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Moving the Ring Around

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San Francisco has long been a boxing town with a long list of world-class talent having graced this coastal gem, plying the toughest of trades for large crowds and giant purses. “It wasn’t just a hub of boxing. It was THE hub of boxing,” said late boxing historian Bert Sugar to The Ring editor Michael Rosenthal regarding the rich history of San Francisco and boxing (craveonline.com/blog/123725). Starting most notably with the man Rosenthal aptly calls “the modern father of scientific boxing” James J. Corbett and ebbing significantly with the fall of Newman’s Gym in the early-‘90s, San Francisco has seen the peak and the valley of boxing.
 
Famous lawman Wyatt Earp refereed the December 2, 1896 heavyweight title fight between “Sailor” Tom Sharkey and Bob Fitzsimmons here in San Francisco to allegedly dubious effect. He was later exonerated in court:
 
 
At 312 Leavenworth Street, in what is known as the Tenderloin, Newman’s Gym opened in 1924 when Billy Newman leased the dining room of the Cadillac Hotel on Eddy and Leavenworth Streets. His brother, Herman, would later buy him out. For 60 years, the gym would house champions like Jack Dempsey (the former heavyweight champ met his manager, Jack Kearns, in San Francisco), Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and George Foreman.

Famous photographer of musicians Jim Marshall shot Miles Davis sitting in a Newman’s corner in 1971 (webarks.tumblr.com/post/473759936/). The jazz great’s boxing ties are chronicled by author Bill Scherer here: http://suite101.com/article/. Davis’ soundtrack for Bill Cayton’s documentary about Jack Johnson, “Breaking Barriers,” is considered by some critics to be his last great work. If I’m Willie Nelson (the boxer, not the “Red-Headed Stranger”), I come out to this every time:
 
This clip is from a local newscast from August 16, 1974 of George Foreman working out at Newman’s Gym “as a champion” two months out from his loss to Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/190440.
 
Ali also trained at Newman’s after he came back from the Olympics. One story said Newman helped Ali when he returned from the Olympics after Ali ran out of money at the airport. Years later, on July 2, 1967, the young champion would give a talk at Muhammad’s Mosque No. 26 on Fillmore Street shortly after getting stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted into the armed services to go fight in Vietnam.
 
This first clip is a newsreel from that day:
 
The second is more of a raw clip introduced by a local film historian:
 
As boxing moved to Las Vegas casinos and the regional fight game died in the ‘80s and ‘90s, San Francisco’s hold on boxing, like the rest of the country’s, slipped away.
 
Fifteen years after Newman’s closed its doors, another gym, Straight Forward Boxing, opened up in the Tenderloin but it appears to have also closed in recent years. What is left beyond The City’s always prolific choices of martial arts, (Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do was born in nearby Oakland, CA and Jiu Jitsu gyms abound) are white-collar boxing gyms that offer clean facilities but lack the grit and hard-earned lessons of a real boxing gym. The choice is clear: head into SF’s Mission District for the one gritty, pro boxing gym available, World Class Boxing.
 
In searching for a new boxing gym to call home, I also needed to know where the hub of professional activity was located. On this side of the Bay, this is apparently the spot.
 
The Mission is a colorful neighborhood. I wouldn’t attribute a particular race to it. It’s poor. That’s just about anywhere these days. This particular stretch on Mission, heading north toward the teens, is one you don’t want to be tuning out on your iPod in. My second day to the gym, I was strolling in the early afternoon sun when a homeless cross-gender fight broke out. This ageless woman was beating the holy hell out of a guy who apparently hassled her for some reason over her sunglasses. It’s one of those moments when you wonder if you should call the cops until the woman lands a nice right hand and the guy capitulates by bowing his head and offering her his unopened two-liter bottle of soda.
 
Yeah. I’d found the right spot.
 
Located in the Mission District, World Class Boxing is a storefront gym. You enter and to the right, mounted on the wall, is a large TV playing classic fights that generally end in knockouts. This is definitely a gym in the hometown of Barry Bonds. At the far end of the room, beyond the standard-sized and sturdy gym, is the bathroom and shower. To your right at the door is the counter, the hub of all activity in a boxing gym. Under the TV begins a row of various weights. Nothing too heavy. Some medicine balls and a speed bag face a wide-open floor and wall-length mirror for jump rope and shadowboxing. Beyond that, just before the ring are two rows of three heavy bags on each side of the room. The set-up is perfect to work the bag and circle it. Unlike in some gyms, each bag features room to maneuver about it.
 
In L.A. gyms, the standard is that pros train from 10 a.m. to 1p.m. Here, where pros are also holding down blue-collar jobs, the pros come out after five. This is not the hub of fight activity SoCal is. This is NorCal, where a few gems lurk here and there and the “elite” label is reserved for only one fighter: super middleweight champion Andre Ward. Hailing from Oakland, his reign seems far away from this room.
 
My first day there is around 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s just me, a portly Mexican guy in his mid-30s working the bag in the back, the counter man, Atta and Frankie Moore, a former fighter now training here at the gym. It’s quiet. No one is looking to steal a prospect or climb any particular ladder. Just me, Frankie and Atta watching Ali lure Foreman into the ropes.
 
My second day there, Friday, I went a little later. I finished up around six and as I did, a young trainer brought two students into the ring. Each might have been Hispanic. It was hard to tell. It didn’t matter. Both were about 12 but the taller one, a tan kid with dark hair, seemed to have just had a growth spurt. While he had size on the blondish, shorter kid, he was a little awkward. The balance was off; he was unsure of what to do.
 
The game was simple. Shoot the jab; block the jab. Step in; step out. Hit; don’t get hit. Jab and block. They went with the shorter kid sliding in and popping the jab, blocking and moving out and doing it again. The older kid clowned a moment then nearly got popped for it. He smiled and then had it taken off him. Then he forgot how the rhythm went. And the blonde kid didn’t.
 
A round later, they were free-forming, staying in control but not adhering to an agreed pattern. The older kid discovered how to win the game by charging forward and jabbing hard. The little kid adjusted but I could see the fighter with the confidence of knowing he was a few steps ahead in the game was now a little kid who understood the rules, learning how to adjust them toward his ultimate goal of victory.
 
A year ago (even a few weeks ago), I was watching world-class fighters spar up close in any of the best gyms in the world I wanted to be in. I was located in the hub of fight activity for this part of the world if not all of it. Now I stand in a seedling of a gym in the shadows of what was once “THE hub of boxing,” learning so much from watching where it all began in this little corner of the world.
 
You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him every Monday on “The Next Round” with Steve Kim, now at its new home, www.blogtalkradio.com/thenextround. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 p.m., PST.
 
 
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