My Most Vivid Memory of the Original Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym

By Peter Wood on August 10, 2017
My Most Vivid Memory of the Original Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym
I leave the gym, I’m done with boxing. I’m leaving this crazy sport forever. (Peter Wood)

I’ll miss boxing because the ring was the birthplace of my confidence; the launching pad of my identity. With boxing gloves I never stuttered…

(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 the original Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym in the South Bronx—but there is one vivid memory I’ll never forget…

It’s 1973, I’m in my early 20s and weigh 166 pounds, the same as middleweight champ Carlos Monzon. I’m climbing up the creaky wooden staircase holding my duffle bag.  I step into the gym and look around.

The vibe in Gleason’s is always the same—passionate. 

In the far corner, shadow boxing in the mirror is pro welterweight Don Turner—a grocery store clerk. No one would ever guess, 23 years later, he would be elected “Trainer of the Year” in 1996, by the Boxing Writers Association of America, and later become the world-class trainer of guys like Evander Holyfield,  Larry Holmes, Aaron Pryor, Mike McCallum, and countless others.

But Don, the grocery store clerk, shadowboxing in the mirror is not my most vivid memory.

… There’s Jackie Tonawanda—“The Female Ali”. She’s lumbering around a heavy bag, just pawing at it, dripping sweat. As usual, she’s wearing her rubber sweat-suit in order to shed excess weight.

Jackie, a boxing pioneer, challenged the rules and came out on top when, in 1975, she sued the New York State Athletic Commission which prohibited women boxing. She won her case and made history that year by knocking out her male kick-boxing opponent, Larry Rodania, in the second-round in Madison Square Garden.

But Jackie, dripping sweat in her rubber sweat-suit, is not my most vivid memory.

… As I step into the gym, two heavyweight contenders—undefeated Duane Bobick, from Minnesota, and Randy Neumann, from Cliffside Park, New Jersey—are finishing up for the day. Bobick, a smiling Midwesterner is wearing a winter sock-hat with a silly white pompom on top. He looks utterly misplaced here in the heart of the South Bronx.

Randy Neumann, with boxing gloves slung around his neck, looks over at Chickie Ferarra, his trainer and cut-man, grins and quips, “Tough day at the office, Chickie.”

But undefeated Duane and wisecracking Randy is not my most vivid memory.

… Shuffling up in the ring is Billy Daniels—an old war-horse. He was once a promising heavyweight in the early 1960s, but now he is a damaged warrior showing the inevitable signs of a dangerous profession.  For ten years, Billy’s been shipped off to Germany, Italy, England, Argentina, and all over America, to lose fights. However, on one memorable evening, eight years ago, in 1965, it all backfired: Billy managed to score a TKO victory over Ulric Regis in Trinidad-Tobago.

But the old war-horse slowly punching shadows is not my most vivid memory.

… I walk to the dressing room, past Eddie Parks, a pro welterweight who likes to scream after every round. He’s very annoying, but who’s going to stop him? Not me…I walk past bantamweight Davy Vasquez doing violent stomach exercises in preparation for his bout with Walter Seeley, a co-feature under the Duran-Buchanan main event in Madison Square Garden…I walk past the famous cigar-chomping trainer, old Freddie Brown, who is rewarding middleweight Jose Casado for pummeling the heavy bag. Freddy’s motivational technique is this: He digs into his pocket for a Lifesaver, thumbs one up, and drops it into Jose’s open mouth. Brown smirks at me. “Like givin’ a horse hay—they never refuse it.”

But none of that stuff is my most vivid memory.

… I’m up in the ring getting beat up by Jerry Caballero, a pro middleweight. He’s not hitting my head too much, but he is punishing my body with wicked right hand leads. The sound of his leather gloves slamming against my unguarded torso echoes throughout the gym. It’s painful and extremely humiliating because I’m supposed to be a better fighter than him. Honestly, no one is watching us and no one really gives a damn. But someone is watching—Flash Gordon. If you don’t know who Flash Gordon is, he’s an influential New York City boxing writer. It’s very humiliating.

But this beating at the hands of Jerry Caballero is not my most vivid memory.

… I step into the shower asking myself, “Why am I still doing this?” I am a loving, peaceful college student now. My relationship with boxing has changed. My convoluted teenagerness is a thing of the past. Boxing helped me overcome it, and I never became the junkie my brother was. He did heroin; I did boxing. “Do I really need this anymore?”

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

…I walk back onto the gym floor and watch two pro light heavyweights spar—Ray Ayala and Angel Oquendo. They’re moving around nicely, but when one of them notices me pull out a camera from my duffle bag, their polite sparring session turns into a gym war.

Fur starts flying. Gone is their well-mannered civility. Punches begin winging through the air. It’s wild, bloody, sick and totally fascinating. They are grunting and snarling with blunt-force punching—hitting their hardest, to take each other’s head off.  Blood flows.

The bell rings ending the round but they keep punching each other. Violence is such a delicious feeling and they just don’t want to stop.

Plus, I’m pointing a camera at them. Boxers are such vain creatures, and Angel and Ray are no exception. Vanity is overtaking their common sense as they punch the hell out of each other for another round.

Afterwards, Angel and Ray smile and hug each other…this is my most vivid memory—their embrace of mutual respect. They see in each other the admirable qualities they suspect are also in themselves—strength, courage and skill.

A few rounds of vigorous punching sometimes can clean a man out—it’s better than a bar of soap.

Boxing is a healthy dysfunction. It’s dysfunction at its best.

However, when I leave the gym, I realize I’m done with boxing. I’m leaving this crazy sport forever. I need to hit the books in college more than I need to hit a guy in the ring.

I’ll miss boxing because the ring was the birthplace of my confidence; the launching pad of my identity. With boxing gloves I never stuttered.

I refuse to end up living in a brain-fog and punching shadows like Billy Daniels.

Nothing will ever be as wild, dangerous, exhilarating—or stupid—as beating up someone. But, no thanks, I don’t want it anymore.

I need to move on.

(This is Part 1 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. John Evangelista 04:25am, 08/14/2017

    I really enjoyed this read.

    My favorite snip:
    ...the birthplace of my confidence; the launching pad of my identity…

    These words resonated a ton and connected with me—a heartfelt and poetic memory.

    Looking forward to the next part.

  2. Billy Dee 10:41am, 08/12/2017

    I never saw him fight, but I’ll bet Pete Wood had a great hook, and he’s still got it in his writing.  He has a way of putting his reader right in the middle of his stories - battling in the ring, walking through Gleason’s, taking a punch, or dishing out a flashy combination.  He makes me wish I know more about boxing.  He makes us see and smell and feel what it’s like to lace up the gloves, step into the ring, and come to terms with our violence.

  3. Randy Neumann 06:06am, 08/12/2017

    Gleason’s gym was my favorite office on earth! I once brought my doctor/stitch man there who also put a lot of stitches in Gus Lesnevich’s head and asked for his assessment. He said, “an interesting collection of characters.” I trained in the Bronx and Manhattan and later brought my son to Brooklyn where he trained as an amateur. I have a large repertoire of stories from Gleason’s so naturally, I am very much enjoying your stories. Keep Punching!

  4. Bob 03:13pm, 08/11/2017

    An outstanding article by one of the finest chroniclers of a great boxing era. Mr. Wood’s memories are all so vivid, and each and every one of them stood out to me, as did this tremendous piece of journalism. I am eagerly and enthusiastically looking forward to the next installment. This is boxing and memoir writing at its very best.

  5. peter 07:27am, 08/11/2017

    Bill—my good artist friend and sparring partner! ...You throw out some interesting names—“Irish” Pat Murphy, Danny McAloon,  Lyle, Vasquez, Brown, etc… Me thinks you have your own Gleason’s article just waiting to be written for Boxrec! And, of course, your article will be enhanced by the deft painting that you will paint that will accompany it on top!

  6. Bill Angresano 07:03am, 08/11/2017

    A true privilege to have been here in the 70’s , actually I have vivid memories of which Pete Wood has poetically described and will describe. Arguably the greatest American Boxing gym in history, along with Stillman’s based on the denizens of this gym alone.  Pete Wood points this out and will continue to illuminate,  rather literally! As far as the person that Pete is , honest , searching and growing. Never the less ” ... I’am leaving , I’am leaving but the fighter still remains” . On a personal note, sparring with “Irish” Pat Murphy and Danny McAloon stand out , as well as sharing the Gleason’s gym ring with the icy cold Ron Lyle. Long talks with Davy Vasquez and Randy Neumann . Driving Freddie Brown home and dropping him off under the GW bridge ramp, I learned so much.

  7. Alan W. 07:00pm, 08/10/2017

    Is it that guys of a certain age who can’t remember what they had for breakfast, can remember what they saw and felt at Gleason’s 40+ years ago? I don’t think so.  This is just the kind of stuff good writers have learned to do. The details and the hook kept me reading—and enjoying—right to the end.

  8. Kid Blast 04:53pm, 08/10/2017

    Great stuff Peter

  9. Gene Krupa 07:36am, 08/10/2017

    Peter Wood-Wow! Looking forward to the next chapters. Either you have an unGodly memory or you were taking notes along with those snapshots even then…or both!

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