My 83-year-old father has been a lifelong airplane enthusiast who, until just a few years ago, was still flying gliders at least twice weekly for recreational purposes. Whenever the family traveled when I was a youngster, whether it was a two-hour Sunday outing or a three-week family vacation, we inevitably visited whatever number of small airports were along the way. As I look back on those outings through adult eyes, I can easily envision my father’s childlike joy and enthusiasm at every stop.
It was only when I grew up and developed my own idiosyncratic proclivity that I could understand his. Whenever I travel, the first thing I look up is local boxing gyms; the older, danker and grittier the better. I always try to make a point of not only visiting such venues, but also enjoying a workout there and then writing about my experiences later.
No matter how steeped in tradition these gyms are, just about all now welcome women and white-collar warriors. The last one I encountered that didn’t was Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym in Las Vegas in the early nineties, a few years prior to Christy Martin becoming one of Tocco’s favorite pupils. My late first wife Frances was forced to wait outside, while one of Tocco’s employees gave me a guided tour of the gym. “I’m sorry ma’am, but Mr. Tocco don’t allow no women inside,” he said politely but firmly.
My personal favorite used to be the now defunct Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, but it is now, and will always be, the fabled Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, where Hilary Swank trained with Hector Roca for her Academy Award winning role as Maggie Fitzgerald in the film “Million Dollar Baby,” which also won an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. However, I also have an affinity for Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood and King’s Gym in Oakland, California.
Most people, especially non-boxing enthusiasts, cannot begin to fathom my hobby and are not afraid to let me know it. That’s why I found it so thrilling to receive a media kit for the soon to be released coffee table book “Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice & the Will to Survive in American Gyms.” Photographer Jim Lommasson of Portland, Oregon, a two-time winner of the New York Art Directors Award, visited nearly 100 American gyms during the ten years he worked on this literary and photographic masterpiece that will hit bookstores in June.
He interviewed such well-known trainers as Emanuel Steward, Goody Petronelli, Sam Colonna, Bouie Fisher, Val Colbert and Doc Broadus, and brilliantly and evocatively captured the glorious non-gloriousness of such legendary training venues as Gleason’s, the equally famous Kronk Gym in Detroit, the Grand Avenue Gym in his native Portland, the Windy City Boxing Gym in Chicago, and several gyms in Philadelphia where it has often been said even the winos know how to hook off the jab.
In addition to more than 175 photographs, the book includes a forward by former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, an introduction by Bert Sugar, and more than twenty essays from several esteemed journalists (some of whom have since passed away) such as Robert Anasi, Rene Denfeld, Katherine Dunn, Mark Kram Jr., Joe Rein, Carlo Rotella, Kate Sekules, Lucius Shepard, Timothy Taylor, F.X. Toole, Loic Wacquant and Ralph Wiley.
Like faded signs on the sides of old New York buildings, these gyms are captured in all of their anachronistic glory. From a strictly esoteric standpoint, they are not much different from the last vestiges of commerce along Route 66, which once served as America’s Main Street.
The press kit describes them as so much more than training facilities, calling them “lifelines for troubled kids, safe havens in tough neighborhoods, and living shrines to the traditions of the sport.” For countless young men and women they are, in fact, dream factories as much as they are sweat factories.
Lommasson and writer Katherine Dunn have already been awarded the 2004 Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize by The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for their collaboration on this epic book. I have no doubt that more accolades and awards will be forthcoming. This book pays homage to any person who ever dared to dream big, and will serve as a veritable blueprint for depicting a slice of Americana that is all but forgotten by everyone but the most diehard gym rats and boxing aficionados.
The book, which lists for $39.95, can be pre-ordered from Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. It can also be obtained directly from the publisher. Not only is it worth every penny, if ordering from the publisher, customers who state they are readers of Thesweetscience.com will receive a discount. Contact Stone Creek Publications at 908-995-0016 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.