Packing a Punch

In gyms across america, a new generation of fashion-conscious professionals is discovering the visceral thrill—and intense workout—of boxing. Joshua David stein steps into the ring.
The rhythms of a boxing gym are circular and seductive. The clanging bells…the punching bags…each with its own tenor according to its size. The heavy bags—man-shaped, beat-up, taped-up—hang like meat carcasses, playing low and thudding bass notes when struck. In the midrange is the double-end bag, about the size of a cantaloupe, suspended between floor and ceiling. At the treble end, there’s the triplet bippity-bippity-bippity of the speed bag against its board. It’s a symphony sliced into three-minute movements, with a one-minute rest, punctuated by an ugly buzz or an urgent ding. But the most alluring of the boxing gym’s sounds aren’t mechanical. They’re made by man.

A boxing gym bursts with a chorus of grunts and the exhalations of boxers boxing, the shouts of trainers as their fighters go to work on each other in a creaky old ring, the exultations of the winner and the silent slouch of the defeated.

And while it’s been decades since the heyday of Ali-Frazier, when a heavyweight title bout was as much a cultural event as a sporting one, boxing, with its grit, sweat and primal allure, endures. In fact, in an age gone digital, virtual and superficial, the unofficial sport of army bases and prisons has found new footing among the young and fashionable—as workout and spectacle.
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Heavyweight champion Joe Frazier delivers a Herculean blow against Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century
At the Soho House in Chicago’s West Loop, the entire second floor of the former warehouse has been transformed into an old-school boxing gym. Handsome tan leather bags hang from the girders; gloves are lined neatly along one wall. The ring—its canvas augmented by ropes and corner guards crafted by heritage tanner Horween—occupies the center space where Chi-Town creatives could, if they wanted to, pick up a few hard-won bruises over the lunch hour. Up in Minneapolis, the Uppercut Gym offers workouts and plays host to things like the Barista Championships, while in New York, the likes of Equinox, Aerospace and Punch Fitness, a gym with locations at the Mark Hotel in the Upper East Side and one in the Hamptons, too offer well-paid professionals the chance to train like a hard-knock fighter from North Philly.
It’s a symphony sliced into three-minute movements, with a one-minute rest, punctuated by an ugly buzz or an urgent ding.
And while this new crowd may sport better workout gear than Rocky’s pedestrian sweats, they’ve heeded Virgil’s exhortation nonetheless: “Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”

That’s actually the motto at Gleason’s Gym, one of the last two mythic boxing meccas remaining in New York. I know because I’ve been boxing there for the last decade. And when I first opened the heavy metal door to Gleason’s second-floor gym in DUMBO, I too was seduced by the rhythms of boxing and I too looked like another clueless dilettante, intoxicated by machismo and romance. In fact, dear reader, I was.
A few months back, in the basement of the former headquarters of the yippie movement in the East Village, a couple of models and a few of those guys who make you wonder what they’re doing hanging out with these models are getting their hands wrapped for class. The entire building houses the Overthrow Boxing Club, the brainchild of a handsome young designer and entrepreneur named Joey Goodwin, who also goes by the name “The Soho Kid.”

There are a few more cameras and open laptops than one typically sees in a traditional boxing gym. The class, called Boxing and Booze, is the pedagogical component of a boxing program Goodwin says will grow to include the underground, unsanctioned fights he’s been throwing since 2011. On a projection screen in the front of the basement, there’s video of previous underground matches. The form is, predictably, horrendous but the cinematography is tops: lots of shirtless, good-looking men smoking cigarettes and lots of nearly shirtless women pouting. It’s like Fight Club, minus the dystopia, or, with a more jaded eye, George Grosz meets George Bellows.
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Intoxicated by machismo and romance, a new wave of willowy warriors are taking to the old-school art of pugilism
Soon a good-looking professional boxer in an artfully ripped T-shirt named Alicia Napoleon has the class line up. Jay Z’s “Can’t Knock the Hustle” blasts from speakers. A few guys, including Carlos Castillo (a trainer from Mendez Boxing Gym, another of the old-school places) and Sidney Smith (a legend of the West 4th Street basketball courts) lounge near the couch in the back. The class, such as it is, turns out to be a pretty standard group workout: There are a ton of push-ups, some work on the bag and a few minutes hitting the mitts. The models don’t flag in the slightest. They’re willowy warriors but fighters nonetheless. Charlie Himmelstein, the champion of the underground model boxing club, helps hold pads and bags and generally assists. We work out for an hour. Later, there’s beer and Instagrams.
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“Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”
While it’s unlikely the next heavyweight (or flyweight) champion of the world is going to be an American-born former runway model with a gazillion Instagram followers and nearly as many tattoos, the rise of Overthrow, along with the Soho House Chicago, Uppercut and the rest, are welcome signs for any fan. If you love pugilism as much as I do, then—whiff of poseur-dom aside—how can you not be pleased to see more people give it a go? Who knows, there may be an Ali among them.

If there’s one thing boxing has taught me, it’s that you never know who the real fighters are until they fight. It even comes as a surprise to the fighters themselves. When there’s a minute left in a round and the bell just won’t come and if you don’t punch back you’ll be punched, all sorts of things come out. Even the toughest seeming fighters can wilt, and even the most tender can instantly harden. In the ring, the cachet of boxing evaporates into something much more serious.

That night, throwing combinations against a heavy bag in the basement, sweating it out with hipsters hell-bent on chronicling their badass-ery, I couldn’t hear myself think or breathe and certainly couldn’t hear the rhythms to which I was accustomed from my own gym. But as it joins the ranks of other groups around the country, inviting fighters to shed their personas and lace up their gloves, Overthrow will prove in time whether it’s worthy of the appellation boxing club. From the opening bell, it’s off to a strong start.
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JOSHUA DAVID STEIN (joshuadavidstein.com) is a New York-based writer, editor and boxer.