Stillman’s Gym and the Underwater Treadmill

By Clarence George on September 15, 2015
Stillman’s Gym and the Underwater Treadmill
Mention the words "underwater treadmill" to Lou Stillman. See what it gets you. I dare you.

Boxing has been turned over to self-important, know-nothing technocrats. Did the guys who worked out at Stillman’s have underwater treadmills?

“Oh, the humanity!”—Herbert Morrison

In what was more of a foregone conclusion than a boxing match, Floyd Mayweather Jr. decisioned Andre Berto this past Saturday, September 12. His last hurrah, supposedly. All I ask in return for my heartiest congratulations is that Mayweather stand not upon the order of his going but go already. But I’m used to disappointment. Not that that’s a comment on the fight itself. I have no such comment. I didn’t see it. I wouldn’t pay to see it. You couldn’t pay me to see it.

I did, however, see the lead-up. I saw Berto working out on an underwater treadmill. That was my cue to switch over to my disc of Saturday morning cartoons of the 1960s. Ah, Top Cat. A favorite of mine, what with that nifty pork pie hat and vest and a persona that combined the best of Slip Mahoney and Sgt. Bilko. But however much I enjoyed T.C.‘s jousts with Officer Dibble (he of the “dreamy azure” eyes), I couldn’t stop thinking of Andre Berto and his confounded underwater treadmill.

Like everything else, boxing has been turned over to self-important, know-nothing technocrats. Did the guys who worked out at Stillman’s have underwater treadmills? As Joe Rein writes, “The shower for the entire gym was a single open stall, with a concrete floor and drain and a rusted-solid shower head.” Does that sound like an underwater treadmill to you? Me neither. But despite that deprivation, “Upstairs in the heavy-bag area,” Rein continues, “you could watch Jimmy Bivins, Johnny Bratton, Jimmy Carter, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ike Williams, Bob Murphy, Rocky Graziano and Bob Montgomery all whacking the big bags, doing floor exercises, or studying their moves in the wall-length mirror next to undercard fighters and promising amateurs.” Rein also mentions Sugar Ray Robinson skipping rope, hitting the speed bag, and throwing combinations that “were the envy of everybody.”

Rein trained at Stillman’s, garnering goodies from Willie Pep, Billy Conn, and Jimmy Bratton, not to mention words of encouragement from Tony Janiro, Bobo Olson, Gil Turner, and “The Brown Bomber” himself, who apologized to the kid for backing into him while he was hitting the heavy bag (“My mouth dropped open”). Sandy Saddler and Paddy DeMarco would pretend fight him, Bob Montgomery let him unlace his gloves, Beau Jack would kid him with a feint. Willie Pep and Terry Young told jokes “about horses that were too slow or women that were too fast.” Hurricane Jackson had his stock answer to any and all questions, “Wanna shoot rats?” Bobby Bartels from Queens got all pissed because of a news story that said he looked Anglo-Saxon. “Who the fuck is Angelo Saxon? I’ll break his ass!”

Giants all. But nobody, and I mean not Joe Louis himself, got in without paying doorman Jack Curley the 15-cent entrance fee. “Pay up, ya bum!” Lou Stillman would yell out.

No underwater treadmill, but, Rein tells us, “Everybody smoked and spit on the floor, including the fighters when they took a break. Graziano would take a drag on a cigarette between rounds of sparring, or any other time you’d see him. The main floor was a dull haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.”

And the time a journeyman light heavy got arrested there, wearing nothing but a towel, wanted for murder.

As Glenway Wescott might have observed, Stillman’s wasn’t much on preserving “ordinary parlor decorum.” But as Hart Crane retorted, “Parlor, hell, parlor.”

The trainers were there, the cornermen. Guys like Charley Goldman and Whitey Bimstein. Ray Arcel, too, and Chickie Ferrara. Al Silvani and Freddie Brown. Yeah, and Jimmy August. Go on, mention the words “underwater treadmill” in Jimmy August’s august presence. See what it gets you. I dare you. I double dare you. Tell Stillman all about it, why don’t you? Dollars to doughnuts his .38 would be out from beneath his tweed jacket before you got to “mill.” Holly Golightly, the man refused to so much as crack a window for Gene Tunney, never mind all this talk of underwater treadmills!

No, no codswallopy, colorless, kewpie doll underwater treadmill at Stillman’s. And yet the men who trained at “the center of the boxing universe” somehow (as if by an act of God) managed to make it through 15 leather-larruping rounds. Go figure.

And don’t get me started on John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, men who trained on brine and beef blood and beer, who went at it bare-knuckled for 75 rounds under a sun that literally blistered them. It was in the 44th that Sullivan started vomiting, but ultimately Mike Donovan, Kilrain’s manager, threw in the sponge, saying how he wouldn’t be “a party to manslaughter.”

They, too, didn’t have a fancy-schmancy, cutie-patootie “underwater treadmill.”

Oh, the humanity.

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  1. Clarence George 02:15pm, 09/21/2015

    Not surprised, Mike, as that is one ugly building.

    More, Beaujack, we want more!

  2. beaujack 12:42pm, 09/21/2015

    Clarence, it would make me sad to walk past the site of where Stillman;‘s gym flourished and where I spent so much of my “youth” there.
    Twice in my life I had “karma” moments while walking in NY pertaining to boxing.
    Once while in the course of my work in Bayside, NY, I walked by an old wooden house.There was a sign on the house stating it “once was the home of James J Corbett, Heavyweight Champion who lived here many years.” I being alone by the house envisioned Corbett and John L, and Old Fitz sitting in the front yard right before me. Reincarnation? Who knows.?
    One other time I walked past a building near East 22nd street where a sign on the building said it was the place where the Doss Horse stables were in the early 1900s I a fan of the great Stanley Ketchel remember reading that this was the site where Ketchel flattened Phil Jack O’Brien in 1909..If only I could have turned back the “hands of time “.....
    One other time I was walking past a building

  3. Mike Silver 06:55pm, 09/20/2015

    A few years after the apartment building went up where Stillman’s once stood I found out the building had become a haven for prostitutes and pimps. Karma, you might say.

  4. Clarence George 01:17am, 09/20/2015

    Very glad you liked it, Mike, and I envy you having known the place.  Graziano was joyfully oblivious to the old saying, “Don’t expect to rate if you expectorate,” which he could do with complete impunity at Stillman’s.  I sometimes head over there, if only to look at the old buildings still standing, remnant witnesses to history.  No full-length book on Stillman’s that I know of, but there is at least a ditty:

  5. Mike Silver 08:09pm, 09/19/2015

    Clarence, thank you! I hunger for articles about Stillman’s—which i was blessed to have experienced in its last two years of existence. A great description of the place is in Graziano’s bio “Somebody Up There Likes Me”. The gym makes an appearance in the film and also in “Naked City”.  When they took Rocky to an upstate mountain training camp for the first time he rebelled and went right back to Stillman’s, saying “That fresh air could kill a guy!” The place had a wonderful aroma—liniment mixed with leather, sweat and cigar smoke. The place was magical.

  6. Clarence George 06:12pm, 09/15/2015

    Very kind words, Peter, of which I am unworthy.

  7. peter 02:27pm, 09/15/2015

    Clarance! You painted with words with this one! You did the impossible—you brought Stillman’s back to life. All it needed was someone to splash it with a coat of fresh paint, and you did that with your words.  Now see if you can crack open a few windows. Great work. Thanks.

  8. Clarence George 01:02pm, 09/15/2015

    Outstanding, Beaujack.  Rein thought that Stillman had a soft spot for Graziano, despite abusing him no less than any of the others.  But it’s true that he was one of the relative few allowed to use ring 1.  I consider him one of the great middleweights and am amazed how underrated he is today.

  9. Clarence George 12:45pm, 09/15/2015

    I remember the photo of Ali throwing punches underwater, ostensibly because it was part of his training.  A publicity gimmick, of course.

  10. Beaujack 12:40pm, 09/15/2015

    Clarence, permit me to reminisce about one event in Stillmans’s Gym that has left an indelible memory for me.
    One afternoon on a summer day I was watching some guys sparring in ring #2 There was a tough looking guy sitting on a cold old fashioned radiator, with his feet on the ring apron, when a big burley heavyweight wanted to walk past the side of the ring , so he asked this guy to please
    “please remove your legs from the ring apron, so I can get through “.?
    The guy responded “you can duck under my feet and pass by “. Which the
    big heavyweight promptly did…I remember saying to myself, wow this is some toughie ! Well a short time later my dad and I were at the St Nick’s Arena watching the prelims when this same tough guy was fighting a 4 round bout under the name ROCKY GRAZIANO, and later we learned he was AWOL from the Army after flattening his Captain, and his real name was Rocco Barbella…He won that bout and I saw Rocky many times after that night in St. Nick’s…There was no fighter that had more cujones than the young Rocky Graziano, the original “Dead End Kid ...

  11. Eric 09:59am, 09/15/2015

    The Rock needed a pool for his underwater punching session. Balboa thinks he invented pounding raw meat, but it was Marciano who invented water aerobics. Nowadays it seems every fighter takes to the pool to trow some punches.

  12. Clarence George 09:23am, 09/15/2015

    Too kind, Woodrow, too kind.


    Willis Bouchey

  13. Woodrow Parfey 09:13am, 09/15/2015

    You outdid yourself with this article, Mr. George. And the membership card accompanying the story enhanced it even further. Great job.

  14. Clarence George 07:35am, 09/15/2015

    Thanks very much indeed, Mike.  Yes, Tunney was one of the very few who didn’t train at Stillman’s.  And Rocky Marciano was another one who wasn’t there much.

    Thankee, Irish.  Berto would be completely out of his league.  Was that literary reference too abstruse?  Perhaps.  Suffice it to say that Wescott and Crane were very different men (despite a shared homosexuality).  The former (who was quite precious) would have been appalled by Stillman’s, while the latter (who was forever trying to pick up the wrong sailors and getting beaten up) was amply louche enough to appreciate the gym’s seedy charm.  If you’re interested, you’ll find the reference in Malcolm Cowley’s “Exile’s Return.”

    I was hoping you’d like it, Beaujack.  Wonderful post, as usual (I of course agree with Irish’s astute observation).  As you know, there’s nothing left of Stillman’s.  An ugly apartment building was put up in its place, and I cringe every time I walk by.

    By the way, Robert tells me that that’s Homer Smith’s membership card.  Fantastic item and image.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:19am, 09/15/2015

    Holy shit!....What a site….Ecksel, Sares, George, Casey and good jumpin’ Jesus Christ!.... a commenter like beaujack!

  16. Beaujack 07:07am, 09/15/2015

    Clarence, your article on Stillman’s Gym moistened my eyes, for I had spent most every Saturday afternoon at Stillman’s gym for many years starting when I was a young lad in the mid 1940s…Joe Rein and I must have passed each other so many times in those days. For 25 cents I would see the greatest fighters in the world train in the two rings, rub shoulders with trainers, managers, mobsters, show business people and stand next to old-time fighters such as Harry Wills, Kid Norfolk etc
    All this riled over by a gun toting Lou Stillman seated on a school high chair. spitting on the floor and barking orders to all….It was heaven to me. And later during the week I and my dad would see many of these fighters at the various fight clubs scattered through the Metropolitan area.
    And of course Friday night fights at the old MSG on 8th Ave and 49-50 street…Wonderful days for me for darn sure. thanks for your remembrance…

  17. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:48am, 09/15/2015

    Clarence George-Another KO for you…..some of the guys that you brought back to life in that smokey gym could have KOd the Berto that fought Saturday last. “Parlor not parlor.” is way over my head….can’t figure it out even by Googling.

  18. Mike Casey 06:30am, 09/15/2015

    Great article, Clarence. Gene Tunney once asked Lou Stillman if he could open the windows (which were painted shut) to let out the cigar smoke. Lou flatly refused!

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