Stillman’s Gym: The Center of the Boxing Universe



54th Street & 8th Ave. ny ny 10019

Neighborhood: Midtown

The name: Stillman’s Gym still is magical to old ring veterans–rapidly vanishing–but it’s mostly just a revered icon like Jack Johnson or Boyle’s Half-Acre that fight purists have read about in an old issue of Ring Magazine or on the internet in vintage columns of Dan Parker and Jimmy Cannon.

For me, Stillman’s isn’t like talking about Benny Leonard or Harry Greb, and taking it on faith. It’s very real to me, and as vivid now as when my dad and uncles first took me and my friends there on a weekend just after the ending of World War 2 and before the return match with Louis and Conn.

To put it in perspective, only three things mattered to a kid growing up in the Navy Yard section of Brooklyn in the ’40s: winning a world title; fighting the main-go at The Garden and Stillman’s Gym.

Every blue-collar neighborhood in New York was dotted with gyms. Every block had a fighter or a relative of a fighter. It was a sport that was accessible to us. And, sometime one of our own rose up from the amateurs, got some big wins in local clubs and made it into the Garden, impressed in prelims, and then watched his name go up in lights as the headliner on the marquee at the Garden . … like Billy Graham and Harold Green.

All we did on Friday nights was elbow each other out of the way to get closer to the radio to listen to the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports to hear the main event from the Garden. And if Rocky Graziano or Joe Louis rallied or won, you could hear the shouts echo in the streets from every open tenement window.

We all knew that the big name fighters trained at Stillman’s, but as kids, we never imagined we’d ever get to go there. So, when my dad took us, it was like going to the circus for the first time for kids still running around in corduroy knickers.

Once we were actually in Stillman’s and sitting in the gallery seeing the greats who were on fight posters tacked up on every light pole and fence, now passing only an arm’s length away doing floor excercises, warming up and sparring, it left me goggle-eyed.

And while I just tried to drink it in, guys like Sandy Saddler and Paddy DeMarco would play-fight with me..Bob Montgomery let me unlace his gloves… Beau Jack feinted punches at me. Most of the people around us just wanted a glimpse up close of not only the fighters but anybody well known to tell their friends about.

And the people in the gallery were all larger than life: Fight-greats, showbiz types glad-handing everybody, reporters talking to fighters and celebs, and scary looking guys like the ones that stood outside the social club around the corner from me.

Willie Pep and Terry Young worked the crowd, breaking everybody up wisecracking about horses that were too slow or women that were too fast… I was hooked; I knew I had to train there someday.

In the winter of ’48, I went to Stillman’s to start training myself, excited but nervous as hell; I didn’t want anybody to laugh me out of there.

There was one sight you could count on at Stillman’s– day or night– just under the faded sign over the doorway, reading:


20-30 rough-housing guys with bashed noses, in tight clumps, surrounding hopeful young fighters they were trying to pump up. I always had to navigate my way through the crowd, past the heavy iron door and up the steep, dimly lit stairs to the second floor where the gym was.

Stationed right in the doorway to collect the 15-cent entrance fee was Jack Curley. He was late 50’sh and world-weary, with spectacles on the bridge of his nose. He was always in view of the gym’s tyrant-owner, Lou Stillman, so that he could be sure nobody slipped by without paying .

When I say nobody, I mean NOBODY.

More than one world champion or celebrity was embarrassed at the door because they wanted to get back in for some reason, and were told: No money, no entrance. Stillman would yell across the gym: “Pay up, ya bum!”

The ceiling on the main floor was high enough for a trapeze act. There were four rows of wooden folding chairs, with what looked like the cast of Guys and Dolls occupied with scratch sheets or spitting on the floor and biting on cigar stubs.

In front of the chairs were two raised rings, side by side, and behind the rings– against the far wall–trainers taped-up, gloved and put head gears and cups on their fighters while they sat on a wooden bench waiting to spar. The world’s elite shadow boxed or skipped rope right next to them.

I paid my money and told Curley I wanted to learn to box. He called a guy over who looked like the Penguin in a Batman movie.

He too must have been in his 50’s, about 5-7, his hair was black and kinky-curly and matted down and parted in the middle, like a bootlegger from the 20’s. His nose was much too long for his face and pointy as a dart. He had no chin and he was shaped like a pear; his stomach hiking up his trousers to his chest. He had on what must have been a white T shirt at one time and an unbuttoned cardigan sweater with a towel thrown over his shoulder.

He walked over, chest out, straight up and flatfooted, with his shoes pointing outward. The only thing he was missing was the Penguin’s umbrella. He was my trainer for the nine years I was at Stillman’s, and his name was Izzy Blanc, and he looked after me like a son.

He died just a few years ago. And in all the all the years I knew him, I never saw him dressed differently.

As long as Izzy trained me–and as good or bad as I ever got– he never allowed me to forget what he thought was unpardonable. As a teenager, I did what all the other kids did, I carried a rubber in my wallet– not that I had chance to use it– but it was expected.

Well, one day while I was changing in the lockerroom, the rubber fell out of my wallet and onto the floor and Izzy saw it. If I did anything after that that didn’t live up to his expectation, he just shrugged: “Sure! How can he fight? He’s in the saddle!”

I had to do three times what anybody else did. If I so much as breathed hard: “The kid’s in the saddle!”

One of the toughest challenges was just: Not to stare.

There wasn’t any direction you could look where there wasn’t a legend bathed in sweat, large droplets clinging to their faces where Aboline Cream had been slathered on by trainers. Once, to my surprise, Joe Louis apologized for backing into me while I was hitting a heavy bag. My mouth dropped open.

The overriding, overbearing ringmaster of all this commotion was Lou Stillman, sitting in a raised chair to the left of the rings against the wall– just under his prized clock given to him by an English promoter– he barked non-stop insults over his loud speaker: “Get the hell out of the ring, you bum! You call yourself a professional?!”

Stillman was a sour, 60’sh former beat cop, it was said, who took on the job just after World War 1, not knowing anything about the fight business, and was clearly fed up and burned out by the middle 1940’s. Stillman was no sitcom character: crusty exterior with a heart of gold… he was all crust.

Stillman seemed to be everywhere at the same time, and always yelling insults at the top of his lungs. If he said to black fighters now what he said then, no question in my mind: He would have had a short life. He used every racist epithet you could imagine.

Stillman regarded all the fighters as scum; treated some of the trainers less harshly (Charley Goldman and Ray Arcel) and barely tolerated everybody else–celebrities included– and ran roughshod over young and old.

He routinely threw fighters and spectators out personally.

Stillman wasn’t the least adverse to getting in the face of the biggest and badest guy. He did it with a loaded .38 poking out from under his tweed jacket, which he wore on the hottest, most humid days. None of the windows had ever been opened since the gym was converted from a union hall in the 30’s.

Even though Stillman yelled at Graziano and called him a bum, too; my sense was, he had a softspot for him and Willie Pep, though he worked hard not to show it.

Stillman did seem to have a pecking order: The good fighters got to spar in ring 1; everybody else was relegated to spar or shadow box in ring 2. Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Graziano, Billy Graham, Beau Jack, Ike Williams, Kid Gavilan, Bo Bo Olson, Bob Montgomery and Marcel Cerdan, always worked in ring 1, to name a few.

To the left of Stillman, about thirty feet, underneath the stairs leading to the second tier of the loft, where the heavy bags and speed bags were, was a patched over wooden door coming loose at the hinges that led to the lockerroom, which consisted of plywood-separated cubicles with massage tables for the main-event fighters–or those few that could afford it.

Narrow, dented, green metal lockers lined the opposite wall for everybody else. A long, low, wooden bench for changing extended to the end of the lockers. Whatever light there was strained through a window opaque with 30 years of grime.

The shower for the entire gym was a single open stall, with a concrete floor and drain and a rusted-solid shower head. Shower clogs and wet towels littered the floor. One day the police burst in and slammed a journeyman lightheavyweight I was talking to against the wall and cuffed him and dragged him out in a towel. He was wanted for murder.

Upstairs in the heavy-bag area, you could watch Jimmy Bivins, Johnny Bratton, Jimmy Carter, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ike Williams, Bob Murphy, Rocky Graziano and Bob Montgomery all whacking the big bags, doing floor exercises, or studying their moves in the wall-length mirror next to undercard fighters and promising amateurs.

Whenever Sugar Ray Robinson skipped rope or hit the speed bag, everybody stopped what they were doing, cleared the floor and crowded around. It was like watching Fred Astaire; he did everything with such elegance, and his combinations were the envy of everybody.

Wherever Robinson was in the gym, he was like a prince holding court; right up until he disappeared with his entourage in his fuchsia Cadillac convertible which sat in front of the gym in the NO PARKING area.

Learning how to feint from Willie Pep, how to lengthen my jab from Billy Conn; how to draw a right hand, roll with it and come back over the top, from Johnny Bratton, and countless words of encouragement from Joe Louis, Tony Janiro, Bo Bo Olson and Gil Turner are treasured memories.

In the early 50’s, there was a stylish, stand-up boxer who trained there. His name was Bobby Bartles, and he was starting to get noticed, piling up a bunch of wins in clubs all over New York.

Bartles was movie-star handsome — a Cary Grant . He looked like he’d be more at home at a yacht club than Stillman’s…until he spoke. There was no mistaking the mean streets of Queens.

One day after winning a main-go, Bartles raged into the gym: “Read this!” he shouted, shaking the sports page. When he was asked why he was so angry, Bartles read aloud: “Last night, anglo-saxon looking welterweight Bobby Bartles scored his biggest victory….” Pausing, Bartles shouted: “Who the fuck is Angelo Saxon? I’ll break his ass!”

Everybody smoked and spit on the floor, including the fighters when they took a break. Graziano would take a drag on a cigarette between rounds of sparring, or any other time you’d see him. The main floor was a dull haze of cigarette and cigar smoke.

Everyplace you looked, you’d see cornermen like Charley Goldman, with a stub of a cigar in the corner of his mouth, tending to a fighter. Goldman was a pixie of guy, bandy-legged, and not much more for than five feet, with a nose that bore the dent of hundreds of fights. He always wore a derby at a jaunty angle and looked and spoke like a character right out of a Damon Runyon story.

The most experienced boxing trainers, and keenest minds in the sport, administered to every fighter in the gym. It was like a fraternity: when one trainer couldn’t cover a guy’s fight or training, another stepped right in. There were days when I got advice from Charley Goldman, Whitey Bimsten, Jimmy August, Chickie Ferrara, Al Silvani, Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. Lou Duva and Angelo Dundee just assisted at that time.

As legendary as those trainers were; they weren’t spared any of Stillman’s venom, but they were the only ones allowed to answer the bank of phones just to the right of the front door. Over the din of the gym, there seemed to be the same message: “Telephone for Whitey Bimstein!”

Bimstein was a bald, pink, Kewpie-doll-of-a -man, with always a trace of a smile, but a fierce, no-nonsense guy in a corner.

Over the years, a variety of stories went around about Stillman: He’d been a cop who’d been wounded several times in a shootout. The more probable version was that Stillman (his real name was Ingber) had been a trolley conductor who was an acquaintance of Marshall Stillman, a wealthy philanthropist after World War 1, and Stillman hired him to run a gym to keep kids off the street.

Originally, in 1919, it was called Marshall Stillman’s Movement, and it was located up in Harlem on 125th St. and Seventh Ave.

The premier fight gym in New York at the time was Billy Grupp’s on 116th St. But after a drunken, anti-semetic tirade by Grupp, blaming the Jews for World War 1, Benny Leonard and a contingent of Jewish fighters stormed out of Grupp’s gym to look for another place to train.

Leonard tried Stillman’s storefront, even though it wasn’t intended for professionals, and it had little equipment, but Leonard and the others decided it suited them. Ingber (who over time became known as “Stillman”) knew nothing about boxing, but he was quick to realize a good thing and charged the public to watch Leonard and the others train.

When Stillman had outgrown the space in the early 30’s, he borrowed money and bought the property downtown at 919 West 54th St., and re-named it: Stillman’s Gym. And from the time he bought it, I’m sure Stillman never cleaned it or invested a nickle in it’s upkeep.

The number one fight venue in the world, from the early 20’s through the 60’s, was the version of Madison Square Garden that was on 52nd St. and 8th Ave., just two short blocks away from Stillman’s Gym.

Anybody fighting at The Garden trained at Stillman’s. Anybody who wanted to watch the premier fighters in the world train came up to Stillman’s. When the best fighters weren’t fighting or training, they still came to Stillman’s to be among their friends. And when they left the gym, they all went to the Neutral Corner for a few drinks. It was just a few doors from the gym, and THE fight-crowd hangout. Tony Janiro was the bartender.

Over the years, I’d see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hacket and Tony Bennett kibitzing ringside, watching the sparring during their breaks between shows at The Paramount and The Roxy. And, at least two actors that I can remember soaked up as much of the atmosphere as they could: Marlon Brando for ON THE WATERFRONT, and Paul Newman for SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I’m convinced the single event that expedited Stillman to sell the gym–more than the economics- was Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson.

When I thought I’d seen every eccentric, bizarre character imaginable, Jackson defied description. It wasn’t that he went out of his way to do all kinds of antics, like Lou Jenkins on his motorcycle, or Mickey Walker and Fritzie Zivic barhopping; Jackson defined ADD 40 years before the malady existed.

Jackson puzzled everybody in the gym from the first moment he came in in the early 50’s. He was a 6-3, lean heavyweight from Far Rockaway, New York. And the constant bemused look on his face, and the sort of maniacal light in his eyes said there was nobody home .

He was a curiosity in a professional fight gym housing world champions. He could best be described in the ring as: disjointed sticks being thrashed about furiously.

Not only wasn’t he equipped to be a fighter, it was questionable if he could get all his limbs to obey him. His imitation of prizefighting and training had everybody shaking their heads, and Stillman muttering aloud: “Disgraceful…”

When he sparred–if you could call it that- Jackson just out-annoyed people. And yet he kept winning fights, until he had graduated to main events, and–unbelievably– got ranked in the top 10.

He wasn’t courageous in the way you would normally understand it, where a fighter would take tremendous punishment, and then summon something from within to storm back. Jackson couldn’t get out of the way of punches and seemed never to feel pain; he just soaked it up and kept flailing and swatting. He was like some terrible toy you couldn’t shut off no matter how many times you slammed it against the wall.

Watching Jackson in boxing gloves was like listening to Roseanne Barr sing The Star Spangled Banner.

Jackson’s only response to any question was: “Wanna shoot rats?”

Hard to imagine Whitey Bimstein and George Gainsford–guys who worked with Robinson, Tunney, and Greb– associating themselves with this oddity, but they did, and he managed to beat a lot of good fighters.

Summing it all up, there’ve been great fighters from gyms all over the country, and good trainers, but never in the sport’s history have we seen so many greats all in one place at one time. In the golden age of boxing, Stillman’s produced more world class fighters then any other place ever had. The disheartening thing is: there’s not even a marker to even indicate it’s existence, only an apartment house now sits on the spot. But over forty years ago, it was the center of the boxing universe.


A version of this story appeared previously on

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§ 17 Responses to “Stillman’s Gym: The Center of the Boxing Universe”

  • Thomas King says:

    This story was great! My mom, now 86 Yrs. old met my dad at Stillman’s Gym. She worked as a soda jerk, down stairs. He was a boxing trainer, and brought his fighters into the soda fountain for protein drinks. I have never seen my dad, as they parted ways shorty after I was born. Ironically she came to Santa Barbara, California. The same place that”Mr. Stillman,”retired to! Wow,thanks

  • Finding my way in the late 70’s early 80’s SG had reincarnated @ 40th St. and 8th Ave. We stepped in ;stepped
    up , my mechanic Georgie White ; my mentalist Frankie Villes, Early Am’s 4x went a couple hard rounds,
    kept the hard boys at bay with an ability to code switch Uncle Jack D’s “Joltin Jab” All love and deepest respect
    to the truly Hard Men… The Professors. B.P. Chan, William Chen, Wai Hong, free style classicists par excellence.

  • Wills Robbins says:

    My father Al Robbins was a fighter at this exact time mentioned so many of the names listed in article and was friends with many discussed. He even mention that someone from the Jackie Gleason show came to Stillman’s Gym to recruit a few boxers for the Calvalcade of Stars and he was selected and did a skit on TV with Jackie Gleason.

  • My father, Sam Graham worked at Stillman’s Gym with Irving Cohen and trained many fighters. I grew up in this gym 1952 I was in Elementary School around the corner PS 58 and was there when Requiem for a Heavyweight was filmed there. There was a cast party afterward and I danced with Jackie Gleason. Whitey Bimstein, Charlie Goldman, etc. The old Madison Square Garden was on eighth avenue between 50th and 49th and covered about 3/4 of the block. The marquee entrance was on Eighth Avenue between 50 and 49th street but in the corner of the building on 50th street there was a marquee entrance and on the 2nd floor was the boxing offices. Duke Stephano, Harry Marxim, Teddy Brenner and my father were in this office. On the top floor was a skating rink. We entered the arena from this side entrance.

  • Sean Stillman says:

    Love all the stories of my grandfather i see pics and hear about him from my fathers point but i love everyones stories im proud to be Stillman

  • I lived and breathed Gillette’s Friday night fights. Never made it to Stillman’s as I was a kid living in Montreal. But my mother bought me a clock radio so that I could listen to the fights in bed. With the lights out and the rat-tat-tat of Don Dunphy’s voice sharing every blistering blow with us I was in a heaven that not any of the 4 super-sized TV LCD screens I presently have in the house could come close to duplicating.
    I can still give you a blow by blow recall of Joe Louis landing on the jaw of Billy Conn. And I share a birthday with Tony Canzonera. Thank you Joe Rein.

  • Robin says:

    My father won the Golden Gloves in 1945
    His manager was Al Braverman and a man name Whitty
    Sugar Ray Robinson was a good friend and would work out at the Stillman gym
    My father told me one day Paul Newman was a new actor playing the part of a boxer and my Father was a the Stillman and said to my Dad – Rocky you want to make 500 dollars this young actor needs to learn my father did go and they went into the ring and knock him out fooling around
    My father was always at that gym with his boxing friends they were all famous !!!!
    My Father had had 68 professional fights and 17 where first round knock outs the fastest one was April 27 1955 at Miami convention center 9 seconds they put 11 though Kid Gavillian 11
    Did passed away in 1998 and not one interview he went out the back door
    Told me I can write a book of him now it’s time!!!!! My sons 47-36 and a 19 year old now is the time !!!! Being a single parent Mother now it’s time Dad!!!! Sean Stillman my Dad loved your families Gym!!!!!!
    Love you Dad!!!!!
    Robin XOXO

  • John Kennedy says:

    Terrific read. Does anyone know of any articles about Stillman’s Gym covering the late 1920s and early 1930s, when English world champion Jack Kid Berg was one of the lads using it on a regular basis? I’d really appreciate it. Cheers.

  • Robin says:

    Hello Mr Beller
    I wanted to thank you so much to post of the Stillnan gym and all of your knowledge that took place!! I was very young and my Father was very proud to be a part of that field of athletes !!! Which is the hardest training of all!!!! I was very young child at the time living in Brooklyn and knowing about history of where my Father attended means a lot to me!!! I know that many knew of Rockys Robin and I am so proud to be his Daughter that will be writing a story and I will be submitting it to your company!!!! My Fathers managers where Whitey Bimsten and Al Braverman !!!
    In my post I did not mention my Father and I were separated when I was almost 2 which hurt him very much it was Al Braverman when I found out about Rocky and Al Was so happy to hear from me told me your Father has been searching for me 20 years !!!! Al told me where my Father was I notified him and came to see me that weekend in ft Lauderdale !!!!
    Wish they were all here to see them all and give them a big hug my Father said they were all great men !!!!
    Thank you Mr Beller!!

  • Wonderful read. My dad won the Golden Gloves 5 times and the Silver Gloves 6 times and the Dominion of Canada twice. He went Pro after the war and ended up in New York and training at Stillman’s. I hope to make it to New York one day and have a look at the place he spent so much time at. Thank you for the story.

  • Kelly says:

    A dear family friend, Gene Gosney, fought there. Does the gym still exist today? We are in NY visiting and would like to go by there.

  • Wonderful read…The description of the gym and the Damon Runyon like characters described can conjure up a picture that will never be recreated.Starting a gym and training and managing fighters along with promoting shows gives you a taste and sense of what it must have been like in the hay-days of boxing back when Stillman’s was the Meca of boxing in United States and for that matter the Western world. Those days and characters were a class that cannot be recreated in today’s world of computers and plastic people. Sometimes I phantasize about time travel. Just to have the gift of a week at Stillman’s in the mid 1940’s and be able to just sit and watch and listen to the cast of characters as they lived out their dreams in those historic surroundings.

  • Laurie says:

    Does anyone recognize the name Paul Bordanaro (don’t know if this is spelled right) , a boxer from back in the 1930’s – 1940’s sometime? I believe that he trained at this gym and had a couple of fights there as well. Please reach out to me and let mw know if this sounds familiar.

  • Tracy says:

    I have an old photo, I would love for someone to recognize the men in the photo. I know one is Paddy DeMarco the day after he won the World Title.

  • Adrienne says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s great. Does anyone remember the name Charlie Sparrow? He would have been around the gyms (just training, not professional) the same time as Frank Sinatra. He told us a story about his friend trying to set up a match between him and Sinatra.

  • Morgana echevarria says:

    I have my grandfathers fight “card” from Stillmans. Joe Echevarria, he trained there and was involved in a miss match with sugar ray. If anyone has any info or knows of my grandfather can you please comment back to me, he passed when my dad was young. His card reads ” Joe echevarria, Puerto Rican featherweight sensation”

  • Tony Razzano says:

    I once trained at stillmans…a great experience meeting joe louis, rocky graziano and sugar ray robinson my manager was joe franco from brooklyn ,,,,,,anyway i’m 90 years old and have plenty memories. god bless all

§ Leave a Reply

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