STILLMAN'S GYM: The Center of the Boxing Universe
Stillman's Gym is still magical to ring veterans -- rapidly vanishing -- but it's mostly a revered icon, like Jack Johnson or Boyle's Half-Acre, that ol' timers have read about in faded issues of Ring Magazine.
For me, Stillman's isn't like talking about Benny Leonard or Harry Greb, and taking it on faith. It's very real, as vivid now as when my dad first took me on a weekend just after World War 2 and before the return match with Louis and Conn.
Putting it in perspective, only three things mattered to a kid growing up in the Navy Yard section of Brooklyn in the '40s: winning a world title; fighting the main-go at The Garden and Stillman's Gym.
Every blue-collar neighborhood in New York was dotted with gyms. Every block had a fighter or a relative of a fighter. It was a sport that was accessible to us. And, sometimes one of our own rose up from the amateurs, got some big wins in local clubs and made it into the Garden, impressed in prelims and watched his name go up in lights as the headliner on the Garden marquee... like Billy Graham and Harold Green.
All we did on Friday nights was elbow each other out of the way to get closer to the radio to listen to the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports to hear the main event from the Garden. And if Rocky Graziano or Joe Louis rallied or won, you could hear the shouts echo in the streets from every open tenement window.
I knew that the big name fighters trained at Stillman's, but never imagined I'd ever get to go there. So, when my dad took me, it was like going to the circus for a kid still running around in corduroy knickers.
Once we were actually sitting in the gallery at Stillman's seeing the greats who were on fight posters tacked-up on every light pole and fence passing only an arm's length away doing floor exercises, warming up and sparring, it was sensory overload.
And while I tried to drink it in, Sandy Saddler and Paddy DeMarco play-fought with me. Bob Montgomery let me unlace his gloves; Beau Jack feinted punches at me. Most of those around us just wanted a glimpse up close of not only the fighters but anybody well known to tell their friends about.
The galleryites were larger than life: fight-greats, showbiz types glad-handing everybody, reporters talking to fighters and A-listers, 'n scary-looking guys like the ones that lounged outside the social club around the corner from me.
Willie Pep and Terry Young worked the crowd, breaking everybody up wisecracking about horses that were too slow or women that were too fast... I was hooked -- knew I had to train there some day.
On a frigid winter day in '48, to follow through on my promise to emulate Graziano 'n LaMotta, I cut school 'n took two trains and a bus to Stillman's.
Just under the faded sign over the gym doorway were 20 or 30 goombahs milling around a rugged young hopeful.
TRAINING HERE DAILY
BOXING INSTRUCTION see JACK CURLEY
(NO LITTERING ON SIDEWALK)
I had to navigate my way through, past the heavy iron door and up the steep, dimly lit stairs to Stillman's.
Stationed in the doorway to collect the 15-cent entrance fee was Jack Curley. He was late 50sh and world weary, with spectacles on the bridge of his nose - always in the gimlet eye of the gym's tyrant-owner, Lou Stillman, so that he could be sure nobody slipped by without paying.
I paid and asked Jack Curley if he could set me up with a trainer.
After appraising me like pawnbroker, he crooked a finger at a character the image of the Penguin in a Batman comic book.
"Izzy, see what the kid's got."
He musta been mid-40s, 'bout 5-7 - bulging wall-eyes, the drained pallor of a lifetime in airless gyms, and dark kinky-curly hair threatening to uncoil but bulldogged down and parted in the middle like a '20s bootlegger.
His nose was much too long for his face and pointy as a dart. He had no chin, no neck, was shaped like a pear and his stomach hiked up his trousers to his chest. He wore what must have been a white T-shirt at one time and 'n unbuttoned cardigan sweater with a towel thrown over his shoulder.
Rocking back on his heels, he shuffled over, chest out straight up and flatfooted; his shoes pointing outward like a Garment Center salesman. The only thing missing was the Penguin's umbrella.
He was my coach for the years I trained at Stillman's. His name was Izzy Blank, and he looked after me like a son.
Though Izzy never gained the notoriety of a Charley Goldman, Ray Arcel, Whitey Bimstein, and the like, he was respected and embraced by the fraternity and spared -- for the most part -- from Stillman's wrath
As good or bad as I ever got, Izzy never allowed me to forget what he thought unpardonable: As a Tony Curtis wannabe, I did what all the other kids did, I carried a condom in my wallet -- not that I had chance to use it-- but it was expected.
One day while changing, the rubber fell out of my wallet onto the floor and Izzy saw it. If I did anything after that that didn't live up to his expectation, he shrugged: "Sure! How can he fight? He's in the saddle!"
I had to do three times what anybody else did. If I so much as took a deep breathe: "The kid's in the saddle!"
Izzy Blank died...still unsung -- a funny, dear man that was my professor at the University of Eighth Ave.
More than one world champion or celebrity was embarrassed at the door because they wanted back in without paying, and were told: "No money, no entrance" "Pay up, ya bum!" Stillman would yell across the gym:
The ceiling on the main floor was high enough for a trapeze act. There were four rows of wooden folding chairs, with what looked like the cast of Guys and Dolls occupied with scratch sheets or spitting on the floor and biting on cigar stubs.
In front of the chairs were two raised rings, side-by-side, and behind the rings -- against the far wall-- trainers taped-up, gloved and put headgears and cups on their fighters while they sat on a wooden bench waiting to spar. The game's elite shadowboxed or skipped rope right next to them.
The biggest challenge was not staring.
There wasn't any direction I looked where there wasn't a legend bathed in sweat, large droplets clinging to his face where Aboline Cream had been slathered-on by a trainer. Once, Joe Louis apologized for backing into me while I was hitting a heavy bag.
Lou Stillman was the overbearing ringmaster, sitting in a raised chair to just under his prized clock given to him by an English promoter. He barked non-stop insults over his loud speaker: "Get the hell out of the ring, you bum! You call yourself a professional?"
Stillman was a sour 60'sh former beat cop, it was said, who took on the job just after World War 1, not knowing anything about the fight business, and was clearly fed up and burned out by the middle 1940s. He was no sitcom character: crusty exterior with a heart of gold... he was all crust.
He was everyplace at the same time yelling insults at the top of his lungs. If he said to black fighters now what he said then, he would've had a short life. He shouted every racist epithet imaginable.
Stillman regarded all fighters as scum; treated some trainers less harshly (Charley Goldman and Ray Arcel) and barely tolerated everybody else -- celebrities included -- and ran roughshod over young and old.
He routinely threw fighters and spectators out personally.
Stillman wasn't the least averse to getting in the face of the badest. He did it with a loaded .38 poking out under his tweed jacket, which he wore on the most stifling days. None of the windows had been opened since the gym was converted from a union hall in the '30s.
Even though Stillman yelled at Graziano and called him a bum, too, my sense was, he had a soft spot for him and Willie Pep, though he worked hard not to show it.
Stillman had a pecking order: The good fighters got to spar in ring 1; everybody else was relegated to spar or shadow box in ring 2. Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Graziano, Billy Graham, Beau Jack, Ike Williams, Kid Gavilan, Bo Bo Olson, Bob Montgomery and Marcel Cerdan, always worked in ring 1
To the left of Stillman -- about thirty feet -- underneath the stairs leading to the second tier of the loft, where the heavy bags and speed bags were was a patched-over wooden door coming loose at the hinges that led to the locker room, which consisted of plywood-separated cubicles with massage tables for the main-event fighters -- or those few that could afford it.
Narrow dented green metal lockers lined the opposite wall for everybody else. A long low wooden bench for changing extended to the end of the lockers. The light was diffused through a window opaque with 30 years of grime.
The shower for the entire gym was a single open stall with a concrete floor and drain and a rusted-solid showerhead. Wet towels littered the floor. One day the police burst in and slammed a journeyman light heavyweight I was talking to against the wall and cuffed him and dragged him out in a towel. He was wanted for murder.
Upstairs in the heavy-bag area, you could watch Jimmy Bivins, Johnny Bratton, Jimmy Carter, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ike Williams, Bob Murphy, Rocky Graziano and Bob Montgomery all whacking the big bags, doing floor exercises, or studying their moves in the wall-length mirror next to under card fighters and promising amateurs.
Whenever Sugar Ray Robinson skipped rope or hit the speed bag, everybody stopped what they were doing, cleared the floor and crowded around. He glided with the grace of Fred Astaire. His combinations, dazzling.
Wherever Robinson was in the gym, he was a prince holding court; right up until departure with his entourage in his fuchsia Cadillac convertible which sat in front of the gym in the NO PARKING area.
Learning how to feint from Willie Pep, how to lengthen my jab from Billy Conn; how to draw a right hand, roll with it and come back over the top from Johnny Bratton, and countless words of encouragement from Joe Louis, Tony Janiro, Bo Bo Olson and Gil Turner are treasured memories.
In the early '50s, Bobby Bartles, a stylish, stand-up boxer-puncher trained there. He was starting to get noticed, piling up wins in clubs all over New York.
Bartles was movie star handsome -- a Cary Grant. He looked like he'd be more at home at a yacht club than Stillman's...'till he spoke. No mistaking the mean streets of Queens.
One day after winning a main-go, Bartles raged into the gym: "Read this!" he shouted, shaking the sports page. When he was asked why he was so angry, Bartles read aloud: "Last night, Anglo-Saxon looking welterweight Bobby Bartles scored his biggest victory...." Pausing, Bartles shouted: "Who the fuck is Angelo Saxon? I'll break his ass!"
Everybody smoked and spit on the floor, including the fighters when they took a break. Graziano would take a drag on a cigarette between rounds of sparring. The main floor was a haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.
Everyplace you looked, you'd see corner men like Charley Goldman, with a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth, tending to a fighter. Goldman was a pixie, bandy-legged, not much more than five feet, with a nose dented by of hundreds of fights. He always wore a derby at a jaunty angle and looked and spoke like a character right out of Damon Runyon.
The most experienced boxing trainers, and keenest minds in the sport ministered to every fighter in the gym. It was an extended family: when one trainer couldn't cover a guy's fight or training, another stepped right in. There were days when I got advice from Charley Goldman, Whitey Bimsten, Jimmy August, Chickie Ferrara, Al Silvani, Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. Lou Duva and Angelo Dundee just assisted at that time.
As legendary as those trainers were, they weren't spared Stillman's venom, but they were the only ones allowed to answer the bank of phones just to the right of the front door. Over the gym din was the ubiquitous "Telephone for Whitey Bimstein!"
Bimstein was a bald pink Kewpie-doll, always with a trace of a smile, but fierce 'n no-nonsense in the corner.
Over the years, a variety of stories went around about Stillman: He'd been a cop who'd been wounded several times in a shootout. The more probable version was that Stillman (his real name was Ingber) had been a trolley conductor who was an acquaintance of Marshall Stillman, a wealthy philanthropist after World War 1, and Stillman hired him to run a gym to keep kids off the street.
Originally, in 1919, it was called Marshall Stillman's Movement, and it was located up in Harlem on 125th St. and Seventh Ave.
The premier fight gym in New York at the time was Billy Grupp's on 116th St. But after a drunken, anti-Semitic tirade by Grupp, blaming the Jews for World War 1, Benny Leonard and a contingent of Jewish fighters stormed out of Grupp's gym to look for another place to train.
Leonard tried Stillman's storefront, even though it wasn't intended for professionals, and it had little equipment, but Leonard and the others decided it suited them. Ingber (who over time became known as "Stillman") knew nothing about boxing, but he was quick to realize a good thing and charged the public to watch Leonard and the others train.
When Stillman had outgrown the space in the early '30s, he borrowed money and bought the property downtown at 919 West 54th St. and re-named it Stillman's Gym. From the time he bought it, Stillman never cleaned it or invested a nickel in its upkeep.
The number one fight venue in the world, from the early '20s through the '60s, was the version of Madison Square Garden that was on 52nd St. and 8th Ave., two short blocks from Stillman's.
Anybody fighting at The Garden trained at Stillman's. Anybody who wanted to watch the premier fighters in the world train came up to Stillman's. When the best fighters weren't fighting or training, they still came to Stillman's to be among their friends. And when they left the gym, they all went to the Neutral Corner for drinks. It was a few doors from the gym, and THE fight-crowd hangout. Tony Janiro was the bartender.
Over the years, I'd see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett and Tony Bennett kibitzing ringside, watching sparring during their breaks between shows at The Paramount and The Roxy. And, at least two actors that I can remember soaked up as much of the atmosphere as they could: Marlon Brando for ON THE WATERFRONT, and Paul Newman for SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.
I'm convinced the single event that expedited Stillman to sell the gym-- more than the economics - was Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson.
He out-eccentriced any living human. It wasn't that he went out of his way to compete with Lou Jenkins motorcycling up the stairs to the gym, or Mickey Walker and Fritzie Zivic's barhopping; Jackson defined ADD 40 years before the malady existed.
He puzzled everybody from his first appearance in the early '50s. He was a 6-3 smooth-muscled heavyweight from Far Rockaway, New York. His constant bemused look and the maniacal light in his eyes said there was nobody home.
He was a curiosity in a professional fight gym housing world champions.
Not only wasn't he equipped to be a fighter; it was questionable if he could get all his limbs to obey. His imitation of prizefighting and training had everybody shaking their heads, and Stillman muttering aloud: "Disgraceful..."
When he sparred -- if you could call it that - Jackson just out-annoyed spar mates, yet he kept winning fights, until he graduated to main events, and -- unbelievably-- got ranked in the top 10.
He wasn't courageous in the way you would normally understand it, where a fighter would take tremendous punishment and summon something from within to storm back. Jackson couldn't get out of the way of punches and seemed never to feel pain; he soaked-it-up and kept flailing and swatting... He was like some terrible toy you couldn't shut off no matter how many times you slammed it against the wall.
Watching Jackson in boxing gloves was like listening to Roseanne Barr sing The Star Spangled Banner.
His only response to any question was: "Wanna shoot rats?"
Summing it all up, there've been great fighters and trainers from gyms all over the country, but never in the sport's history have there been so many greats all in one place at one time. In the golden age of boxing, Stillman's produced more world-class fighters then any other gym ever had.
Now there's not even a marker to its existence. An apartment house sits on the spot. But 60 years ago, it was the center of the boxing universe.
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