By Kim Constantinesco
Even though Brooklyn, New York is ever-changing, its history and character subtlety thread through the borough’s worn cobblestone streets. That’s its draw and its charm.
There’s a neighborhood Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (DUMBO) that represents Brooklyn’s longing desire to draw more people in, but still stays true to it’s form. DUMBO, in recent years, has become the fourth wealthiest neighborhood in all of New York City’s five boroughs. What was once a manufacturing district full of warehouses and factories that made machinery, is now an art district with a $40 million penthouse.
Regardless, the neighborhood sandwiched between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge is still the mothership for the “poor man’s sport.”
Gleason’s Gym is the oldest active boxing gym in the United States. The gym got its start in the Bronx in 1937, but due to a housing situation, it moved next door to Madison Square Garden in 1974. It was the perfect location during a time when boxing was exploding and big fights were being held in the Garden. However, the building eventually sold and the gym was asked to move one more time to its current location at 77 Front Street.
The trek into the gym begins with a walk up the building’s stairwell to the second floor. Nose hairs singe with the smell of sweat, punching bags, treadmill grease, and well worn gyms socks.
There’s a yellow sign on the back wall with a quote from the poet, Virgil: “Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”
Just underneath and to the right of that sign is where the training tables sit and where the jump ropers go to increase their lung capacity. The number of times a jump rope has whipped across the gym floor is evident by the markings on the ground and by the number of World Champions that have ducked, punched, and trained their way to the top.
“From 1937 to today, we’ve had 133 World Champions,” Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade proudly said. “Some of the names you might know would be Jake LaMotta. He was our first champion. A movie was named after him called Raging Bull. Cassius Clay trained here, won his first title, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and continued to train at Gleason’s for his career. Mike Tyson is one of our veterans. He maintains an office here.”
Gleason’s hasn’t only done well in boxing. It’s also done very well in Hollywood with 26 full-length movies having been filmed at the gym, including four that won Academy Awards. The first Rocky movie and Million Dollar Baby are flicks that used Gleason’s as their backdrop.
“We also have one current World Champion training here and people who are training to get their titles back,” Silverglade said. “Then we have people who have full-time jobs as attorneys or on Wall Street who come in and train, so it’s a very busy place up here.”
Give A Kid A Dream and More
In the early 90’s, Silverglade and his gym partner, Ira Becker, decided that since Gleason’s and boxing gave so much to them, they wanted to give back to the sport.
“We came up with a program called Give A Kid A Dream. It’s a program where we take underprivileged youth from the five boroughs from the ages of 8 to 18 years of age and we bring them in and train them at no expense. We cover all the costs of merchandise, training, and dues.”
The only requirement to stay in the program and reap the benefits of an all-access gym pass is that the child must show up up on Saturdays to work with his or her boxing trainer for two hours. During this time, the child is put through a training session that mirrors the training that professional boxers go through on a full-time basis.
Give A Kid A Dream not only puts them through footwork drills, rounds on the punching bags, shadow boxing, or controlled sparring sessions.
“When we speak of champions, we speak of champions inside and outside of the ring,” Atkins said. “Outside of the ring, it’s showing up, being responsible, and being accountable. We teach them basic life skills such as manners, managing finances, and just making healthy choices in life so that they can become good citizens.”
The youth that come into the program are referred by police officers, clergymen, school counselors, orphanages, and any other person that believes that the discipline in boxing will help guide the child.
“They’re not bad kids at all,” Silverglade said. “They’re not stupid kids. They don’t have the education that some of us have and they certainly don’t have the opportunities that some of us have. By mentoring them and by paying attention to them, it really puts them on the right path.”
Youth Taking the Dream and Running
With hundreds of youth going through the Give A Kid A Dream Program since its inception in 1991, there have been many success stories.
A boy named Paul began at Gleason’s four years ago. He was referred to them by the police department after getting arrested multiple times per week.
“Paul has graduated high school and now this last week, he attended his first college course,” Atkins said. “In addition to that, he competed in the New York Golden Glove last year and won the 141-pound division. This is a young man that was definitely headed down the wrong road and has completely turned his life around. He attributes his success to the program and to those in the program who embraced him, believed in him, empowered him, and elevated him to the level he’s at today.”
Even the younger youth that are in the program are benefitting.
“Before I started boxing, I was getting into a lot of school fights and my grades were bad,” one 12-year-old boy said on a Saturday afternoon at the gym. “I was always getting into trouble.”
When asked about the happiest moment of his life, he said, “When I had my first fight. I lost in a decision, but it was so fun. When I got out of the ring, I was just so happy and excited that I had my first fight. I decided that when I grow up, I either want to be a pro boxer or a lawyer.”
The discipline that boxing inherently instills is the program’s secret weapon.
“Individuals learn how to handle problem situations and they learn how to handle fear,” Silverglade said. “We teach them to become focused and concentrated and when that happens, they can not only use that in the gym and in the ring, but they can use that in their every day life whether they’re in school or they have a job.”
If boxing is the “poor man’s sport,” then sweat is the poor man’s wealth.
Give A Kid A Dream realizes that the youth coming in are angry on the surface. However, below that anger are feelings of fear, helplessness, and hopelessness.
The trainers at Gleason’s do something unique. They teach kids who constantly walk around their neighborhoods and schools with clenched fists to relax a bit so that they can have the hands to reach their dreams.
That’s the fight worth going 12 rounds for.
If you’d like to donate to or volunteer for the Give a Kid a Dream program, go here.