Saturday, February 25, 2012

   John's Boxing Club: 
   A South Bronx Field of Dreams
Bobby Gleason's gym, now a parking lot, located to the right

Ray Kinsella’s built his Field of Dreams, a baseball diamond, on his Iowa cornfield. In the 1989 movie of the same name, a voice told Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, “If you build it, he will come.” Kinsella did and deceased ballplayers emerged from the cornstalks behind the outfield.

Pashk Gjini, a seventeen-year-old Albanian immigrant has his Field of Dreams in a run-down former post office in the South Bronx. Located on a desolate stretch of Westchester Avenue John’s Boxing Club is surrounded by a parking lot and elevated subway tracks. In America’s poorest Congressional districts the American dream thrives.

Pashk came to the US at 8. His older brother Gjin, 34, arrived in the late 1990’s. In 2004 Ginj took over the Jerome Boxing Club, founded about 1981, and renamed it John after his son.
Pashk and  banner of world ranked  Clottey and Agbeko, 
At 13 Pashk began working at the club on fight nights. He collected admissions, cash only, at the front door. In 2008 he started working part-time. Pashk, who has a brown belt, said, “I was teaching martial arts but my brother needed me.”

Pashk manages John’s part-time after classes at Cardinal Hayes High School. He captains their playoff soccer team and belongs to the Martin Scorsese Media Center. Scorsese, a Hayes graduate, won an Oscar for Raging Bull, about Bronx native Jake LaMotta.

 “Owning a business is my dream. Pashk pays his tuition with the money he earns. Pashk learned the business with little input from Gjin, a tile setter. “I thought I was too young to work here. My brother believed in me.”

Soon Pashk computerized the business. “Before we kept names and dues on index cards in a box, in no special order.”  He created a website, a Facebook page, used You Tube to showcase events, and listed the gym on search engines. He handed out fliers. He sold tee shirts and hoodies with John’s name. When he broke even he gave the rest away. “Let people wear them instead of collecting dust on a shelf. It’s free advertisement,” Pashk said. His efforts paid off. Membership swelled to over 400 from about 125.

Accepted by several local colleges he plans to study business. A wiry built six-footer, the sandy-hairedPashk spoke no English when he arrived. Today he speaks fluently. He is polite, bright and personable. He deals with the club’s many personalities in a friendly and engaging manner.
Photo from Jerome Boxing Club's heyday. Lamboy in photo.
Boxing clubs once dotted the city’s neighborhoods. They lacked the amenities and sparkle of Equinox or Crunch. Places like Stillman’s, Gleason’s, (original one was next door to John’s) or Gramercy Gym captured the city’s gritty underbelly. They became office or hangout for gangsters, bookies, promoters, hustlers, trainers, pro and amateur fighters, wanna-be-tough guys and boxing devotees.

Sparring session in first ring. Boxers and trainers watch

One Thursday afternoon in late December thirty people work out. Two fighters pound the heavy bags with the intensity of prizefighters. Two jump rope; a fifth, strapped with weights, climbs the tread master. Another weaves his body as if avoiding imaginary punches while popping the N-bag; a seventh pummels a speed bag. A woman zaps her trainer’s padded gloves with hard jabs; a pair of boxers spars in each ring watched by their trainers.

Lulu Arroyo, of Harlem, joined John’s that day. She paid three months dues and extra for a trainer. John costs $50 per month. Trainers charge $35 a week. “My uncle told me this is the place to learn boxing and prepare for the golden gloves,” Ms. Arroyo said. When asked about the mostly male environment she said, “Here they respect boxers male or female.”

John’s members come from Brooklyn, Manhattan and other parts of the Bronx. They are fast food workers, messengers, security guards, immigrants, firemen, cops, teachers, single mothers and golden gloves hopefuls. They hail from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Mike Tyson and Roberto Duran have here. CSI NY and Nike filmed here. Evander Holyfield made a commercial.
Nigerian Blessing Afolayan 
John is home to former IBF champions from Ghana, Joshua Clottey and Joseph Agbeko. A huge banner with their photos hangs on the wall by the main ring.
“Imagine “The Hitter” fought world champ Manny Pacquico in Cowboys stadium before 53,000 on Showtime,” Pashk said referring to Clottey who lost the 2010 fight. Albanian heavyweight, two-time Golden Gloves champ Stivens Bujaj calls John home.

John’s trainers are ex-pros or amateurs. Boxing is in their blood. Understanding Allah, Lorenzo Cidd, Billy Giles, Don Kirschner, and Edwin Viruet bring character and soul. Viruet won 31 fights. He fought Roberto Duran twice, once for the lightweight title. Eastside boxing blog described the Puerto Rican born, Viruet as fearless. Howard Cosell called him courageous and classy. With the grace and movement of Muhammad Ali taunted Duran and smashed him in the face before losing a close decision.
Viruet has trained Wesley Snipes and gangster Sammy Gravano. A boxer’s life is hard. Dreams are fleeting. Today Mr. Viruet squeezes by on social security and food stamps.

Blessing Afolayan trains three to four times a week. He balances work, a family with hard workouts. His girlfriend and their infant sit nearby as he works out.
Afolayan, a native of Nigeria, with a rich boxing tradition, has a 7-2 amateur record. He rips the heavy bag relentlessly. He wants to turn pro soon. “Good fighters here. Good history,” he said. Others like Marcial Lamboy, 55, come here to stay in shape. Lamboy boxed in the Spanish gloves and has trained at this site for 30 years.
Dedicated Lamboy veteran of Jerome Boxing Club

At 80, Don Kirschner is the elder statesman. He is a trainer, an ex-Marine Corp boxer and  co-manager. A South Bronx native, Kirschner and his two brothers trained at Cus D’Amato’s Gramercy Gym for 25 cents apiece. He remembers watching champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. “Cus told a trainer ‘take the three blondies and start them with uppercuts. I want perfection.’”

Kirschner in club's office filled with boxing photos
He teaches principles he learned from D’Amato. He cautions boxers to always defend themselves. “I stress jabs. Counter a punch with your forearm and cover your face. Don’t get hit.”
John is a family affair. “Fathers and daughters train here; couples work out together. Mothers sign up sons to keep them out of trouble,” he said.
The monthly fee is less than at other places yet it is a hardship for many. Kirschner often waves his fee.

Don K, referee,  singer's Noam Weisntein's (L) CD 
With his blonde wavy hair he looks younger than his years. He is sharp-minded and insightful. His hands are cat-quick. His air punches attest to this. He asks boxers “Why do you come here? Do you see yourself as a boxer,” he said “Honesty, concentration and inspiration builds confidence.”

Kirschner said two types come here: those who want to become boxers and kids who want to defend themselves against bullies.
“The bully learns boxing is hard and he is not so tough,” he said.

Membership has fallen as the club fights to survive. The club has had a month-to-month agreement with the city since 2011 and will close soon. A new development is planned for the site.
“John is important to many people. The area has many problems and few resources,” Pashk said. “It gives people an interest, a place to come and feel good and do something positive.”

Kirschner sums it up best.  “We dream of turning pro, training the next champ. We dream to do better. Dreams offer hope.”

Photos by Rudi Papiri; Jerome Boxing Club photo from Marcial Lamboy.
Editor's Note: John's Boxing Club, at 436 Westchester Avenue (between Bergen and Brook), Bronx, NY closes at the end of February. John's is moving one block away to 450 E. 149th St. Located on the second floor the new site will have about 5,000 square feet. The grand opening is slated for March 5.