The History and Success
of Gleason’s Gym
by Bruce Silverglade, Owner
Peter Robert Gagliardi, a flyweight turned bantamweight, changed his name to Bobby Gleason in order to appeal to the predominantly Irish New York fight crowd of the era and opened the doors to the gym in 1937. Dues were two dollars a month, and the times were tough. Bobby could not meet his expenses, including the $50 per month rent, so he hacked a cab for 10 or 12 hours a night.
Things eased up after the depression. Gleason’s flourished along with boxing in the 40’s and 50’s, but the 60’s took their toll. The sport declined and two of its temples – Stillman’s Gym and the Old Garden – disappeared. That left Gleason’s as the last remnant of boxing’s “Golden Age” in New York City.
The gym was located in the “Hub” district of the lower Bronx at 434 Westchester Avenue, near 149th Street and 3rd Avenue. Fighters from the East, West, and the World made it to the double door leading you up the one flight of stairs and into another world that was not seen by very many fans. The gym was the largest in the city. It looked like an old coal cellar. It needed a paint job and the wooden floors might have been taken from the Mayflower. A blind man with a sense of smell would have known what went on there. The gym became eerily quiet when the next bell rang. Men who, a second before, had been brutalizing heavy bags, suddenly began walking around like zombies. This lasted for one minute, until the next bell rang, when they resumed their frenzied pace.
The “full line of equipment” at Bobby’s consisted of four heavy bags, six racks to hang speed bags (bring your own) lots of exercising space with mirrors, clean showers and locker rooms, row upon row of spectator’s viewing seats close to a full sized ring located in the center of the room. The hygienic facilities were two showers and a toilet. The latter was an overhead waterbox facility. The showers had weather problems. In the winter you could usually get enough water through the old pipes to take a shower. But in the summer, the neighborhood kids opened the fire hydrants to cool off and the pressure dropped, the water did not make it up to the second floor. Character is built on adversity.
A sign hung on the office wall at the top of the stairs. It read “Your dues are due today. If they have not been paid please do so and save yourself the embarrassment of being asked. Thank you. The Management.”
Bobby Gleason was not as bad as he made himself out to be. He had been known to let guys slide for months if they did not have the money. He was a feisty, well-dressed, principled man with enormous energy, and a sense of humor.
Moving through the gym you came to several huge 8 foot windows that looked out onto Westchester Avenue. There another sign hung on the wall. In bold red letters it read: “No smoking or spitting on the floor.”
On a normal busy afternoon the gym was packed. All the punching bags were in motion, and every inch of floor space was used for shadow boxing or skipping rope. There was at least an hour and a half wait for the ring (which went on a first come, first serve basis).
The trainers, Patty Colovito, Freddie Brown, Chickie Ferrara and Charlie Galeta, to name a few, were there from morning until night six days a week. Back then a trainer could make a good living from boxing. That’s when there were a lot of clubs running and fighters could get all the work they wanted.
The gym grew in stature as local heroes such as Jake (The Bronx Bull) LaMotta, Mike Belloise, Phil Terranova and Jimmy Carter punched their way through the rankings to win world titles.
Bobby Gleason managed Phil Terranova and on August 16, 1943, Terranova won the NBA Featherweight Title in New Orleans by knocking out Jackie Callura in the eighth round.
Mike Belloise had already won the World Featherweight Title and Jake LaMotta and Ray Robinson had gone the distance in Madison Square Garden (Robinson W10 LaMotta) on October 2, 1942. Jimmy Carter , first fighting as a featherweight, drew with Sandy Saddler in Washington, D.C. in 1947. Then on May 25, 1951 in New York, Carter KO’d Ike Williams in the 14th round. By then, Gleason’s Gym was on fire, as it’s reputation for turning out top-ranked contenders and champions spread.
Two years earlier on June 16, 1949, LaMotta stopped Marcel Cerdan in Detroit’s Briggs Stadium to win the World Middleweight Title.
Yet another Gleason’s Gym trained boxer, Carlos Ortiz, was suddenly a factor in the fight game and on June 12, 1959, he KO’d Kenny Lane in New York to win the World Junior Welterweight Title.
Then came Benny (Kid) Paret. At age 23, he won the World Welterweight Title with a unanimous decision over Don Jordan on May 27, 1960, in Las Vegas. He had three fights with Emile Griffith, the last on April 3, 1962, ultimately lead to his death. Benny (Kid) Paret was a Gleason’s Gym fighter.
Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, trained for Sonny Liston the first time (February 25, 1964) in Gleason’s Gym. In one of the biggest upsets of the twentieth century, he won the World Heavyweight Title when the unpopular Liston failed to answer the bell for the seventh round.
Gleason’s Gym was not only a sweat shop, but also a movie set. Dozens of commercials and hundreds of still shoots were done at the original location. Sometimes a big production would force the gym to close for a day and it looked more like the back lot at MGM than a fight emporium. The advertising agency people could not believe that such a place still existed in the early 1970’s. They fell in love with the joint.
When Bobby Gleason built the gym, the Bronx neighborhood was made up of German, Irish and Italians. Across the street was the Royal Theater where stars like Sophie Tucker appeared when vaudeville was still alive. Down the street at the Central Theater you could see three movies and get a bar of candy for a dime. Reigning majestically over the whole area was the Bronx Opera House on 149th Street.
In 1974, and at age 82 Bobby Gleason pulled up his roots of 37 years and moved to Manhattan. The new gym at 252 W 30th Street was the first street level gym in New York city. It had an L-shaped mezzanine, plenty of rooms and a fresh paint job. Bobby ran the new gym as well as he did the old, and continued to have the best fight gym in New York.
The gym had a huge locker room and modern four head shower area in the basement. The first floor had two training rings, six heavy bags and several speed bag racks. There were separate rooms with mirrors for skipping rope and shadow boxing. The mezzanine held several offices, a conference room and a luncheonette. The place was always filled with spectators peering down at the boxers training below.
One of the biggest reasons for Gleason’s success is the presence of the sports top trainers. Two of the greatest handlers the sport has ever known, Whitey Bimstein and Freddy Brown moved with the gym from the Bronx to Manhattan. Other dedicated teacher-conditioners committed to making great fighters were Victor Valle, Mike Capriano, Bobby McQuiller, Rocky Davis and Sammy Morgan.
Jake LaMotta, is probably one of the most famous Gleason’s trained champions. Right up there with him is Roberto Duran. The Panamanian superman won three World Titles using Gleason’s Gym as his training base. He was trained by Ray Arcel and Freddy Brown. When Duran was in Gleason’s, so was the rest of New York. On occasion the street had to be blocked off to accommodate all his fans.
Some of the other World Champions who made Gleason’s their home away from home at the 30th Street location included Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Saoul Mamby, Wilfred Benitez, Pipino Cuevas, Billy Costello, Mike McCallum, Hector Camacho, Livingstone Bramble, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jose Luis Ramirez, Edwin Rosario, and Eusebio Pedroza. Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks,Thomas Hearns, Milton McCrory and Barry McGuigan were among those champions who trained at Gleason’s even though their base of operation was elsewhere.
When Gerry Cooney turned pro in 1977, he made Gleason’s his training home. “Gentleman Gerry” became very popular with the fighters and and his fan base was similar to Duran’s.
In February, 1981, Gleason’s was sold to New York businessman Ira Becker, a long-time friend of boxing and a staunch supporter of boxing safety and uniform rule regulations. Under his direction, Gleason’s membership tripled and under his strong leadership, the great tradition of Gleason’s remained complete.
The Manhattan location continued to attract the Hollywood script writers and the advertising agencies. Many full length movies such as Midnight Run, The 10 Count, Heart, Rage of Angles and Raging Bull were shot at the gym. Actors like Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes trained at the gym to prepare for their movie roles. Numerous sit coms, fashion shoots and even corporate parties took place at the gym.
WOMEN’S BOXING AT GLEASON’S GYM
Women have been a part of Gleason’s Gym since 1983. What started as a difficult project in trying to convince one of the gym’s original owners, Ira Becker, that he should consider allowing women to train in his gym, became somewhat easier when he was persuaded that a female’s money went into the Gleason’s bank account just as easily as a male’s. Ira allowed Bruce Silverglade to close the gym early two nights per week to allow the women to train. This was the only way to accommodate women in our Manhattan space; it had one shower and changing room. Upon the move to Brooklyn in 1987, the women’s program at Gleason’s Gym had proved so popular that they received their own locker rooms. We now train in excess of 400 ladies. These women have turned out to be just as good as the men. They train hard and are dedicated to the workout. When a woman comes into the gym, she has no preconditioned bad habits. She is open for training and instruction from the ground upwards. Men always think they know how to fight because they are men.
A large percentage of our female membership has no desire to compete on an amateur or professional level. Boxing training gives an incredible workout, even for those who never strike another and are never hit in return! During Your training at Gleason’s Gym you will use a combination of exercises to build cardio vascular fitness, strength, quickness and agility. Mental stimulation is provided by exposure to new techniques, which in turn, offer stress release, teach you how to overcome fatigue, and give you the exhilaration and toughness of combat. Boxers develop a lean low fat physique, not unlike a dancer or long distance runner. Famed dancer Twyla Tharp trained at Gleason’s Gym during her time on Broadway. Twyla choreographed much of her production based on what she learned in the ring. Other women have felt inspired in other ways by their experiences at Gleason’s Gym. Karyn Kusama, conceived the idea for her award winning movie, “Girlfight”, whilst training at the gym. The film’s star Michelle Rodriguez was trained by Gleason’s for her role. “Shadowboxers” a stylish documentary that spotlights famed professional fighter, Lucia Rijker, was directed and produced by Katya Bankowsky, one of Gleason’s premier female members. Kate Sekules, a British journalist, and also one of our ‘first ladies’, fought professionally and has had her memoir “The Boxer’s Heart: How I Learned to Love the Ring” published internationally, to great critical acclaim.