Gleason's Gym remains a New York shrine

By Steve Ginsburg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One glance into Gleason's Gym reveals a snapshot that recalls the glory days of boxing, a time when the Sweet Science ruled the sporting landscape and New York was the center of its universe.

In one ring, a lithe brawler with sweat spraying the canvas is practicing a left jab and right hook. In another ring, a trainer barks instructions to his sparring protege.

Over in the corner, someone is using a skipping rope. Nearby, a woman is learning how to punch the speed bag. The place smells of sweat, an odor of determination.

The raw feel of the gym, in an atmosphere where ambition and achievement intersect, harkens back to the days when the sport was a radio mainstay and the National Football League (NFL) was a fledgling endeavor with near-empty stadiums.

"We've done 26 full-length movies here, and four of them won Academy Awards," said gym owner Bruce Silverglade, who gave up a lucrative management career at Sears Roebuck in 1982 to buy into Gleason's and satisfy his passion for boxing.

"We've done at least 100 documentaries. It's crazy."

Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran and Jake LaMotta are just a sample of the champions who have trained at Gleason's. Movie stars such as Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) and Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) learned how to box there.

DRUG DEALERS

Although its current home in Brooklyn is the gym's third New York location, the atmosphere has hardly changed. For boxing addicts, this is their shrine, their Yankee Stadium.

"Sammy 'the Bull' Gravano trained here; John Gotti trained here," said the 63-year-old Silverglade, citing two big names from the world of organized crime. "We've had drug dealers in here.

"Billionaires, like (Hank) Greenberg from AIG, train here. The publisher with the U.S. rights to Harry Potter trains here. They train here in the same ring next to the kids from the projects that have no money.

"If you look out there right now, you don't know who's a fighter, who's a businessperson or who are some of the mentally handicapped kids that come in here. Everyone gets along."

Gleason's is located in what has recently become a trendy waterfront stretch of boutiques and restaurants underneath the Manhattan Bridge. The gym, while lacking the polish of its artsy neighbors, has its share of worshippers.

"Almost every day someone comes in from somewhere around the world and wants to talk to me about Gleason's Gym," Silverglade said, as a film crew from Europe began working on a documentary.

"We're open seven days a week from five in the morning until 10 at night and almost every hour I'm open I have a photographer shooting something."

PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS

He said former U.S. presidential hopefuls John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Dick Gephardt had all used the gym, which moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan in 1985, for fund-raising events.

"We've had weddings in here, we've had bar mitzvahs in here," Silverglade said. "We've had any kind of corporate party you can think of. Just about every magazine has shot in here.

"Rolling Stone for example, when they do an interview, will often want to do it at Gleason's Gym. They're not boxers but they like the atmosphere, the macho part of being here."

LaMotta, the former middleweight champion, recalls learning his craft at Gleason's.

"I fought hundreds and hundreds of rounds in Gleason's Gym and that's where I really developed," he told Reuters in a recent interview. "I was the only main event, the main fighter that was training there, then they all started to come there."

Silverglade said that despite a perception that boxing was in decline, the gym remained popular, whether for those seeking to become a world champion or those just working off extra weight.

About 40 percent of the gym membership are fighters, while the majority of the rest are white-collar workers trying to get in shape. More than half of the gym-goers are women and 67 nationalities were represented in November.

"I have kids as young as six come in here," said Silverglade. "My oldest is 85. I have Palestinians train with Israelis in the same ring. I have police officers train right next to people they arrested not long ago.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)