Savoring an espresso and dessert after another fine high-caloric meal, I was aimlessly surfing the web when I came across Joe Santoliquito’s ESPN.com paean to Tommy Gallagher – and just about choked on my cannoli.
Gallagher is best known as the epitome of a boxing trainer who appears each week to rally the troops and take them shopping on ESPN's The Contender. On that weekly reality TV series, Gallagher comes off as the quintessential lovable curmudgeon, avuncular in a cap, unthreatening behind shades, a whitewashed, defanged, low-cal tough-love boxing archetype, one part Burgess Meredith in “Rocky,” one part Mickey Rooney in “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” but somewhat less than one part Tommy Gallagher.
To the unwashed and untrained eye, Tommy G comes off as the straight shooter’s straight shooter, a guy who doesn’t mince words or suffer fools gladly, but someone who can always be relied upon to provide good copy on any number of subjects, including but not limited to boxing.
When the owner of Gleason’s Gym, Bruce Silverglade, first introduced me to Tommy Gallagher, he described him as a “real old-time boxing guy,” and by any criteria, Gallagher meets that standard.
It’s what Silverglade didn’t say that still has me scratching and shaking my head.
Tommy Gallagher was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and grew up in East New York. He told Santoliquito that ‘he was raised to know every liar in the sometimes sordid business of boxing,’ and I dare say Gallagher learned his lessons well.
Gallagher was first formally introduced to boxing at the CYO Gym on 17th Street by his grandfather, Ed Wohl.
“My grandfather was a very dear friend of Lou Stillman,” Gallagher told me one morning in Gleason’s Gym. “My grandfather was a huge bookmaker, so he would go around to all the joints and he always managed to take me to the highlights. When I was 11 he took me to a place in Manhattan and I met Rocky Marciano and that really sucked me in. When I walked into the place Rocky was hitting this heavy bag that looked like it was as big as the Empire State Building. I said to myself: 'Who the f—? What is this thing?' That was it after that.”
Gallagher was hooked line and sinker.
“We went to St. Nick's, Ridgewood Grove, Eastern Parkway. We went to every gym that there was. Williamsburg Gym. Jimmy Treck's Gym. Gleason's up on 149th Street. Stillman's Gym. You could go into Stillman's on a Wednesday when everybody was coming in to get ready for the fights on Friday.
“I got to see it all,” said Gallagher. “The stuff when it was really shaking, when it was really happening.”
Armed with the knowledge that he was a “real old-time fight guy” who’d unflinchingly tell it like it is, I asked Gallagher when he went from being just an interested observer to someone who stepped through the ropes to get it on.
“I started in 1955,” Gallagher told me. “In the winter of 1957 I decided to go in the Golden Gloves, but I wasn't old enough to go in the Gloves for '58, so I had to wait until '59 and I trained the whole year. I trained in a pro gym in Brooklyn – because it took me too long to get to Stillman's – and I trained with these old-time fight guys, old-time mob guys. They were Gambinos, and they really took good care of me. They paid my carfare – I think it was 10 cents, 15 cents then – and they'd be at the gym every day. They all worked on the waterfront and I learned from them and I listened and I watched. And I wanted it.”
Gallagher opened his first gym in 1965 at the YMCA in Highland Park, but other gyms were to follow. In 1974 he opened a gym in the Boy's Club – which was called Gallagher's Gym of Champions. “I had 10 world champions in the gym. I mean we had guys. I had two rings, four heavy bags, three speed bags, a nice locker room – it was perfect. You meet a lotta pieces of sh– in this business, but I had the gym for 30 years and I never bothered with anybody. I did my thing. And that was basically it,” Gallagher said. “Then in '96 when the douchebag Sammy the Bull” – that’s Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, the Gambino hit man and stoolie who ratted out John Gotti – “made up all this bullsh– that I was this, that or the other thing, they closed the gym on me.”
Sammy the Bull is a sore sport with Tommy Gallagher.
“That piece of sh–,” Gallagher said. “I met him once. He ruined my whole career. He ruined my gym. They shut it down. It’s all bullsh–. He made it up. I would never train his son. He wanted me to train him. I told John, ‘There’s something wrong with him.’ He got mad at me. I know John Gotti since I was 15 years old. I says, ‘John, this guy looks at all these little kids.’ Cus was like that. Did you know that? Cus D’Amato was a raging fag. And you know who saved his life? Fat Tony. Yeah, they were going to kill him.”
Although he has been a fighter, gym owner, manager, matchmaker and promoter (there are rumors he was also once a cop), Gallagher's claim to fame is as a trainer. With that in mind, I asked if he could name some of the ingredients which make a great boxing trainer great.
“A guy's a great trainer if he's got a great fighter,” Gallagher said. “It's as simple as that. I go way back and had access to 10 or 20 of the best f—ing trainers in the world. I was in Stillman's and I watched them all and learned a little from everybody. I knew who was full of sh– and who wasn't. But today it's all bull—-. They couldn't even stand five minutes with the four round fighters of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Couldn't go one round with these guys. They were professionals. They didn't ask 'Who am I fighting? Why am I fighting?' They went and did their business and they became the legends of this business.”
In part because of his seniority, in part because he’d been there and done, I asked Gallagher what it was like in the good old days.
“The Garden was the big promoter,” replied Gallagher. “The Garden was the place. Boxing made Madison Square Garden. When the Garden left, the Garden ruined boxing here in New York. Then all the sharpies came in, all the smart-asses came in – 'Bring it to Vegas!' – 'Get all that money in Vegas!' – and they ruined this business. But I was fortunate enough to be around some legendary guys. Whitey Bimstein. Charlie Goldman. Nick and Dan Florio. I mean real f—ing guys. Frank Backman. Johnny Sulo. Freddie Brown. Chickie Ferrara. I mean these guys were f—ing gentlemen.”
One solution to the problem of how to get boxing back on track is to let the government lace up gloves, put in a mouthpiece and join the fray. When I asked Gallagher what he thought about creating a federal agency to oversee the sport, he voted yea.
“Let's face it,” he said, “this is the only f—ing business that you don't have no rules and regulations. Every state you go to has a different rule and regulation. When you play football and baseball it's the same, but because it's the lower echelon guy, if that's the right word, the fighters who are not the most educated, they have to rely on the guys who are f—ing robbing them.”
Boxing is indeed unregulated – notwithstanding more commissions, sanctioning bodies and bureaucrats than you can shake a bloody stick at – and as a result it's a credibility-lacking mess. I asked Gallagher if the system as it exists denies us the caliber of fighters that fought the past.
“There were great fighters because they were given the opportunity to be great fighters,” was Gallagher’s reply. “Now if you get knocked down, the f—ing referee wants to stop the fight! It's about getting out there and fighting your balls off. They'll never ever be able to create these great fighters because they'll never give them a chance to be great fighters. In the old days you fought until you decided to quit or you were f—ing hanging over dead, but they want to eliminate that.”
Nobody wants to see boxers “hanging over dead,” but isn’t it the commissions’ job to protect the fighters, not just from their own worst selves, but from the worst of the parasitic others?
“They let these commissions make up f—ing rules that are just disrespectful to the fighters. You can die from one to 12, but after 12 you can't get killed?” asked Gallagher. “There's nothing in the f—ing world to help anybody not get killed. If a guy's gonna get killed he's gonna get killed, so it's as simple as that. Just like the guy who's in the Indianapolis 500. If he's gonna get killed, he's gonna get killed. Or the guy on the baseball field. If he's gonna get killed, he's gonna get killed. That's it. There's nothing you can do about it. So respect these guys who are doing this.”
Given Gallagher’s experience, history, and willingness to talk, I returned to the subject of today's fighting man versus the fighting man of yesteryear and asked if he thought there was any comparison.
“The fighting man? There is no more fighting man. They made us fighting men in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s and now they want to f—ing sweep us under the rug,” he said. “If you went out and looked at all the people who are talking about the business that they're in, whether it be baseball, football, hockey, whatever the f—, you'll find out that they never played anything in their life.”
“I know so many guys,” Gallagher continued, “white guys, black guys, brown guys, that are f—ing men. If you f— them they'll break your head. They don't need no Jesse Jackson or f—ing what's his name – the other jerk-off – to help them. They'll do it themselves. Those are men. You f— them – they're going to fight back.”
I asked Gallagher, who has lived a zillion lives so far, if he had something like a philosophy of life and living.
“My philosophy is be f—ing fair with everybody. And don't ever try to hurt anybody. And never rob your friends,” advised Gallagher. “Rob other guys. And try not to lie and be a f—ing coward about it. You got something on your mind, get it off, tell them, that's all, and you just walk away. Try to have a little respect for yourself.”