Forget the Empire State Building. For a real taste of the Big Apple, head for a boxing gym, says Alex Wade
Joe Gans, former world lightweight champion, is seldom encountered by tourists visiting New York. Given that Gans is reckoned by many boxing
writers to be the best pound-for-pound fighter ever, this is a shame, notwithstanding that it is also of no real surprise, given that the stylish boxer died of consumption in August, 1910. But take a tour of the most legendary boxing venue of them all – Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan – and a statue of Gans stands proudly in the foyer of the Garden's club bar and grill.
In the classic pugilist's pose, the life-size statue of Gans is a visceral reminder of New York's boxing heritage, not merely to tourists and corporate diners but to boxers fighting at the Garden today. Before entering the arena that has seen many of history's great fights, boxers rub Gans's statue's outstretched left fist for luck. Sometimes the honour paid to Gans pays off, sometimes the fates have decreed otherwise. Or, perhaps, the ghost of Gans – reputed to haunt the Garden – has taken leave to lend a spiritual hand to other fighters. They should be grateful: Gans was described by John L Sullivan, the heavyweight champion of his era, as "easily the cleverest and fastest man of his weight in the world. He can hit like a mule kicking with either hand."
I had signed up to take an afternoon tour of the Garden on a friend's recommendation. He had also inspired some other less conventional diversions while in New York. "If you want to see real New York, forget the galleries, forget the Empire State building, forget Times Square. Go to the fights, go to the Garden, go to the gyms. That's where you'll find New York."
So said my friend, when I told him I was planning a trip to the city whose boxing credentials are second to none. The friend in question is a boxing promoter, and, as such, a little biased. But it struck me that he had a point. Boxing helped to define American culture in the 20th century. It was emblematic both of the American dream of individual betterment and the country's racial coming of age. If Sullivan was complimentary of Gans's fighting skills, the white heavyweight also disparagingly said he disliked " the Negro as a fighting man". And while professional boxing today is but a pale imitator of its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s – when men such as Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier played out a series of titanic battles in the Garden and beyond – boxing's uniquely raw identity has survived intact.
By way of the first test of my friend's theory, I encountered Curtis " Showtime" Stevens giving it his all in a ballroom on the seventh floor of the Manhattan Center, round the corner from the Garden. Dressed in baggy blue jeans, a long brown fake-fur coat and back-to-front baseball cap, the light-heavyweight was roaring on the man in the red corner, Jaidon "The Don" Codrington. "Come on, Jai, come on, bro! Up the middle! Uppercut, Jai, hit him, Jai!" On and on came the cries from Stevens, as he exhorted his sparring partner from Brownsville, Brooklyn, to vanquish Glen Rayburn, an Ohio fighter who was chancing his arm in the fervently partisan arena of the recently renovated Hammerstein Ballroom.
This was the second instalment of DiBella Entertainment's "Broadway Boxing" series. British-trained heavyweight Roman Greenberg was headlining, and an array of talent from Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island was on the undercard. The crowd was cosmopolitan and impassioned, the card girls were bang on the money (so the barman put it), and the press tables were packed with New York boxing writers who have been in the game for 40 years. The atmosphere was eclectic and intense, but never threatening. It was as good a night out as New York has to offer.
Fresh from my night at the Manhattan Center, I made my way around Madison Square Garden with an effusive tour guide who lost no time in mimicking boxers as they delivered KOs in front of 22,000 capacity crowds. Each time I found myself hoping that the ghost of Joe Gans would materialise and deliver one of his own KOs, the guide came up with an extraordinary nugget of information that made it all worthwhile. Or simply being there, in the Garden, did the trick. To think that this was the stage of the Ali and Frazier "fight of the century" on 8 March, 1971, when Frazier – vilified as an "Uncle Tom" by Ali – won by a majority in front of a New York that was gripped by fight fever. And that Elton John had recently become the musician to have performed the most times at the Garden (53, for those still counting).
All this boxing history prompted the urge for a workout, so I made my way to Church Street Boxing Gym, just off Broadway, near City Hall. Run by Justin Blair, a former middleweight amateur, Church Street opened on 1 April 1997 and has seen fighters such as Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Roy Jones Junior use its 8,000 square feet of boxing facilities. Today, Blair encourages all comers. "I'm happy for anyone to come and train," he says. "You could be here for a weekend and still drop by for a workout." After 90 minutes of solid graft under the expert amateur eye of a trainer by the name of Reggi, I felt ready for a steak if not combat with the likes of "Showtime" Stevens. There was just one thing left to do.
I took a cab to Gleason's Gym, on Front Street, Brooklyn. This is the most famous boxing gym in the world, sitting in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge. More than 125 world champions – from Jake La Motta to Mike Tyson – have trained in Gleason's, which is the oldest active gym in the US. It is now the home of white-collar boxing as much as professional and amateur pugilism, but, as with Church Street, fighters of all levels are welcome. All can train and spar under a translation of Virgil's famous exhortation: " Now whoever has the courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands." I watched the frantic activity of the myriad boxers in Gleason's, relieved that I was too tired to put on my gloves again.
Outside, underneath Brooklyn Bridge, I stared down at the Hudson river and thought of On The Waterfront, the Elia Kazan classic set amidst the wharves and endemic 1950s mob-rule of New York. "I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender," says Marlon Brando's former boxer character, Terry Malloy, to his brother, Charley. It is a harsh, poignant scene, as Brando confronts Charley with the knowledge that he sold him out to the mob. " I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let's face it, I am. It was you, Charley." And I hoped that if he had to, the ghost of Joe Gans would be around to help the likes of Jaidon "The Don" Codrington and Curtis "Showtime" Stevens from avoiding a similar fate.
Alex Wade's 'Wrecking Machine', an account of his experiences as a white-collar boxer, has just been published by Simon & Schuster, price £15.99