Issue No. 3 - Winter 2017-18
I. LOOK INTO THE BLACK PUNCHING BAG.
On Saturdays Gleason’s is its own planet colored in red and black. The same colors of a boxelder bug, pests that congregate in your home but never do any actual damage. The stark colors of damage on human skin: blood and bruises. The branded colors of a huge open space in Brooklyn many may perceive as a training grounds for the makings of damage, but in the deepest of realities, a healing center and haven from the damage that’s been done to us all. Look into the black punching bag and you’ll find the darkness you discovered under your bed at five years old, the long road ahead on an empty highway in the middle of the night, the back wall of your eyelids when you close them to sleep or just for a short break from the day. You’ll find a still color of black that leads you always and completely back to yourself.
At Gleason’s you can rid yourself of the life traumas that have quietly hiked their way into your subconscious by simply balling them up in your fist and flying it into the air with a graceful and sincere fuck you flare that comets everything that has ever hurt you into a black punching bag.
I started training to learn how to fight, my own internal combate de mujeres. A battle between myself and my past for the promise of the most prestigious prize any one of us can win: a future. A future where I am guaranteed to feel stronger than my previous self, where I’m armored for unexpected battles and where I feel confident enough mentally and physically to overcome failure. No big deal.
I grew up as a kid oftentimes feeling like I was on the outside of the ring looking in. I knew deep down that if I was ever going to make it anywhere worthwhile I’d have to scrap. Boxing is a way to counter my own unworthiness. It’s inevitable that I will face pain, obstacles, failures, and even death. I just want to live inside the skin of a fighter when I do. If I can keep swinging in the ring, I can keep swinging in my head and in my heart.
I also believe that if I can train my myself to push through pain and to wield pain, I can get so close to understanding it that I can beat it. Every day. For the rest of my life. For myself. And for the ones I love.
A Milky Way of life swirls around us. The rings are filled with people sparring and some participating in real fights that count. These fights count because the winner is fighting their way to another level. Or they just count because everyone is watching. The faces alongside the ring animate with oohs and aahs. Instead of numbers, people’s reactions become the scoreboard. If people’s eyes are covered you’re winning big or losing bad, depending on what side of the gloves you’re behind.
A line of small kids in training run past me, all smiling in my direction. A little girl wearing a pink tutu swerves in and out of tall, sweaty, muscular men emitting a century’s worth of testosterone. People are running on treadmills looking outside the window, jumping rope in front of the mirror, doing push-ups or grabbing a snack from the store in the back.
Even if you’re not boxing, you just want to be there ––– in the center of a billowing rotation of beautiful souls aspiring for something. The walls are covered with photos of legendary fighters who have trained at Gleason’s and still visit today. It’s also covered with names of local fighters and marquees boasting their success.
Some days the gym will smell like a gamy fat man has you in a headlock. It’s a scent and energy you may initially be thrown off by, but you’ll eventually crave it inside of your office midday or during a conversation with someone who’s showing off their fidget spinner. In a sedentary world of cubicles, drab conversations, Facebook, Seamless, and “Netflix and chill,” it’s a soothing oasis of high adrenaline and grit.
I chose Gleason’s because it’s Gleason’s. It’s the place. The only place. The Cathedral of Boxing. Ali trained there for Allah’s sake. I didn’t want to train at one of the trendy boxing gyms that just popped up in SoHo, selling hip, designed t-shirts to models who go there to lose a few pounds and look cool wearing hand wraps. I wanted to learn how to fight, for real. And maybe even grow a seventh ab. After I grow six. I wanted to be around the brave who stepped into the real ring under the real bright lights. I wasn’t going to a trainer who learned about boxing out of a book while drinking a macchiato at Stumptown Coffee.
Everyone at Gleason’s is from all over the world, including the European tourists who come by just to walk through the world famous gym. When they walk by me sparring with my trainer Raul, I feel like a George Bellows painting on display at the Met. Suddenly I find myself performing for them, and my arms become a stream of colored paint splashing into the sweaty air.
Week One and Two of Training.
One mile run. Jump rope. Left jab. Right cross. Combinations.
After I finish jump roping, my trainer Raul puts on my hand wraps. As I breathe in and out, I watch him thread the wrap in-between my fingers. It’s a peaceful act and calms me down. I wonder if this is what it feels like to knit. But in this case, Raul is knitting me. After that he straps on my gloves and straps on his mitts. This is the first time I punch into mitts Raul is wearing on his hands. I’m shocked at how quickly my arms get tired but I love the feeling of making contact.
II. DAVID LAWRENCE: “COME ON FUCK FACE, LET’S FIGHT.”
“Boxing is poetic. What’s poetic is the pain. If you get hurt, that’s poetic. It puts you in touch with your inner core sadness and unhappiness with the world. It makes you content in some sort of way. Tennis is not poetic but it’s a great sport. Skiing may be a little because you’re flying down hills. But boxing makes you squeeze up yourself into a little ball. It’s kind’ve nice I think,” says David Lawrence, a seventy-year-old trainer at Gleason’s Gym.
David hasn’t been a trainer his whole life. Before this, he described himself as a “white Jewish finance guy.” He’s still white and Jewish, but he’s no longer a finance guy. Years ago, he was a multimillionaire living on Seventy-Second Street and Madison Ave and a ranked tennis player and skier in the thirty-five and over division who started getting bored with both sports.
“No white collar people were boxing in those days but I heard of someone getting started so I said maybe I’ll try this. I went to Gleason’s Gym, which was in Manhattan at that time, tried it and never left. And that was thirty-five years ago,” David says.
As I sit in David’s office, he sifts through copies of books he’s written, including poetry books and a memoir, The King of White-Collar Boxing, which also includes a few of his poems.
David started White Collar Boxing, a division of the sport for professionals over thirty who want to box. The amateur commission licensed it and now they have it as an official category. As we chat in his office, his walls covered with all things David, he points to a magazine cover clipping that says, “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Dentist.” It’s a Time Out Magazine article about him fighting a dentist.
David started fighting in his early thirties and turned pro at forty-four, which is completely unheard of. He was the oldest guy in history to go pro. He had six pro fights and used to bus in friends from New York City to sit ringside and watch him fight in Atlantic City. People wanted to fight him because he was a novelty. Even world champions were on his cards.
Then “Mama said Knock You Out,” and he took her advice. David became a rapper in his forties. When he entered the ring, they would play his songs “I’ve Got a Hard On Attitude” and “Master Plan” under his rapper name A.D. He was the number one rapper on the Billboard Top 100 for one month in the Midwest, against Old Dirty Bastard, Cypress Hill, and Fat Joe.
“I was pretty bad ass considering I was a fortyish, Jewish, white, PhD in literature,” he says. Then after his ascension in rap and boxing, David went to jail for tax evasion. “I should’ve gone in for murder. That would’ve been more exciting. I wouldn’t be a little fucking tax evader.”
When David was in jail, no one wanted to fight him. Not only because it would add years to their sentence but also because they loved him. “I walked into jail. Ten black guys came over to me and said, ‘The “Renegade Jew” is in the house.’ They knew my raps and half the guys had seen me knock someone out on TV. I was very popular. Here I am, this white dude, rich and literate and I’m this big hit in jail. I was glad I had done all those other things so no one wanted to beat me up.”
After David got out of jail he tried fighting pro again but he was too old so he started training while doing some modeling gigs and acting. Somehow, he wasn’t too old for that. I asked him what he liked about boxing and what he thought it did for the mind. “I think it adds a feeling of confidence. You can take care of yourself. You can get away from this wimpy, feminized world where men are walking around offices in their suits and everything. You can say ‘Come on fuck face, let’s fight.’ So you revert to the primitive. It’s kind of nice to be able to feel like a brutal Neanderthal type of man. Boxing changed my life because it made me feel stronger. More self-confident. More of a man. Ever since feminism in the sixties, it felt like you have to be ashamed to be a man, but with boxing, it’s not like that. I feel good to be a man.”
Week Three and Four of Training.
Left and right hook. Left and right uppercut. Combinations of each.
I get into the ring for the first time with Raul. I last only two rounds and end up hanging over the rope, out of breath, done for, cooked. It feels like heaven.
I asked David what he thought about women boxing. “When I first started there were no women in boxing. At first when one or two came in, I thought it was a little strange. I like women boxing. Now they’ve become a fixture. I think forty percent of the gym is women boxing now. It’s good.”
A lot of men don’t like watching women fight. It makes them cringe. When I hear men say that, I immediately feel protected and cared for. But when I think about it more, I get confused and almost angry. I start thinking about the age-old question, why can’t we do what they do? I’ve heard men say women’s basketball is boring. Women don’t belong playing football. And a women’s hockey team is only cool when it’s on the Winter Olympics. But then, on a random day, I walked past two women sparring in one of the rings at Gleason’s and I cringed for a second.
And this happened on the same day that I, a woman, was in the ring sparring with my trainer. As I stand and watch, I slowly grow to cheer them on, slowly adapting, slowly changing my view from seeing them as delicate precious flowers to seeing them as strong warriors whose faces will heal after this, whose feet will walk more confidently on the way home, whose hearts have seen and sought a different life experience than most women, and whose fists have danced in an admirable act of exquisite athleticism.
III. ROBERT GAGLIARDI: THE FIGHTING IRISH.
Gleason’s is the oldest boxing gym in the United States. It opened in 1937. The original owner, Robert Gagliardi, started the gym in an Irish section of the Bronx. At that time, the Irish and the Italians didn’t get along, despite the fact they both had Catholicism in common. So instead of calling it Gagliardi’s, Robert called it Gleason’s so it would sound Irish. Very soon after the gym opened, Robert legally changed his name to Bobby Gleason, and it became Bobby Gleason’s Gym.
Sometimes your parents name you. Other times a wave of migration from an Emerald Isle across the sea does. The term “Fighting Irish” was not coined at Gleason’s but you could say the name of Gleason’s was coined because of them.
The gym was in the Bronx at 434 Westchester Avenue near 149th Street and Third Avenue from 1937 to 1974 until the building was torn down for a housing project. It moved to Thirtieth Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan from 1974-85. In 1985, Gleason’s moved to Dumbo where it’s been for thirty-two years. First it was located at 77 Front Street and now it is located at 130 Water Street.
Week Five and Six of Training.
Leg lifts. Squats. Planks. Sparring in the ring. Footwork. Defense. Blocking. Rolling. Slipping.
Slipping is considered one of the four basic defensive strategies in boxing along with holding, blocking, and clinching. Slipping allows you to avoid a punch without having to sacrifice an arm for defense. It looks slick as hell when you pull it off and, more importantly, it saves you from getting socked.
IV. BRUCE SILVERGLADE: UNCONDITIONAL GLOVE.
“We were the center of attention on Thirtieth Street and the center of security. Back then people relied on the stability and the people of Gleason’s to keep the neighborhood safe,” says Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade. After Bobby Gleason passed away, Ira Becker bought the gym. Bruce Silverglade partnered up with Ira as co-owner in 1984.
“When we relocated to DUMBO, it wasn’t called that back then. There weren’t any streets. No sidewalks, no businesses, nobody living here. That’s why we came here because the rent was very affordable. The neighborhood has built up in this area. Now DUMBO is one of the wealthiest neighborhood in New York City, and Gleason’s is the main part of it. We were centrally located here for a number of years. When Hurricane Sandy came and this area was flooded, but because Gleason’s is on the second floor, it wasn’t, so we invited neighbors to come to get warm and use electricity. We had lights and heat when most places in the area did not,” says Silverglade.
“Boxing is a popular sport,” he continues. “People love watching fights. When you’re growing up there’s a fight in the schoolyard, everybody is circled around, screaming, having a good time. When there’s a Mayweather fight or Pacquiao, people watch it. However, it’s not for the masses to train and to compete. We have a little over twelve hundred members, seventeen or eighteen million people living in this metropolitan area. Miniscule compared to the major population.”
As I sit in Silverglade’s office he tells me more about what Gleason’s does for people. He’s had people come in with stage four cancer. Through their mental ability and the type of training they’ve had at Gleason’s, their cancer has gone into remission. I believe him because of what training has done for me and the positive energy I always feel in the place. I start to realize I’ve discovered a special world that I’ve needed for so long. A world everyone may need. And it’s right here, underneath a bridge in Brooklyn, hiding in plain sight.
Week Seven and Eight of Training.
One mile run. Left and right uppercut. Arm cables.
In the ring again. Asked for it. Made it more rounds. Stamina is improving. Punches are hitting harder. I’m starting to believe I can knock someone into next week.
Even if you don’t make it to Gleason’s as an adult seeking spirituality, great arms, and unmatched stamina, your mom can always call in a session for you. Often times they call Gleason’s about their kids being bullied to see if they can help them learn how to fight. I asked Silverglade how he responds to these calls.
“We can help,” he says, “without teaching them how to be fighters. We don’t teach them to go and punch the bully. We teach them to have self-confidence. And once they have that, bullies leave them alone. Boxing training is more mental than it is physical. We teach kids to overcome fear, to be focused and concentrated, so in school they can use their concentration and focus to do much better. Even when adults train, they become much better lawyers, doctors, or whatever profession they’re in, they get better, stronger. Housewives are better able to control their home environment. They feel better about themselves too.”
I realized at this moment, no matter who you are, what you’re going through, or where you are in your life, boxing can help you, in a way no other sport like golf or basketball can. It teaches you to wield power from your heart and pump it straight into your hands. It teaches you to grab ahold of your life and love yourself. If I could name this feeling, it would have to be “unconditional glove.”
“The sport attracts certain individuals and the individuals are very unique. It’s a sport of a single person. When you compete it’s only you, you’re there all by yourself. You have to have a certain character. A certain makeup. It’s a very unique person,” says Silverglade. “They’re leaders. And these individuals like to compete. So people like to come to the gym to pal around and train with these people. They’re the type of characters certain people are interested in being around.”
V. RAUL FRANK: “I REMEMBER SEEING THE LOOK ON MY MOTHER’S FACE BEFORE AND AFTER THE FIGHT.”
My trainer is Raul Frank, originally from Guyana, South America. He started fighting at seven years old. He trained every day after school. His gym bag would be packed and ready to go five days a week. “My pops is a boxer. One day I went to one of his fights and he lost the fight. And as I was looking at the disappointment in my mom and brother’s faces, I decided I wanted to fight then and put joy on their face and make them happy,” says Frank.
You don’t have to get knocked out at Gleason’s to see stars. Frank was number one in the world for a year and a half. He won the United States Boxing Association (USBA) Championship and the Latin American title as a welterweight at 147 lbs. After that, his dream was to become a world champion in a different weight class. The most exciting time in his career was preparing for the 1984 Olympics. He trained with his brother in Guyana, and they won the Olympic trials. At eighteen years old, Frank’s brother, Steve Frank, made it to the Olympics. At thirteen, Raul Frank qualified but they told him he was too young to go.
Frank grew up with six brothers and two sisters. His dad put him, his brother Steve, and his brother Ronson together to box. “That’s what helped me to get better as an amateur and professional boxer, the four of us boxing together.”
Frank says his youngest sister sparred with them occasionally but for the most part his sisters didn’t box because at that time boxing wasn’t so popular for women. He believes his younger sister would’ve been an amazing fighter. The fight he was most nervous about during his career was against Vernon Forrest for the International Boxing Federation (IBF) Championship in 2000.
“What made me nervous was the training that I got wasn’t up to where I wanted to be. I wasn’t satisfied with the techniques my trainers were teaching me to beat a person like Vernon Forrest and the kind of fighter he is. The first fight we had a head butt during the third round. No contest. Second fight we went twelve rounds. But of course, Vernon had the best trainers in the game at that time. And I had the trainers that were trying to make a name for themselves. So it was the trainers who won the fight, not Forrest beating me. And God rest his soul because he died not too long ago.”
Raul had his first fight at nine years old. “My mother and everyone showed up. My mother was so scared. It was an exciting event. I knocked the guy out in the first round. I remember seeing the look on my mother’s face before and after the fight. She was amazed by the strength that I showed and the coordination and my technique.”
In Guyana, boxing is one of the leading sports besides cricket and soccer. “Boxing kept me out of trouble,” says Frank. “I’m always dedicated. I take that with me in life after boxing. I’m always focused on what I have to do. Due to boxing, I was able to put my son through college and now he’s a Fulbright grad.”
Raul has been training at Gleason’s since 1989. And I’ve been lucky enough to train with him for about six months. Frank says, “I went from training here to being a trainer. I love boxing and that’s the reason I’m still in the game today. I love the sport. I want to try to help some kid who has the potential and doesn’t have anyone to back him up. I have a few kids I train now that have so much potential but it’s up to them to train and to become a professional fighter and champion.”
Raul knows I’m not looking to fight a world champion but he is encouraging me to fight a worldwide enemy: cancer. There’s a company called Haymakers for Hope that invites ordinary people to fight cancer every year by fighting in the ring. Each person will train like a real fighter up until the big match while raising money for the cause from sponsors. I haven’t made a decision yet but it could be an exciting goal to train for.
“My main thing was during my career, after I had my son, was to put him through a private school, make a better life for him. I grew up rough, not the poor side of Guyana but I lived at a certain level. My father struggled to keep us at a certain level. I wanted to do well for my son, and I’m proud of myself because he made it through school. He’s very gifted. I’m proud of myself because I put a lot of time into him. He was always an above-level student.”
Since Raul’s been at Gleason’s he’s seen all of the World’s Champions visit at one point or another: Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Frederick Bo, Mayweather, and even wrestlers like John Cena. But the ultimate visitor was Muhammad Ali. Frank said people lined up when Ali walked into Gleason’s. It was an act of respect and admiration he had never seen for any other visitor before. I imagine that’s how Ali was received everywhere he went, especially in his later years. While Ali is the greatest, Raul’s favorite boxer is Roberto Duran.
“He was one of the leading World Title Champions. Number one in the world when it comes to being the most precise. The technique to knock someone out. And everything he’s done in and outside of the ring.” Raul says. “The best fighters are from the hood because they’re hungry. It’s completely different training in the gym versus being on stage. When the lights come on, it really shows you who they are.”
Boxing used to draw people in because it would give them a better life when they had no other options. Now you’ve got these different white collar people coming in. You’ve got women. You’ve got all walks of life searching for an alternative to spin class, crossFit, and trampoline yoga or whatever else the workout trends are these days.
It reminds me of the beginning of the gentrification of Brooklyn or a kid from the Upper East Side buying a Coogi sweater on Amazon after seeing Biggie wear one. But the sport isn’t that infiltrated yet ––– at least at Gleason’s. Like Bruce said, compared to the population of the city, his membership number is not overwhelmingly high. Gleason’s still remains a little hidden from everyone. Except European tourists, but those guys find everything.
Frank also believes there’s nothing that beats a good boxing workout. “A lot of people I see, with different mental issues, work out and stay for years and I’m totally surprised. It cures issues like depression and everything.”
Raul has taught me a lot as a trainer and as a friend, including how to punch and slip pretty well. But the thing I appreciate him teaching me most is how to keep going.
VI. JOHN DOUGLAS: “PEOPLE SAY THE FIRST FACE THEY SEE WHEN THEY GO TO BED AT NIGHT IS ME.”
When I first saw John Douglas, he came walking towards me with a wide, friendly smile, some of his teeth glittering with gold. He asked me how I was doing and I liked him immediately. All these guys are so incredibly cool, with an energy and a wisdom that’s hard to slip.
John was drawn to boxing when he was watching the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He was eighteen years old, living in Guyana, and thought to himself, “Wow, I’d love to go.” He had never boxed a day in his life.
That Sunday, he went to church, and told his priest that he was going to the Olympics. He remembers his priest telling him that he had what it takes to make it happen, so he went and joined a boxing gym and told all the national champions training alongside him, “I’m going to the Olympics!” And they said, “You ever box before?” He said no and they looked at him and said he was crazy. So he dedicated himself for four years.
“My country picked eleven of us and sent us to the Olympic Box Off in Argentina. Ten lost and I won. Nobody believed me. Nobody. It was faith. I believed. My priest said I was going and I never doubted it,” says Douglas.
“I liked the people cheering. The opening ceremony when you come out with your country’s flag. I was an ambassador walking with the flag of Guyana at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. My dream came true in only four years. I started at nineteen. People said that’s late for boxing but it wasn’t late for me.”
John is also an amazing artist who designed his own business card with a cartoon caricature of himself. On some days he wears furry pink high tops that look like bunny slippers from afar. I like those days.
“People come to me depressed. In five weeks, they’re smiling. They say the first face they see when they go to bed at night is me. People come here when their wife has died. I say the creator made you meet me for a reason. There’s someone out there special for you. And they find them. They also say, ‘I trained with you for one day and now I go to work smiling.’”
Week Eleven and Twelve of Training.
Uphill walk on treadmill. Side running on treadmill. Backwards running on treadmill. Sparring.
Raul has me doing intense cardio these days. The backwards running on a treadmill can scare you initially because you feel like one wrong move and you’ll fall backwards. Once I paced myself, got the rhythm down and stayed balanced.
VII. DARYL PIERRE: “IF YOU RELAX EVERYTHING WILL COME TO YOU, JUST LIKE IT’S SUPPOSED TO, AND YOU’LL GET IT.”
“Everybody should know how to box because it helps with self defense,” says trainer Daryl Pierre, who has been training boxers for thirty years. “Not that everybody who gets in the ring is going to be a boxer. But no one should be a victim out in the street. When you know how to defend yourself and handle yourself, you feel better about yourself. You don’t have to give up your money just because someone says give me all your money. I think everybody should learn how to box. And I’ve always thought that I could teach anybody how to box. And I’ve done a good job.”
Daryl says when Bruce Silverglade started amateur boxing, it went big. Especially with the help of other organizations that kept kids in the game. “It helped people stay out of trouble, off the streets, a way to make money, a way out of the ghetto. Take people like Mike Tyson who came out of Brooklyn. He was a hoodlum who became a boxer. And those stories inspire other people to do that, who don’t have anything in their life. They want to do something, they can’t play basketball or baseball to make money. It influenced a lot of kids in other burroughs too. They all came to Brooklyn to box because Gleason’s was the biggest gym. All the boxers that have ever boxed come here. People just want to see it. Gleason’s is known all around the world. Tyson was at Gleason’s. Ali was at Gleason’s. It’s just an inspiring place.”
Daryl told me boxing taught him how to deal with his emotions. How to calm down, relax, and not let people get the best of you. “When you blow it, you lose it,” he says. “Once you learn how to box, you learn how not to box. You learn how to control your temper and emotions. You can talk things out instead of fighting things out. That’s what I get my clients to do. Work on their emotions and make better decisions in life. I get people to think. Not just use their hands or use their feet. I get them to use their head. Boxing is a lot like life. You have to make decisions in that ring just like you have to make in the world. And you want to make the right ones. If you relax then everything will come to you, just like it’s supposed to, and you’ll get it.”