The Two Worlds of Boxing in Boston
On a cold weekday night in early April, several dozen people complete a circuit of ten squats and four jabs, punching the air with wrapped hands to an invisible opponent. Pop music booms out of speakers during a class titled, Bags + Booty.
Rowing machines, exercise bikes, and heavy bags line the walls around two boxing rings. Inside the ring are two men, one wearing padded focus mitts while the other uses them for targets as he throws a series of combination punches. An exposed brick wall is spray-painted black with a graffiti-style silhouette of two boxers fighting and the slogan “Everybody fights” in white and orange. An organic juice bar is hidden on the second floor, just next to a room designated for abs and stretching.
The Club is of Boston’s newest boxing gyms, started by George Foreman III, one of the sons of the two-time World Heavyweight Champion. Opened in 2013, The Club resides in the trendy Fort Point which borders South Boston and offers classes that start at $30 each or $115 per month. The members not only pay for a boxing experience, but access to luxury amenities like saunas in the locker rooms.
However, boxing is known for its humble beginnings. Many have fought their way out of poverty through the sport and risen to win championships. International Boxing Hall of Famer, Sugar Ray Leonard once said, “Boxing is a poor man's sport. We can't afford to play golf or tennis. It is what it is. It's kept so many kids off the street. It kept me off the street." In Boston, beyond The Club and other boxing-themed gyms, the other world of fighting still exists.
Joe O’Malley is from that world. He grew up training to fight in South Boston. But he gave it up years ago. Today, he stands next to The Club’s juice bar, peering down to the lower level at the Bags + Booty class. He’s wearing jeans and a simple black fleece jacket and his voice is raspy with a thick South Boston accent.
“I don’t actually box here. I run security for the building,” he said. “But I used to fight growing up.”
He learned from his uncle who was a better known fighter, O’Malley said. He remembers sparring with guys at different gyms around South Boston, but none were like The Club. Doesn’t seem like a lot of fighters come through here, he said. Nevertheless, he still likes to watch the mitt training at The Club between his rounds at work.
Boxing is the oldest sport, according to Jessica Musto, Vice President of TITLE Boxing Club in Boston. “It’s not a fad. It’s not something that just popped up. And it’s not going to go away,” she said. Her belief in the longevity of the sport, for both professional athletes and fitness goers, is anchored in the same physical outcomes. “There’s no out of shape professional boxers. They’re all lean - no muscle and no fat. All they do is box.”
Fight Trainer, Cassie Brown, has been a trainer at The Club for over a year. At the beginning she spent three days a week learning how to box and how to teach boxing with Foreman III. While she holds a degree in Kinesiology and certifications in personal and group fitness training, she’d never boxed before.
“The hardest thing is it’s a sport. Because I’m so focused on the workout itself. I had to constantly be reminded to put myself with an opponent,” Brown said of her training. She moved back and forth with her hands balled up into fists. She does not fight competitively. “I’m reacting to this movement. It gives you more intentional moves. That’s why it’s so intense for people.”
Brown was excited for her newest class offering titled, Bags + Dance. “I like making movements believable. So I’d watch George and mimic what he was doing. I realized how smooth it could be,” she said.
Marcy Spaulding was only visiting Boston, but heard good things about The Club and decided to try a class. Spaulding has a slim frame, but her shoulders are broad and muscular. She is the owner/director of BFX Studio, a boutique multi-discipline, cross-training gym in New York.
“There’s a little more skill and discipline to boxing,” she said. “I like how gyms like this one have a community feel. It’s not intimidating at all.”
Also trying boxing for the first time is Rosemary Pinales. But she is four miles away at the Grealish Boxing Club in Dorchester.
Pinales is timidly holding her hands out while her friend, Malco Simeon, is methodically wrapping them with pink wraps. “I’ve never done this before,” she said. “But I want to do what I can in two weeks.” She plans to join the Army and she must meet the required 35.5 inches waist circumference for the Army Physical Fitness Test.
“I need to lose weight,” she said.
The masculine culture of boxing has not deterred women of all sizes and ages to join. Spaulding and Pinales are part of the growing trend of women who seek the benefits of a boxer’s physique, without the competition.
The Grealish offers women’s classes three times per week, taught by two-time Golden Gloves amateur winner Maureen O’Brien. Late on a Wednesday night, she sat on the edge of the ring waiting for women to show up.
“It’s been a long winter. I haven’t seen many women come by,” she said. She looks to the clock. “It’ll probably pick up again when the weather gets nicer.” O’Brien’s class costs $12 or it’s free with a $50 monthly membership, one-third of the cost of Foreman III’s The Club.
However, the sign at the front door gives a sense that tracking dues are not a top priority. A small chalkboard sign reminder is a few months off. It reads, November dues please pay.
The single-room gym occupies the second floor of a building off of Freeport Street in Dorchester. Sounds of heavy breathing, rattling chains holding up heavy bags, and the punches of leather hitting leather, echo across the gym. It’s a composition that plays over the radio, which continues until the bell rings marking the end of a round. The white walls are littered with old photos, newspaper clippings that bear fighters’ victories, and posters advertise championship fights.
“With real boxing, you smell the sweat and the blood,” Jimmy Farrell Jr. said. He is one of the trainers at the gym.
“They’re chasing the dream,” he said. In his 40-year career, Farrell said he has never given up on anyone who actually wants to train.
Rashad Thames, 22, is one of those fighters. He moved from Oklahoma City last week to live with his girlfriend, also a boxer, and to get better training. One day over three years ago, Thames saw Floyd Mayweather on TV. “I saw him fight and thought, I want to do that.”
Within six months, Thames turned pro at 19. He fights at 135 lbs. and his six fight career to date has landed a record of 3-2-1.
“When I used to visit Boston for my girlfriend, I’d also come here. So I know all the guys now,” he said. Since moving, Thames has been to the gym every day working with the owner and head trainer, Martin Grealish.
Grealish walks around the gym, mostly watching one of his fighters, Jose Terrato, 17, spar in the ring.
Adam Verganza, 14, walked in to the gym around 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night. He normally goes to the Gentleman’s Club in Hyde Park, south of Dorchester, but that was well over a year ago. He was looking to get back into the sport with a good trainer and heard about The Grealish.
“I’m here to re-learn, first. I haven’t done this in a while, but I’d like to spar more,” Verganza said. Eventually he’d like to compete. “My mom used to tell me that I hit hard. She was the one who wanted me to start boxing,” he said.
Grealish, the 69-year old native of Galway, Ireland, walked up to Verganza.
“First time?” Grealish asked.
“Yeah,” Verganza responded.
“Get your gloves and warm up. We got a guy that’s a little bigger who you can spar with.”
Verganza walks over to the mirror and begins to punch with an imaginary opponent, his head ducking and weaving between punches. He stopped for a second to look around at the sparring in the ring, and begins again.