August 23, 2010 / 1:56 PM / 9 years ago

Legendary boxing gym goes the distance

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - The folks at Gleason’s Gym like to say that boxing is the art of not getting hit.

With its down-at-the-heels decor, Gleason’s looks like it’s taken a punch or two. But focus and fancy footwork have kept this oldest active boxing gym in the United States firmly in the ring since 1937.

“I’m a specialist. We’re a boxing gym. That’s what we do,” said Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s, located in Brooklyn, New York. “Woman or businessman we’ll train you in the sport of boxing, prepare you physically and mentally for a 12-round fight.”

Although the gym has retained its rough and tumble feel one of the biggest changes in the past few decades has been the arrival of white collar clientele.

Businessmen discovered Gleason’s in the late 1970s, so in 1988 the gym set up the first white collar boxing match: between an English professor and a veterinarian.

Women showed up in the 80s and were welcomed. Today 50 percent of Silverglade’s clients are businessmen and women.

“Women train and sweat and get a good workout. If they want to look good, they go to Chelsea Piers,” he said, referring to the trendy Manhattan fitness complex.

“If they just want to work out they come here.”

These days the biggest single group at Gleason’s, aside from fighters, is lawyers and judges.

“It’s one of the last melting pots,” he said. “You don’t know if the person to your right is a millionaire from Wall Street or a kid from the projects.”

But no one who trains there should expect to be pampered.

“Walk up our steps and first thing you’ll notice is the smell,” said Silverglade. “There’s no air conditioning. That’s the aroma of working out.”

Muhammad Ali and Twyla Tharp are among the many who have savored that scent over the years. Middleweight Jake LaMotta is one of 132 world champions who trained there, as did Robert DeNiro when he played LaMotta in “Raging Bull.”

Hilary Swank used Gleason’s to shape up for her Oscar-winning role in “Million-Dollar Baby.”

Gleason’s glories in its appearance of decrepitude. To Silverglade, it’s not neglect, it’s ambiance, and a juicy source of revenue.

“The look of the place is a money maker,” Silverglade said.

Gleason’s blood-red walls and concrete floors are regularly rented for fashion shoots and movie locations.

“We keep the paint chipping off the walls because the fashion people like the contrast of a pretty woman in good clothing against a boxing gym,” he said.

Even the taped and rusty dumbbells are in demand.

“That rust and tape makes a lot of money for me,” he added.

When the neighborhood went from grungy to gentrified, Silverglade rolled with the punches. He put on chamber music concerts and art festivals, alongside the amateur boxing matches.

“There have been oboes and French horns, that kind of music. During the neighborhood art festival, artists are invited to display their work here as long as it has something to do with boxing.”

Jihad Abdul-Aziz has been a trainer at Gleason’s for three years. The former Golden Gloves champion explained that while it takes time to learn the proper punches, how to move around, jump rope, boxing is one of the most intense workouts there is.

“You’ll definitely get in shape,” he said. But like most boxers, he thinks the real payoff is mental.

“Mentally it will improve your life. You’ll want it each and every day,” he said. “It’s a hunger.”

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