In the spring of 2004, Bruce Silverglade, the proprietor of the fabled Gleason’s Gym, which sits like a pugilistic bastion under the Brooklyn Bridge in Brooklyn, New York, received several cryptic calls from a film company representative. The caller asked if the facility, which is the oldest active boxing gym in the United States, trained celebrities, and if so, could the still unnamed celebrity work there out of the glare of the spotlight? Silverglade explained that, from a boxing standpoint, Gleason’s was true to its roots. All 850 members—regardless of whether they are teenage delinquents looking for an alternative from the streets, white collar warriors, preliminary kids, top contenders or renowned world champions—are treated equally.
Each is required to pay a $70 monthly fee, and if they choose they can negotiate their own deal with the many trainers on the premises. Over the years such boxing luminaries as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard, Wilfred Benitez, Roberto Duran, Lennox Lewis and Arturo Gatti have called Gleason’s home. While preparing for Tyson some years back, Buster Mathis Jr. compared training at Gleason’s to fighting at Madison Square Garden.
Moreover, no shortage of Hollywood’s elite had trained there for film roles, including Robert DeNiro for “Raging Bull,” Wesley Snipes for “Streets of Gold,” John Leguizamo for “Undefeated,” Willem Dafoe for “Triumph of the Spirit,” Michelle Rodriguez for “Girlfight,” and Jennifer Lopez for “Money Train.” When Silverglade, who is perhaps the least star-struck person you’ll ever meet, was told that Academy Award winner Hilary Swank would be training there for the role of Maggie Fitzgerald in the Clint Eastwood-directed film “Million Dollar Baby,” he was as nonplussed as he usually is. The only thing he did a little bit differently was recommend that Hector Roca, who had worked with such championship caliber fighters as Gatti, Regilio Tuur and Iran Barkley, be her trainer.
“I thought that if all the negative Hollywood stereotypes applied to Hilary, which they didn’t, Hector would be the perfect trainer for her,” said Silverglade, who like Roca was familiar with the late F.X. O’Toole’s book “Rope Burns” on which the film is based, but did not know the author, whose real name was Jerry Boyd, personally. “People say I’m not star-struck, but Hector’s even less star-struck than me. When it comes to training boxers, Hector is all business. It’s either his way or the highway. I think the results speak for themselves.”
The eternally youthful 65-year-old Roca, who represented his native Panama as a bicyclist in the 1972 Pan American Games, had never even heard of Swank. And while he was aware of the Academy Awards, he had no idea what the term “Oscar” meant. When he met Swank and was told he had four and a half months to transform her into a real fighter, he treated her no differently than any of his other clients—whether they were overweight businessmen or professional boxers of varying skill levels.
“She came here to work at the same time every day,” said Roca. “I don’t think she was ever late. She was determined to learn how to box. Never once did I hear ‘I’m tired’ or ‘that’s enough for today.’ I worked her hard for two and a half hours, sometimes three hours a day. Then she left here to go bulk up with a personal trainer. She was dedicated. What she learned in such a short time, takes some people years to learn.”
Realizing he was on a tight schedule, Roca had Swank working in the ring within two weeks. Her primary sparring partner was Maureen Shea, a 24-year-old senior English major at Iona College who was preparing for her second year of Golden Gloves competition.
“In the beginning I held back, of course I did,” said Shea, a veteran of eight amateur bouts, of which she won five. “But I knew how to work with her. If she hit me, I didn’t get mad and try to retaliate. I had nothing to prove to her, because she had nothing to prove to me. She was just another girl learning how to box. She made no big deal about her being an actress, and her humility rubbed off on everyone.”
Roca said there were occasions when movie executives would show up unannounced and were aghast to find Swank sparring without full facial gear. Roca assured them that she was more than holding her own, and if she was going to give a realistic portrayal of a woman boxer she’d have to train under realistic conditions.
“They were scared and kept saying her face was insured,” Roca said, “that I couldn’t get it banged up.” Roca insists that Swank’s immense natural athleticism enabled him to convert her from being an orthodox puncher to a southpaw in no time flat. “I just told them they had to trust me, that I knew what I was doing. After a while they realized that and were very pleased with the results.”
Swank’s husband, actor Chad Lowe, whom Shea described as being as down to earth as his wife, was a regular fixture in the gym, always offering immense support throughout the trials and tribulations of trying to master perhaps the most difficult and dangerous sport of all. Never once did he wince when she got hit, and he actually donned the gloves and went a few rounds with her on several occasions.
“Hilary hit him more than he hit her,” joked Roca. “That girl is a real athlete. You teach her something and she picks it up right away. The next day, it seems like she practiced it all night.”
Swank and Lowe developed such a close bond with Shea, they traveled to two of her fights in the 2004 Golden Gloves competition, even though both were in obscure outer borough arenas. Shea was not only thrilled to have them present, she was amazed at how easy they were able to blend in. “There are a lot of nice people in boxing, but you’re not going to find many nicer people than Hilary and Chad,” said Shea. “Training at Gleason’s you get used to working alongside world champions. It’s no big deal. The same happened with them. Within an hour of them being there, they were just two more people working and sweating.”
Swank told Silverglade she will return to the gym, once her intense promotional obligations culminate at this Sunday’s Academy Awards, where she is favored to win Best Actress honors. Silverglade believes she will be true to her word, because she genuinely seemed to enjoy her time there. One of his fondest memories is seeing her, an Academy Award winning actress, actually looking awestruck when introduced to Mike Tyson. Furthermore, says Silverglade, all of the publicity surrounding her training at Gleason’s has reaped dividends for him from financial, promotional, even emotional standpoints.
And Roca, a diehard dominoes player, who wouldn’t comment on his earnings, said that he’s now in more demand than ever. And he was in high demand long before he ever learned what an Oscar was. He’ll be in Las Vegas this weekend with some preliminary fighters, but hopes to get himself in front of a television set on Sunday to see his prized pupil win the most coveted award in her field. He will always cherish his contributions to her efforts as much as she will cherish the award itself. But, he insists, nothing will compare to the gratitude he feels toward her, not only for making him look so good, but for presenting him with a set of ivory dominoes shortly before she departed New York in mid-January for the Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles. After being named Best Actress, she thanked “my trainers Hector Roca and Grant Roberts [her non-boxing trainer], who encouraged me to push myself beyond any imagination I ever had of myself.”
As much credit as Roca deserves, it is hard to downplay the role that Gleason’s itself played in the success of the film, even though the movie took place in Los Angeles. Since taking over the gym in 1985, Silverglade has resurrected it into a world-renowned industry unto itself. He did that by making everyone who walked through the door—from overweight bankers to underweight actors and actresses—realize that taking those three long steps into the ring is like taking a journey to the center of their soul.
Most importantly, Gleason’s offers a cultural and metaphorical link between the most divergent of eras. The gym’s legacy was spawned in 1937, when fight manager Robert Gagliardi needed a new training venue in the Bronx. Because of immense anti-Italian sentiment during that era, as well as an Irish proliferation of the sport, he named it after Bobby Gleason, a popular second-rate pug in his stable. After several moves, the gym landed at its current location in 1986.
Silverglades’ professionalism is a far cry from the Gleason’s of the late seventies, which was on West 30th Street in Manhattan. In those days an old wizened gym rat stood sentry at the door, collecting a dollar from every visitor. Armed with my very first press pass, I muttered “Press” as I cockily breezed passed him.
“Press your f-ing pants,” he snorted. “It’s still a dollar to get in.”
You can’t help but get the impression that even then and there, Hilary Swank, being the consummate professional that she is, would have fit right in.