Stillman’s Gym: The Center of the Boxing Universe
The name: Stillman’s Gym still is magical to old ring veterans–rapidly vanishing–but it’s mostly just a revered icon like Jack Johnson or Boyle’s Half-Acre that fight purists have read about in an old issue of Ring Magazine or on the internet in vintage columns of Dan Parker and Jimmy Cannon.
For me, Stillman’s isn’t like talking about Benny Leonard or Harry Greb, and taking it on faith. It’s very real to me, and as vivid now as when my dad and uncles first took me and my friends there on a weekend just after the ending of World War 2 and before the return match with Louis and Conn.
To put 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, sometime 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 then watched his name go up in lights as the headliner on the marquee at the Garden . … 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.
We all knew that the big name fighters trained at Stillman’s, but as kids, we never imagined we’d ever get to go there. So, when my dad took us, it was like going to the circus for the first time for kids still running around in corduroy knickers.
Once we were actually in Stillman’s and sitting in the gallery seeing the greats who were on fight posters tacked up on every light pole and fence, now passing only an arm’s length away doing floor excercises, warming up and sparring, it left me goggle-eyed.
And while I just tried to drink it in, guys like Sandy Saddler and Paddy DeMarco would play-fight with me..Bob Montgomery let me unlace his gloves… Beau Jack feinted punches at me. Most of the people around us just wanted a glimpse up close of not only the fighters but anybody well known to tell their friends about.
And the people in the gallery were all larger than life: Fight-greats, showbiz types glad-handing everybody, reporters talking to fighters and celebs, and scary looking guys like the ones that stood 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; I knew I had to train there someday.
In the winter of ’48, I went to Stillman’s to start training myself, excited but nervous as hell; I didn’t want anybody to laugh me out of there.
There was one sight you could count on at Stillman’s– day or night– just under the faded sign over the doorway, reading:
STILLMAN’S GYM TRAINING HERE DAILY BOXING INSTRUCTION see JACK CURLEY (NO LITTERING ON SIDEWALK)
20-30 rough-housing guys with bashed noses, in tight clumps, surrounding hopeful young fighters they were trying to pump up. I always had to navigate my way through the crowd, past the heavy iron door and up the steep, dimly lit stairs to the second floor where the gym was.
Stationed right in the doorway to collect the 15-cent entrance fee was Jack Curley. He was late 50’sh and world-weary, with spectacles on the bridge of his nose. He was always in view of the gym’s tyrant-owner, Lou Stillman, so that he could be sure nobody slipped by without paying .
When I say nobody, I mean NOBODY.
More than one world champion or celebrity was embarrassed at the door because they wanted to get back in for some reason, and were told: No money, no entrance. Stillman would yell across the gym: “Pay up, ya bum!”
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 head gears and cups on their fighters while they sat on a wooden bench waiting to spar. The world’s elite shadow boxed or skipped rope right next to them.
I paid my money and told Curley I wanted to learn to box. He called a guy over who looked like the Penguin in a Batman movie.
He too must have been in his 50’s, about 5-7, his hair was black and kinky-curly and matted down and parted in the middle, like a bootlegger from the 20’s. His nose was much too long for his face and pointy as a dart. He had no chin and he was shaped like a pear; his stomach hiking up his trousers to his chest. He had on what must have been a white T shirt at one time and an unbuttoned cardigan sweater with a towel thrown over his shoulder.
He walked over, chest out, straight up and flatfooted, with his shoes pointing outward. The only thing he was missing was the Penguin’s umbrella. He was my trainer for the nine years I was at Stillman’s, and his name was Izzy Blanc, and he looked after me like a son.
He died just a few years ago. And in all the all the years I knew him, I never saw him dressed differently.
As long as Izzy trained me–and as good or bad as I ever got– he never allowed me to forget what he thought was unpardonable. As a teenager, I did what all the other kids did, I carried a rubber in my wallet– not that I had chance to use it– but it was expected.
Well, one day while I was changing in the lockerroom, the rubber fell out of my wallet and onto the floor and Izzy saw it. If I did anything after that that didn’t live up to his expectation, he just 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 breathed hard: “The kid’s in the saddle!”
One of the toughest challenges was just: Not to stare.
There wasn’t any direction you could look where there wasn’t a legend bathed in sweat, large droplets clinging to their faces where Aboline Cream had been slathered on by trainers. Once, to my surprise, Joe Louis apologized for backing into me while I was hitting a heavy bag. My mouth dropped open.
The overriding, overbearing ringmaster of all this commotion was Lou Stillman, sitting in a raised chair to the left of the rings against the wall– 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 1940’s. Stillman was no sitcom character: crusty exterior with a heart of gold… he was all crust.
Stillman seemed to be everywhere at the same time, and always yelling insults at the top of his lungs. If he said to black fighters now what he said then, no question in my mind: He would have had a short life. He used every racist epithet you could imagine.
Stillman regarded all the fighters as scum; treated some of the 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 adverse to getting in the face of the biggest and badest guy. He did it with a loaded .38 poking out from under his tweed jacket, which he wore on the hottest, most humid days. None of the windows had ever been opened since the gym was converted from a union hall in the 30’s.
Even though Stillman yelled at Graziano and called him a bum, too; my sense was, he had a softspot for him and Willie Pep, though he worked hard not to show it.
Stillman did seem to have 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 name a few.
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 lockerroom, 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. Whatever light there was strained 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 shower head. Shower clogs and wet towels littered the floor. One day the police burst in and slammed a journeyman lightheavyweight 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 undercard 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. It was like watching Fred Astaire; he did everything with such elegance, and his combinations were the envy of everybody.
Wherever Robinson was in the gym, he was like a prince holding court; right up until he disappeared 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 50’s, there was a stylish, stand-up boxer who trained there. His name was Bobby Bartles, and he was starting to get noticed, piling up a bunch of 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…until he spoke. There was 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, or any other time you’d see him. The main floor was a dull haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.
Everyplace you looked, you’d see cornermen like Charley Goldman, with a stub of a cigar in the corner of his mouth, tending to a fighter. Goldman was a pixie of guy, bandy-legged, and not much more for than five feet, with a nose that bore the dent of hundreds of fights. He always wore a derby at a jaunty angle and looked and spoke like a character right out of a Damon Runyon story.
The most experienced boxing trainers, and keenest minds in the sport, administered to every fighter in the gym. It was like a fraternity: 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 any of 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 din of the gym, there seemed to be the same message: “Telephone for Whitey Bimstein!”
Bimstein was a bald, pink, Kewpie-doll-of-a -man, with always a trace of a smile, but a fierce, no-nonsense guy in a 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 aquaintance 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-semetic 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 store front, 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 30’s, he borrowed money and bought the property downtown at 919 West 54th St., and re-named it: Stillman’s Gym. And from the time he bought it, I’m sure Stillman never cleaned it or invested a nickle in it’s upkeep.
The number one fight venue in the world, from the early 20’s through the 60’s, was the version of Madison Square Garden that was on 52nd St. and 8th Ave., just two short blocks away from Stillman’s Gym.
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 Nuetral Corner for a few drinks. It was just 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 Hacket and Tony Bennett kibitzing ringside, watching the 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.
When I thought I’d seen every eccentric, bizarre character imaginable, Jackson defied description. It wasn’t that he went out of his way to do all kinds of antics, like Lou Jenkins on his motorcycle, or Mickey Walker and Fritzie Zivic barhopping; Jackson defined ADD 40 years before the malady existed.
Jackson puzzled everybody in the gym from the first moment he came in in the early 50’s. He was a 6-3, lean heavyweight from Far Rockaway, New York. And the constant bemused look on his face, and the sort of maniacal light in his eyes said there was nobody home .
He was a curiosity in a professional fight gym housing world champions. He could best be described in the ring as: disjointed sticks being thrashed about furiously.
Not only wasn’t he equipped to be a fighter, it was questionable if he could get all his limbs to obey him. 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 people. And yet he kept winning fights, until he had 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 then summon something from within to storm back. Jackson couldn’t get out of the way of punches and seemed never to feel pain; he just 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.
Jackson’s only response to any question was: “Wanna shoot rats?”
Hard to imagine Whitey Bimstein and George Gainsford–guys who worked with Robinson, Tunney, and Greb– associating themselves with this oddity, but they did, and he managed to beat a lot of good fighters.
Summing it all up, there’ve been great fighters from gyms all over the country, and good trainers, but never in the sport’s history have we seen 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 place ever had. The disheartening thing is: there’s not even a marker to even indicate it’s existence, only an apartment house now sits on the spot. But over forty years ago, it was the center of the boxing universe.
A version of this story appeared previously on CyberBoxingZone.com.