Hitting Jackpot

On busy nights, the Church Street Boxing Gym rumbles like a factory floor about to miss a production deadline. Trainers shout encouragement at fighters popping speed bags or pounding heavy bags, and when a shrill bell sounds every few minutes over the blaring hip-hop, the sweaty laborers either step away for a breather or, groaning, go back to work. But tonight, a weeknight in July, only two people are training in the cavernous front room beneath the mural of a young, sleepy-looking Joe Louis. Nonetheless, Justin Blair, the gym’s 28-year-old founder and owner, looks pleased. “Joint’s jumping!” he announces.

Blair’s indomitable good mood can be traced back to March 9, when his gym officially became the focal point of a modest resurgence of boxing in New York. That was the day 25 camera crews and 300 journalists from around the world descended on the gym for a look at Evander Holyfield, who was training in the specially equipped private rear studio – which has a full-size regulation ring – for his soon-to-be-infamous fight with Lennox Lewis. The bout was itself a symbol of the revitalization of the sweet science in its former capital: the first sold-out fight at the Garden in sixteen years and the first heavyweight-title bout held there in six. Blair has managed to put his subterranean gym, just a few blocks from City Hall, at the heart of that renaissance.

Open just two years, Church Street has been attracting top-ranked fighters the way Don King attracts IRS investigators. Former WBA bantamweight champ Johnny Tapia and current IBF welterweight champ Felix Trinidad were among the first to come down for prefight tune-ups; other champs, like James Page and Joey Gamache, have shown up just to mingle with the rank and file. Word of Church Street’s clean yet gritty atmosphere even enticed the beleaguered Mike Tyson to come out of his seclusion for a workout.

Showtime was so pleased with the experience Tapia had training for the cable channel’s televised and promoted fight that this week it’s sending down the entire card from the big August 7 Atlantic City event – Shannon Briggs vs. Francois Botha, Marcus Antonio Barrera vs. Pastor Maurin.

Church Street is far too young to have earned the cachet of a place like Stillman’s, the legendary Hell’s Kitchen gym where boxers flocked in the forties and fifties, but it’s already scoring points. “The problem with other gyms is, the maintenance sucks – like the swivel for the speed bag isn’t working and no one changes it for months,” says Steve Frank, a super-middleweight with a national title. “Here, you get better service.” Tim Hallmark, Evander Holyfield’s strength-and-conditioning coach for thirteen years, ranks Church Street among the best gyms he’s seen anywhere. “You can tell right away they’re trying to accommodate the fighter’s needs,” he says approvingly.

Accommodation is exactly what Tapia wasn’t getting at gyms he tried before Church Street. “A couple made me take off my shoes, and they switched the music I had on. You’re used to a routine, and you don’t want to change it the week before a fight.”

Word of mouth like that could make Church Street a latter-day see-and-be-seen Stillman’s – especially if New York really does undergo a rope-a-dope revival. Blair’s confident of both. “There’s 8 million people walking into one another on the subway, smelling each other …” He pauses suggestively. “There’s a need for simulated combat.”

Hitting Jackpot