contenders Mac Foster, Chuck Wepner, James J. Woody and Earnie Shavers?

Delen’s thoughtless comment about his family pedigree is not my most vivid memory—just my most disturbing memory…

… I notice I’m in the minority—I don’t have a tattoo. It seems everyone here has at least one loud, noisy tattoo inked on his or her body—a lion, a tiger, an eagle, a skull, a quotation, numerals, or a baby’s face. Even Bruce Silverglade is inked—a blue ring around his left ring finger.

All of these flashy, flamboyant tattoos is not my favorite memory…

…I look around the gym and see a wealth of modern-day equipment: five boxing rings, twelve heavy bags, four uppercut bags, six speedbags, four double-end bags, eleven treadmills, and two Life Cycles. On the side, there’s a merchandise store selling t-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, boxing memorabilia and a host of accessories. In back, there’s a snack-bar selling Coke, Pepsi, Poland Spring Water, Vitamin Water, Smart Water, Gatorade, Snapple, and Arizona Tea…hotdogs, potato chips, pretzels, peanuts, Dipsey Doodles, Cheese Doodles, Lance Sandwiches, Oreo cookies, and Nutri Grain Bars.

Gleason’s boxing equipment is state-of-the-art—except for one important prehistoric object…an ancient boxing apparatus… a thick, oak speedbag platform. This prehistoric object is equipped with a black cast-iron wheel which adjusts the platform to a fighter’s height. This amazing thing is still in perfect condition, despite being smacked around by prizefighters for over 90 years. It’s a speedbag platform once owned, and used, by Jack Dempsey.

“I got it from my buddy, Tommy Gallagher,” smiles Silverglade.

“How much did you pay?”

“Nothing. He gave it to me.”

It’s downright bizarre… I can see young Jack Dempsey punching a speedbag right in front of me. Sweat’s running down his face as he prepares for his title fight with big Jess Willard…and, by the way, Dempsey has no tattoos.

Would Dempsey have a tattoo if he were around today?

The ghost of Jack Dempsey punching a speedbag is a great memory, but it’s not my most vivid memory.

…See that guy over there? He’s sitting on the ring apron wrapping his hands with yellow handwraps? That’s Sugar. He’s easy to miss because he’s wearing a gray hoodie, tied up tight so only his face peaks out.

Sugar arrives at 4:30am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, to open the gym to the public. He’s been doing this for decades. 

He also has been sparring for decades. That’s how we first met—sparring back in the 1980s.

We haven’t seen each other for 30 years—when we were punching each other in the ring. I feel a bond, a connection with Sugar. He’s a kindred spirit—at least I feel he is.

“Remember me?” I say.

He shakes his head, apologetically.

Well, how could he remember me? He’s sparred hundreds of boxers and thousands of rounds. Today, he’s scheduled to spar three more fighters.

While wrapping his hands, we get talking. I discover his name is Craig Butler and he’s 57 years old.

“I’ve swapped punches with a lotta guys—Arturo Gatti, Gino Gelormino, Edgar Santana, Stephan Johnson, Juan Laporte, and Agapito Sanchez, the former Super Bantamweight Champion…” He shakes his head. “So many of ‘em are dead—Johnson, shot; Gatti and Sanchez murdered; Gino, fell to his death…”

In preparation for sparring, Sugar hits the heavy bag for ten rounds using 16-ounce gloves. He’s in excellent shape, probably fifteen pounds lighter than when we fought. Me, I’m fifteen pounds heavier.

Sugar’s been getting hit on the head for three decades, but he sounds perfectly fine, not like a future Parkinson’s patient.

“Why didn’t you ever turn pro?” I ask.

“Well, my heart and soul have always been in the gym, but my mind has always been in the street.” He pauses to throw a quick combo, then adds, “I went away a few times, and did eight years in the Marines. I also was a fashion model.”

Thirty years ago, Sugar sported the young felon look. I always sensed he was a turbulent teenager who made some bad choices, but Gleason’s was a good choice. It provided structure and demanded discipline.

Wasn’t I once a turbulent teenager, too? Weren’t we all? I made bad choices, too, but boxing was also my good choice.

Talking with Sugar is a rewarding memory, but it’s not my most vivid memory…

…Sugar has stepped into the ring and is now mixing it up with James Fisk, a slender 27-year-old who works in SOHO. Sugar slips and rolls with punches and relaxes doing the rope-a-dope. It’s friendly sparring, but he’s still getting punched for six rounds.

I’m watching from the safety of the ring apron and am reminded of Joey Archer. Years ago, I met the ex-middleweight contender at Spring Lake—the Irish Riviera—in New Jersey. He was in his 40s at the time, but his battered face looked like a well-worn nickel, and his scarred eyes made him look much older. He was sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of a beachside hotel, and a pretty blonde (a nurse?) was rocking him.

“Ya know what I miss most ‘bout boxin’?” he slurred.

“The money?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“The applause?”

“No.”

“I give up, Mr. Archer. What do you miss?”

He looked down at his hands resting in his lap. “I miss the human contact.”

…I watch Sugar lean against the ring ropes, absorbing…smack…punches…smack…one after…smack…another… It’s human contact.

Watching Sugar spar is a vivid memory, but it’s not my most vivid memory…

…The five boxing rings in Gleason’s are violent places where skin, bone, and brain get damaged. It’s also a place where a boxer discovers, deep down, who they really are. The ring is where you learn to ignore fear, weakness, and vulnerability. That’s what’s happening now as I watch Federica and Eileen go at it for four rounds.

Both women are professional prizefighters—and extraordinary outliers—who have not chosen for themselves an easy path.

Federica Bianco is a NYU college professor with a Ph.D. in astrophysics. But she’s also a super bantamweight with a ring record of 2-1. She has been labeled “The World’s Most Badass Astrophysicist” and “The Mad Scientist.”

On lunch breaks, she comes to the gym—an alternate universe—to punch and get punched.

Wouldn’t she find the New York Times crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or playing with a Rubik’s Cube more enjoyable than having Eileen “The Hawaiian Mongoose” whack her in the face? Logically, shouldn’t a college professor be more concerned about “publish or perish” than with “punch or perish”?

Eileen, under the watchful eye of Matthew, her husband/trainer, is gliding around the ring, peppering the heavier Federica with swift, nimble jabs and occasional left hooks or straight rights.

Eileen “The Hawaiian Mongoose” Olszewski is another extraordinary outlier. She’s a three-time world flyweight champion, and the oldest flyweight in history, male or female, to win a share of a world flyweight title at age 45. Her ring record is 10-7-3, and until recently ranked in the top 10. But she is also a classically-trained ballerina and former New York Knicks dancer. 

Olszewski is more scientific than the scientist. The scientist is a brawler and more aggressive. She should be—she has an upcoming bout in Rhode Island. With The Hawaiian Mongoose helping her out, she’s guaranteed a victory.

Olszewski is just warming up. After Bianco; she spars two more rounds with a speedy 18-year old, and then two more with someone else. After eight rounds, The Hawaiian Mongoose is dripping sweat, but hardly tired.

These two outliers—Federica and Eileen—a college professor; a professional champion and classically-trained ballerina—provide me with the justification and validity I sometimes need in order to follow such a lousy sport. 

Boxing might be a lousy sport, but in my eyes, a crushing left hook will always be primordial beauty.

Watching these two extraordinary women spar is a vivid memory, but it’s not my most vivid memory…

…The Hawaiian Mongoose, her husband, (a former PKA fighter with a perfect 26-0 record), and I walk around the corner to a health food restaurant for lunch.

Walking down the street, I can’t help but notice Eileen’s distinctive gait. It’s the athletic walk of a dancer, faintly bowlegged, combined with the strut of a confident fighter, with shoulders held back.

But her distinctive walk is not my most vivid memory…

…At the restaurant she orders a “Harvest Bowl Salad” full of kale, wild rice, sweet potatoes, chicken, apples, and almonds. After a quick, surreptitious prayer she digs in.

Eileen Olszewski has nothing more to prove. She has already joined the ranks of other great Hawaiian champions—Bobo Olson, Paul Fuji, Dado Marino, and Andy Ganigan. By far, she is the prettiest.

Does she still have an appetite to fight?  What keeps her going? It certainly is not the money.

“What’s your motivation?” I ask.

“My draw with Stefania Bianchi for the WBC belt still burns,” she says quickly. It was a hometown decision with a hometown ref who refused to warn the hometown fighter to stop holding and punching behind Olszewski’s head. “If a point had been taken away, as there should have been, I’d have won the WBC title.

“But I wouldn’t say that fight is my sole motivation,” she adds. “Boxing is an art form and attaining the highest level I can achieve is what drives me.”

I’m sure she has many other motivations—some obvious, some not. The way she handled Bianchi and that quick 18-year-old kid today, I wouldn’t put it past her winning another title.

But getting caught up in boxing’s intoxicating swirl of violence and grace is a danger.  Transitioning out of the championship spotlight is painful. It’s experiencing a little death. Depression and despair go deeper than deep. But Matthew, her supportive husband, sits close by her side and I doubt that will happen.

For the record, my luncheon with “The Hawaiian Mongoose” and her loyal husband is my most vivid memory.

As stated at the beginning of this article: “Gleason’s is different—and so am I.” I am no longer a young middleweight mesmerized by boxing. I don’t even know if I’m still a boxing fan or pretending to be.

I should come clean: The illusion of boxing’s beauty has been shattered by seeing too many friends slurring their words, floundering in financial debt, or prematurely dead.

No, I am no longer under boxing’s spell. I’m not sure I even like the damn sport anymore. But boxing has crawled deep inside me and has stayed there. Like a virus.

Is boxing a sickness called sport? Does it pollute or purify the human spirit? Does it taint or exalt?

Do I sound confused?

But I am certain of this: boxing is a search for personal truth and growth…and a crushing left hook will always be primordial beauty.

The next time you are in Brooklyn, you must visit Bobby Gleason’s Gym and introduce yourself to Bruce Silverglade. Then you should _________ :

(Instructions: Circle the correct letter to finish the sentence.)

a) warm up a few rounds in the mirror under the watchful eye of “Blimp” Parsley.
b) remind young Delen Parsley how good his Uncle Bob Stallings was.
c) hit the speed bag using Jack Dempsey’s platform rack. (Please bring your own bag, or ask Bruce for one.)
d) spar a few rounds with Sugar. (Throw him a few bucks.)
e) ask “The Hawaiian Mongoose” for some boxing tips—ask nicely.
f) ask Junior Jones, Iran Barkley, and Dennis Milton for their autograph.
g) go to their merchandise store and buy a Gleason’s t-shirt.
h) buy a hotdog, a Snapple, and Dipsey Doodles at the snack-bar.
i) All of the above.

The correct answer is “i” — All of the above

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)
My Most Vivid Memory of the New Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym at 130 Water Street (Part 4 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. Frederick Romano 05:48pm, 10/12/2017

    Peter has always had the rare talent of translating something as obtuse as a boxers emotional journey into a tangible and palpable experience for his readers. His unique and inviting style reminds us what boxing and boxers will always be at their core - a beautiful mix of fragility and violence. With this series Peter once again surrenders a little piece of himself to expose our commonality. 

     

     

  2. peter 02:03pm, 10/09/2017

    Lowell! These are five great questions! 1) I continued boxing in the gym but my heart wasn’t in it any more. I proved that to myself when I stopped a future 4-time NYC Golden Gloves champ with a straight right to the throat while sparring—I felt sad, rather than secretly happy.    2) In 1976, I drove up to Albany State University to the training camp, but didn’t stay long; there was no need for a box-off. I think the other middleweight was from Baltimore, or maybe that was the welterweight.  3) Yes, I think I could’ve beaten a few of the pros when I was younger and training in the Bronx.  4) Yes, I still wonder! With luck and good management, I MIGHT have knocked on the door of the top ten, but that’s wishful thinking!  5) My students were pretty good. No problems in the   arena of the classroom—fortunately!

  3. Lowell Thomas 01:24pm, 10/09/2017

    @Peter Wood-You finished strong! Great! Now here’s a pop quiz for you: (1) Did you continue to compete after the ‘71 Finals? (2) If you were the alternate for the Maccabean Games who competed at Middleweight and was there a boxoff? (3) During your time at Gleasons did you spar with any Pros that you felt that you could beat in a sanctioned bout? (4) Did you ever wonder what might have been if you had turned Pro? (5) How did you handle it in your teaching career when smart ass kids gave you guff?

  4. Jeffrey Sussman 10:06am, 10/09/2017

    Peter Wood writes superb memoirs about his fascination with boxing, past and present. His insights are jewels of illumination. Reading him is pleasure not to be denied to anyone for whom boxing is a microcosm of life’s battles.

  5. Beau Williford 08:05am, 10/09/2017

    Another great article!!!!!

  6. peter 06:52am, 10/09/2017

    To Ted…Alan…Mike…Bob…The Barker…Beau…Don—Thank you for your feedback, and for sharing your thoughts and memories. Boxing.com continues to be an excellent forum for just that—a sharing. Tell your friends! Peace.

  7. Don from Prov 06:42am, 10/09/2017

    Very good series.  I’ll miss it.  What I think I’ll recall most—

    Joey Archer sitting in that rocking chair
    (No need to explain that one.)

    Gerry Cooney flooring the heaviest of the heavy bags in the gym
    (That moment makes me think of his fight against Foreman and how Gerry landed one of those vicious hooks against Foreman who just kept coming—because out of all the amazing things that fighters do, being able survive
    a shot from someone who hit like Cooney is one of the most amazing.)

  8. Beau Williford 06:23pm, 10/08/2017

    Another great article, in a series of great articles!

  9. The Barker 05:47pm, 10/08/2017

    Eileen and Matt are terrific people. I use to workout at a gym where they were trainers. Very approachable and helpful. Wonderfully committed to their craft.

  10. Bob 03:29pm, 10/08/2017

    I’m sorry that this wonderful series has come to an end. Although I enjoy the eras of the previous articles more, I loved the fill-ins and multiple choices in this segment. This is unique storytelling at its finest. And anyone who meets the Hawaiian Mongoose will be impressed. She is soft-spoken, humble and gracious - and a boxing purist to her core. Whether Mr. Wood realizes it or not, he too is a boxing purist and regardless of fleeting disinterest in the game, he has too much emotionally invested to ever walk away completely. While that might rankle him, his readers should consider themselves very fortunate.

  11. Michael Chiariello 12:04pm, 10/08/2017

    Congratulations and thank you Peter for once again writing an awesome article.  You truly are an amazing storyteller and gifted writer.  Your writing touches your readers, it is real, emotional, honest, consistently entertaining and valid.  The words that you carefully choose are as powerful as a knockout punch!  Thank you for your passion and knowledge of this great sport.  I look forward to reading your next piece!

  12. Alan W. 11:52am, 10/08/2017

    This has been some of your most compelling writing.  So many moments I’ll remember from this series.  Most memorable for me from this episode:  Joey Archer sitting in a rocking chair on a porch in Spring Lake.  He misses the human contact!  There’s gotta be another novel in that for you, Peter.  Also, thanks for the surprise quizzes throughout this one.  A bar mitzvah at Gleason’s sounds like a kid’s dream come true—and maybe a mother’s nightmare.  What are you going to do for an encore, Pete?

  13. Ted Sares 09:27am, 10/08/2017

    Wow. Another winner in a series of winners. Compelling stuff.

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