Until it fell into disuse and finally closed in 1959. Stillman's Gym on Eighth Avenue in New York was boxing's foremost institution of higher learning. For near!) 40 years it was the city's most celebrated school of hard knocks. During the palmy days of boxing. 375 fighters trained regular!) at Stillman's. It was headquarters for champions like Joe Louis and Rock) Graziano. and it was a haven for an assortment of bums. too. Even during the most difficult of the Depression years, this collection of kings and cauliflower heads evoked the feeling that boxing—at least at Stillman's—was a growth industry.
But the gym never was exactly redolent of prosperity. The joint smelled bad and looked worse. In Stillman's there was spit, but no polish. The place was so filthy that, according to one veteran trainer, "lighters could not train at the gym without fear of contaminating themselves." Lou Stillman. the pistol-packing dean of the University of Eighth Avenue, ran the campus with an iron fist and an indifferent feather duster. "The golden age of prizefighting." Stillman used to say. and not without feeling, "was the age of bad food, bad air. bad sanitation and no sunlight."
It would be an exaggeration to say that the climate in fight gyms has improved substantially since then. Boxing is a sport remarkably resistant to change. The game either hasn't gotten the word on cross-ventilation or has chosen to ignore it. What passes for air in a boxing gym swims with body odor, the pungent smell of liniment, the aroma of disinfectant and the stale smoke of too many cheap cigars. The smell hangs above the ring, the punching bags and the jumble of bodies. It is in these close quarters that boxing lives, not in Caesars Palace or any of the other Las Vegas hotels among which the heavyweight division divides its millions.
The newest of these sweatshops is the Times Square Boxing Club, located fittingly in New York's Times Square. The gym is owned by Jimmy Glenn, who has attended to the brightwork in a fashion uncommon to both his breed and the neighborhood. Glenn's gym is outfitted with six heavy bags, three speed bags and an almost spotless new ring set close to the window. Passersby on 42nd Street, if they look up three stories, can take in a free show of young fighters sparring. And while that may not sound like much of a show, it's worth a glance because it is from chrysalises like the Times Square Boxing Club that champions emerge.
April 30, 1978
To get to the gym one must first shoulder through young jackanapeses slouching in the doorway selling "loose joints," a product that is no miracle cure for arthritis. Up two flights of stairs, past a tavern and a formalwear shop, and you are there. But you are not in until either you have convinced Scotty that you have a compelling reason to be there or you have forked over a dollar, the standard charge for spectators. The admission fee is waived for fighters' wives, girl friends and children, who are assigned to a small waiting area. Many of the Latin fighters bring entire families with them to the gym, the wives sitting attentively while the children do raucous roadwork around the heavy bags.
Scotty is 62-year-old William Scott, at one time an electrical contractor on Long Island and more recently a maintenance man for a string of pornographic movie houses in the Times Square area. Scotty left his Philadelphia home at 23 and has never returned. For a while he prospered in New York, but eventually life began body-punching him. "At one time in my life I made big money, giant money," he says. "But I lost it all drinking and gambling and chasing women."
For seven years Scotty lived in a small apartment above the Love Theater, an establishment whose marquee promises LIVE SEX ACTS ON STAGE. A falling-out with the management of the Love left Scotty in a position to seek other career opportunities more suited to his amiable disposition. That was when he met Jimmy Glenn.
Glenn is also the proprietor of Jimmy's Corner, a bar situated in the middle of a block on 44th Street. Thus the name reflects Glenn's longtime affection for boxing, not the tavern's location. Glenn fought professionally as a middleweight for three years and later became a cornerman for Floyd Patterson, when Patterson met Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden in 1972. He also ran a community-center gym at the Third Moravian Church in Harlem for 20 years, until the city finally tore the building down.
Glenn is fully aware of somewhat similar wreckage in his new venture as an independent businessman in Times Square. The area has been overrun with porno theaters, dope pushers, peep shows, massage parlors, prostitutes and all the miseries attendant on so-called victimless crime. Forty-second Street was once the "street of dreams," and it radiated the heat of genius. As a story in The New York Times noted, "so important was 42nd Street that theaters that were actually on 41st or 43rd Streets had entrance passageways to 42nd Street so that their marquees could be part of the glamour and excitement of that street."
The swells no longer congregate under those marquees, and the street of dreams now traffics in despair. Reedy-voiced evangelists hand out leaflets for the Lord and declaim, "We are a doomed civilization, brother, just look around you." Derelicts distribute handbills for a nearby place that offers "$10 encounter sessions—no tipping, no ripoffs, no extras." They wink and grin and in a boozy conspiratorial whisper say, "Hey, man, check it out brother, check it out."
Looking through the large front window of the Times Square Boxing Club, Glenn seems unaffected by all the exotic fauna swirling by his doorstep. "My place will be good for this neighborhood." he says. "Right now you can't walk across the street without someone trying to sell you heroin, a reefer or a hot watch. But we're going to have good clean-living kids coming in here to train, and it won't take long for the crumbs to get the message that they're not wanted around here. Someday Times Square is going to be beautiful again."
On one of the gym walls is a sign that said NO SMOKEING. until somebody with a diploma smudged out the E and reduced the charm of the place by a vowel. Across the room is another sign that reads: RUBDOWN—SEE VICTOR. RATES REASONABLE. THE BIGGER THE BODY THE MORE YOU PAY. The air is as breathable as New York air ever gets, and the floors are swept clean.
The late-afternoon and early-evening hours are the busiest for most boxing gyms, and at 5 p.m. there are perhaps two dozen fighters in Glenn's. The air is loud with the thump of gloved fists pounding the heavy bags, the relentless chattering of the speed bags and the bob whistle of jump ropes as they spin above the linoleum floor. A bell rings every third and fourth minute, signaling the end and beginning of simulated rounds, and fighters respond to the round-opening bells with violent explosions of air from their nostrils as they commence shadow-boxing.
Near the ring, where two Puerto Rican fighters are sparring, 83-year-old George Albert is taping old boxing photographs to the wall. Albert has been around boxing for 70 years and is known to his juniors—which is practically everybody—as Pop. It is an article of faith in boxing that any gym worth its smelling salts must have a little old man named Pop shuffling around. Gives the place atmosphere. If an elderly guy doesn't drift in off the street under his own steam, you go out and hire one.
"We're gonna be up to our rear ends in pictures," Pop says, wedging a John Garfield between a Willie Pep and a Henry Armstrong. "I gotta be careful I don't get no bums up here, even though some people, who shall go nameless, don't care who they've got hanging from their walls. Jimmy says most of the kids who come in here to work out don't know who most of the old fighters were anyway. But I say a gym needs photos like these. To this day I still get a thrill when I walk into a joint with a picture of Carmen Basilio on the wall. What a great fighter that guy was."
Two fighters who rarely miss a day in the gym are Irish Paddy Dolan and Rocky Orengo, both lightweights and both trained and managed by Glenn. Dolan is 22 and drives a truck for a beer distributor. With hard work and some luck, he could be a contender for the lightweight championship in three years. Rocky is 33 and unemployed. Boxing is the only occupation he has ever had, and he believes he can still win the title. Though the careers of these two fighters seem to be headed in opposite directions, it is the boxers' common purpose that indicates what fight gyms and boxing clubs are all about.
Dolan has gained a sizable following in New York's Irish community. During one of his most recent bouts, a member of Dolan's clamorous retinue leaped to his feet and implored his fighter to "show 'im you've walked on green grass, Paddy me boy." Dolan, naturally, has encouraged this identification with the Emerald Isle by wearing green trunks and gloves in the ring and by driving a customized green van out of it. Ironically, not only has Irish Paddy Dolan never trod on the ould sod, but his mother is Italian. Dolan, of course, did not invent the practice of putting his roots where they would do him most good. "I'm just lucky my parents didn't decide to name me Pasquale or something like that," says Dolan.
Rocky Orengo started boxing at smokers in his native San Juan when he was 12 years old. He has fought professionally for 22 years, living on short-money purses from which he always deducts a share to send to his six children in Puerto Rico and their mother, from whom he is divorced. The 5'4" Orengo has been mainly a professional opponent—someone who puts up a good, workmanlike struggle before getting knocked down. In spite of that, he has never abandoned hope that he'll be a champ.
"I love the people," Orengo says. "Sometimes I love the people too much for my own good. Once I lose a fight I should win because the kid I am fighting, well, he is only 19, and I don't want to hurt his career. That is love. Still, I should be a better fighter than I am now. I lose many fights because I am drinking too much, and I don't train hard. But I don't lose no more. I have a bad record, but I am working very hard now every day in the gym, and I believe in God. Every night I pray. In two years I will be champion. I am very sure of this."
Just then the lights in the gym blink off, and for a long moment the room is illuminated only by the eerie glow of Times Square. Presently someone shouts that it is quitting time, and the lights flicker back on. Orengo looks disappointed but heads wearily for the showers. In boxing, you learn early to accept this most fundamental precept: when the lights go out, it is quitting time.