Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce has a weekly show on BoxNation every Friday at 7pm as well as a boxing podcast on ESPN which you can listen to here.

Twitter: @bigdaddybunce

Steve ‘Big Daddy’ Bunce talks infamous fighters and lost legends as we enter the old-school world of boxing.

The smell, the steps, the wet canvas, the fighters, the trainers, the conmen, the vicious streets and the memories make the truly great boxing gyms special places. Some are gone, plenty remain and it is still a delight to walk in and be part of the boxing business.

In San Diego fifty years ago, Archie Moore, one of the finest prize fighters in history, ran a spotless retreat called the Bucket of Blood. It is the gym that Cassius Clay loved and then hated during one short stay in 1960.

Moore, you see, made all the young professionals sweep and mop the floor. Clay was the youngest of the young professionals and his Olympic gold medal did not give him a pass. He and Moore fell out and when, two years later, he fought Moore, he repeatedly asked the question: “Where’s the mop now?”

Clay had, by the time he fought Moore, moved to the 5th St Gym in Miami where Angelo Dundee had run the place since 1951. Dundee was sensible enough to hire a man with a broom and mop. “I ain’t here to sweep,” Clay said when he arrived.

There was so much natural light in Dundee’s gym that it always looked like summer to me.

World Famous 5th Street Gym, Miami.
1434 Alton Road. Miami Beach.
305 763 8110.
5thstgym.com

The 5th Street gym, which was on the corner of 5th and Washington Avenue, was home to Dundee’s conveyor belt of champions, a sanctuary from the lunacy of South Beach and home for the Cuban fighters. There was a woman called Hattie Ambush, who sat at the top of the steps and collected the daily subs. Her sign was simple: “Stop and Pay Fifty Cents. No Dead Beats.”

In 1964, nobody knows if she charged the Beatles.

The boys had just been evicted from the gym used by world heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston. “I ain’t having no picture taken with no sissies”, Liston said. A photo-shoot opportunity meant nothing to Liston. A press guy suggested a visit to Clay at Dundee’s gym and asked John Lennon what he thought about the world title fight, due in Miami in ten days times, between Liston, the champion, and Clay, the challenger. Lennon replied: “Oh, he’s going to kill [him]*.”

The pictures of The Beatles and Clay remain and Liston never killed him.

There was so much natural light in Dundee’s gym that it always looked like summer to me.

The Bucket of Blood is gone forever, lost to boxing and too elusive for me to find. I did find the 5th Street Gym before it closed in 1994. A new version opened in 2011, just a few feet from the original, and Dundee was there remembering with love the space where he made the magic. In 2013 the 5th Street Gym moved a few blocks; it could never be the same. Hattie is gone, the steps are gone, and the massage table has long since been trashed, but it is still in Miami. The Cuban fighters, by the way, remain and you can still find a box of Cohiba Esplendidos at a fabulous price.

At Freddie Roach’s Wild Card gym in Hollywood, a relic from Dundee’s 5th Street still sweats in relative anonymity. Actor and fighter Mickey Rourke paid his subs to Hattie as a child back in Miami and 20 years ago took up residency when Roach first opened the Wild Card.

“It’s a privilege to train here,” Rourke said. “It’s the only place in LA after 25 years where I still have friends – If I need them, they come. If they need me, I come. Real friends.” Rourke is anonymous inside the gym, and it is a privilege.

The pros train alongside the nutcases, actors, losers, dreamers and schemers in a mad mix.

Wild Card Gym. Los Angeles.
1123 Vine St. Hollywood.
323 461 4170.
wildcardboxingclub.com

The Wild Card is a real gym that looks like a fantasy gym. Roach does close the doors occasionally when his fighter, Manny Pacquiao, has serious business, but mostly the pros train alongside the nutcases, actors, losers, dreamers and schemers in a mad mix. It is packed, a destination for all fight fans during any stay or visit to Los Angeles. Dozens of Oscar winners have grabbed pictures with little Freddie on the ring apron, a t-shirt is essential and it is just five bucks to train for a day. “Five bucks is fair,” Roach told me one afternoon, “My accountants disagree with me.”

It is important to remember that Roach never opened the gym for it to be a tourist attraction, a pit-stop for fistic voyagers, and when the crowds diminish, the noise drops and the real dirt happens. It is then a brutal boxing gym.

In Detroit, the great Manny Steward built a palace for fighting kings in a basement and it was called The Kronk.  It was the fetid, frightening, slightly crazy home of some of the greatest fighters to ever get in a ring and the sparring sessions in the basement at the Kronk Community Centre were outrageous. The original Kronk finally closed its doors in 2006, worn and savaged by years of life in the harshest of American cities and was transformed into a derelict wreck immediately. A trip to the site is crucial for those on any boxing pilgrimage. But, be careful, please.

 It was the fetid, frightening, slightly crazy home of some of the greatest fighters to ever get in a ring.

World Legendary Kronk Gym. Detroit.
9520 Mettetal. Detroit.
844 465 7665.
kronk.co.uk

The new Kronk, opened by one of Steward’s children, is in a church basement. It still has the gold colours, the glory of the pictures on the wall, and Tommy Hearns does walk through the door. People in Detroit have Kronk tales – find a bar with a storyteller and ask about Bernard ‘Super Bad’ Mays, or the first weeks when Dennis Andries (from Hackney in London’s east end) came to town.

The original Kronk on McGraw Street in Detroit’s south-west side is one of boxing’s holy sites. “Boys at the Kronk are not fighting to get better. They are fighting for their very lives”, Steward would say. He helped build the safe retreat, a haven in the middle of hell.

Peacock Gym. London.
Caxton Street North. Canning Town.
0207 476 8359.
peacockgym.com

On the Old Kent Road in south London two gyms dominated the capital’s boxing scene for nearly 50 years. The area around the Kronk had its very real problems, making the location dangerous in the Eighties and Nineties, but the OKR was no picnic when the gyms were open. An ornamental seven-foot African spear was once left dangling from the wooden door at the Henry Cooper; it was a warning of some sort.

Nobody removed it, by the way.

It is a gym from the old days, belonging to a long forgotten time when boxing gyms mattered.

The Thomas A Beckett features in most books about London’s gangland. It was a place where turf wars were often discussed and disputes often settled in the gym during a sparring session. The Old Bill could not mingle easily and it was safe to talk. The Beckett was home to the best domestic fighters and a temporary base to about 40-years of travelling greats, including Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Roberto Duran. The Cooper, just five minutes down the road, was an old-school filthy gym, packed with boxers of all standards. Both buildings remain, but the gyms are long gone.

In London now a visit to the Peacock Gym in Canning Town is essential because it is a gym from the old days, belonging to a long forgotten time when boxing gyms mattered.

Gleason’s Gym. New York.
77 Front St. Brooklyn.
718 797 2872.
gleasonsgym.net

Perhaps, the world’s most famous boxing gym is Gleason’s in New York.

The gym started in 1937 in the Bronx when Peter Robert Gagliardi, who changed his name to Bobby Gleason, opened it. The name change was meant to fool the Irish. It moved to Manhattan in 1974 and, in 1984, moved to Brooklyn. It was the New York gym, the sweat box where Jake LaMotta, the ‘Raging Bull’, hit bags for real when he was middleweight champion of the world, and the location when he acted in his own film. It has a following; it pioneered women’s boxing and the Masters of the Universe filled its rings for White Collar nights. Now, it has over 1,000 members. Some are real actors, others just actors and most are proper fighters.

No fight fan can pass through New York without stopping at Gleason’s.

Words by Steve Bunce

Published July 21st 2015

*As we couldn’t repeat what he actually said, please refer to this article for more details. 

IMAGE CREDITS

Featured – Matthew BookwalterMuhammad Ali meets Andy Warhol – GiovanniWildcard Boxing Gym – Eric MolinaFreddie Roach and Manny Pacquiao – Roger AlcantraraPeacock Gym – Matt BrownRingside Seats – Klaus OberstGleason’s Gym – Mister Flek