An Ode to a Boxing Gym

Joe OneillCorrespondent IIApril 15, 2009

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - NOVEMBER 23:  Arturo Gatti hits Mickey Ward with an overhand right during their junior welterweight bout on November 23, 2002 at Convention Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

I've played a lot of sports in my years...from baseball and basketball in my high school and college years to skiing and mountain biking in my 20s and 30s.

No one sport touched me as much as boxing.

No place touched me like Sylva's Boxing Gym in Ventura, Calif.

A gym in a backstreet in an old abandoned warehouse with just a little sign out front. I walked in when I was 38 years old and had never boxed a day in my life.

I'd become disillusioned with the sanitized athletic club where I was working out and wanted something different.

From the minute I first walked in, I loved it. I loved that it was completely industrial. No pretense. Cement floors. Two boxing rings, about eight heavy bags, some speed bags, and enough room to jump rope.

The smell of sweat, adrenaline, and determination.

I started going to Sylva's four or five times a week after work.

My workout always starts the same.

I'd walk in with my duffel bag of gear, give a nod to a couple of guys, sit down on a bench, and start wrapping my hands. I'd take my time wrapping to get it just right - maybe 10 minutes.

As I'm twisting the cloth around my hands, my eyes are up scanning the gym to see who is working out. I get into a 'vibe' at Sylva's. I forget about my worries and my stresses. I become relaxed.

I might start off my jumping some rope, shadow box, hit the bag for a few rounds, maybe work on the mitts. My boxing sessions are always riddled with banter with guys at the gym. It's intense and casual all at the same time.

Guys working with each other, correcting a flaw in a technique or notice a telegraph on a hook. The Mexican guys will put on some Latin music and that will get the place jumping.

No gangsta rap is allowed. The owner, George Sylva, might bust out his congas and slip in some Santana.

I remember the first time I ever sparred was at Sylva's...and I choked big time. I was pretty good and had been training for almost a year.

But something happened when I stepped in the ring the first time. I started to hyperventilate. My legs froze. I couldn't "let go" with my fists. I got pummeled by a guy I should have taken apart.

Afterwards, I felt nothing but shame and embarrassment. I left the gym without saying 'goodbye' to anyone. I got in my car, drove for about ten minutes, then pulled over and just broke down. I had let down myself and, more importantly, I'd embarrassed my gym.

I never wanted to go back.

That is until I got a phone call from Joe De La Cruz, a local pro I'd gotten to know. Joe told me not to worry about happens to everyone.

He told me I was a good fighter and the most important thing was to get back in the gym the next day. That I'd never forgive myself if I gave up.

The following day, tail between my legs, I quietly slipped back in. I expected guys to laugh at me. Point and smirk in my direction. Whisper at how lousy I'd fought.

Nobody did.

Guys came up, shook my hand, and told me I had heart for stepping in there. Told me not to worry about it and get back in.

I started my usual work out and George came out and made me get in the ring, just some light sparring with him.

He worked with me, hit me with a few good rights, and instructed me until I found my rhythm. I started to get off (unfortunately, I tagged George with a few good rights of my own).

Pretty soon, he wasn't pulling his punches so much. I was getting hit, but it felt good. It part of me was being set free. That part that was so fearful. That part that held back was being let go.

Three rounds later I was spent. George and I hugged. I had a swollen eye and a fat lip but it was one of the best feelings of my life.

From that moment on, I felt something for Sylva's I'd never felt for anything else in my life.

It felt sacred to me. I really, deeply cared for that place. It was church to me. A place of redemption and salvation.

There were always characters at Sylva's.

One time a 70-year-old man told me he show me a thing or two about boxing. I laughed him off...some crazy old man. He gets in the ring and starts tagging me with jabs and telling me how slow I am. Couldn't get a glove on him.

Turns out this guy was "Windmill" Ray White, a former heavyweight who'd fought Archie Moore, Larry Holmes, and George Foreman.

The old-timers are always talking about the best fighters and fights of all-time. Sugar Ray Robinson is the consensus best pound-for-pound fighter of all time. Ali came in a close second.

They talk about the Golden Age of the middleweights in the eighties with Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, and Duran. The Mexican and Puerto Rican fighters are always at odds with a natural rivalry.

I guess that's what I love about the sport. The history and the tradition. The stories and the characters. It's a sport reaped with nostalgia.

Joe Louis was the first prominent African-American of the 20th century. Muhammad Ali was the most popular athlete of his time. Julio Cesar Chavez is a national treasure in Mexico.

Right now, Manny Pacquaio is bigger than Elvis, Michael Jordan, and John Wayne combined in the Philippines.

There's something about boxing that cuts to the core of you. No bullshit. You can't fake your way in the ring. You take out of it exactly what you put into it.

I know boxing has its detractors. They talk about how primal it is. At it's worst, it is unbelievably brutal. Every year, boxers die in the ring. Hundreds, maybe thousands more, are left punch drunk.

Those are the pros. The guys who do it for a living and take thousands of head shots over years of abuse.

Like many guys, I hadn't been in a fight since grade school. I just wanted to know if I could get in the ring. I wasn't going to get seriously hurt. I've been hurt a lot worse snowboarding or mountain biking.

Sylva's and boxing taught me more about myself than any psychotherapist ever could. It isn't about taking or giving a punch, it's about overcoming fears and insecurities. It's about working hard and finding something inside of you you didn't know existed.

In all that sweat and blood I always came out feeling clean.

So I'll continue to watch boxing and I'll continue to box until I'm an old man and, hopefully, can jump in the ring with some young guy and show him a thing or two.


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