In 1982, Bruce Silverglade, in his 30s at the time, went into partnership with Ira Becker, the second owner of Gleason’s gym. Ira was in his 70s.
Silverglade says: “I came from an age where elders were to be respected. I had a great deal of respect for Ira and basically left the main decisions up to him. During this time, there was a lot of filming at the gym and a lot of the women on the crews wanted to try boxing training. More and more women were asking and Ira refused to allow the women to train.”
- Bruce Silverglade, owner of the gym and wife Jo Ellen Van Ouwerkerk, who is a surrealist artist in New York.
Finally things changed in 1983 – when Silverglade suggested to Ira that women’s money would go into the Gleason’s bank account just as easily as men’s – and women have been a part of Gleason’s Gym ever since.
“Ira allowed me to close the gym early two nights per week to allow the women to train. This was the only way to accommodate women in our Manhattan space; it had one shower and changing room. Upon the move to Brooklyn in 1987, the women’s program at Gleason’s Gym had proved so popular that they received their own locker rooms. We now train in excess of 400 ladies. A large percentage of our female membership has no desire to compete on an amateur or professional level. Boxing training gives an incredible workout, even for those who never strike another and are never hit in return! During your training at Gleason’s Gym you will use a combination of exercises to build cardiovascular fitness, strength, quickness and agility. Mental stimulation is provided by exposure to new techniques, which in turn, offer stress release, teach you how to overcome fatigue, and give you the exhilaration and toughness of combat. Boxers develop a lean low fat physique, not unlike a dancer or long-distance runner.”
- Inside the gym at Water Street, Brooklyn.
Women are now a growing phenomenon in USA boxing and can compete in sanctioned amateur competition within the US and internationally. There are currently thousands of women boxers registered with USA Boxing. The popularity of women’s boxing has increased dramatically since its inception in 1993 (when USA Boxing, the governing body of amateur boxing in the US, officially lifted its ban on women’s boxing in October 1993). Not only are the numbers of women growing rapidly in the US, there is a dramatic increase in female boxing numbers around the world.
The women fighters give better fights and much bigger followings. But the promoters do not put them on in main events. The promoters are traditionalists and are stuck in their old ways. The women are drawn to here because of the environment – Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s Gym
Carolyn DiCarlo, below – sparring with Michael Burke, designed the new gym. “It’s a community at Gleason’s.” DiCarlo says, “I think because the sport itself has heart. I tried to convey that through the layout of the gym plan. You walk right into the middle of it all when you walk into the gym on your way to the lockers. Suddenly you’re right in the heart of it. Heavy bags are swinging at you, you’re dodging jump ropes. It’s all a part of it. Even the meandering plan of the offices of the trainers is about the hangout community places carved in the nooks.”
Before boxing she considered it a violent and debasing sport. “I now see it as a dance, an integration of mind, body, spirit. You can’t be in your head so you have no choice but to integrate and be in the moment. Otherwise you get hit. You develop a solid core, wicked reflexes and can face your fears. I am 59 now and feel in as good shape or better than when I was 25, and with better reflexes. As a woman, the gym for me is a haven. From the minute I walk into the gym I leave the stresses of the day outside on the curb. After boxing now for close to seven years I still get butterflies in my stomach while I’m walking in, whether it’s to spar or just train I still get nervous. What’s empowering for me is to get to feel those feelings and know exactly what to do with them, to walk straight into the fear and show up anyway. Boxing has trained me to be brave. By feeling scared but still knowing how to react by letting go of the fear and being completely present in the moment. It’s a whole different mental space to learn to feel calm in the face of potential harm. In life, much like in the ring, it’s all about showing up, and as my coach Darryl always says: ‘It’s not always about hitting, it’s about not getting hit.’ I apply that to my life every day.”
- Ronica Jeffrey is the International Women’s Boxing Federation world super-featherweight champion.
It was very hard to get a picture of Ronica hitting anything. Her rhythm was constantly changing, making it impossible to judge when she would hit the bag next. With each flurry of punches there would be no syncopated beat. When I said this to her, her coach laughed and said that is why she is a world champion – Tim Knox, photographer
Ronica Jeffrey came to the gym originally to lose weight. “I was young at the time and couldn’t afford a regular gym, so I came to Gleason’s through a friend of mine. Now the reasons are different, it fills a void in my life that I didn’t even know was missing, or I could say that it created a different type of love for me. It has changed me as an individual; I think it has shown me a lot of things about my self, certain characteristics I didn’t know I had, and I’m able to give that to other girls, to people that don’t understand what it is all about. The feeling, what boxing is all about. A lot of people misunderstand it and make it a brutal thing but I think it is something that is very passionate, something that you have to be smart to do. It takes a lot out of you and makes you figure out which direction you are going to go. You are either going to bite down and do what you have to do or are you going to run away? It gives you that choice and whichever one you decide that’s the one that’s going to make you or breaks you.”
Heather Hardy, above, holds the WBC international female super-bantamweight title. “I was going through a divorce and living with my sister and working a whole bunch of jobs. One day they opened up a small karate school in my neighbourhood. My sister said she was tired of hearing me work and bitch, so she got me a gift certificate. So I went and in three weeks I had my first fight and I won. I lost a kickboxing match to a girl who beat me with a jab. I trained so hard and couldn’t understand how I lost a fight but I didn’t get beat up.”
Hardy continues: “Being a fighter and being a woman, I see being a fighter as being a natural extension of myself. It’s just who I am. I train a lot of women. They come for the community to be around other strong women and to feed off that energy. Boxing has really turned into something different from the times of Mike Tyson, when it was about thugs, an aggressive sport where you had to be so tough. Boxing gyms were intimidating but now there’s a new wave of boxing fitness studios. The thing with boxing and any martial arts, is that people expect you to be so confident on the street because you know how to fight and can beat anybody up who tries to bother you. They say: ‘I would hate to be the one who steals your wallet.’ The thing with boxing and martial arts is that it doesn’t give you the confidence that you know how to beat someone up, it gives you the confidence that you can withstand anything that someone throws at you. It’s not so much that I’m so strong I can beat you up but that I’m so strong I’m not going to let you beat me.”
- Keisher “Fire” McLeod, current WIBA world champion and four-times Golden Gloves champion, poses in the gym and, below, is helped with her training by her partner Tayshawn Autry.
Keisher “Fire” McLeod was recruited while training in a boxing gym for an acting role. “I needed to bulk up in the arms,” McLeod said. “The gym was also full of cute guys. The trainers wanted to know if I have ever competed before. They told me that they would make me a champion in a year. After I won my first championship, I was hooked. It becomes such a family that you never want to leave. It is an intense sport and before that I was very angry, confrontational and bitter from the acting industry, and it made me calm. My talent was being appreciated in the ring: it is not about how you look but what you put into the ring. One of you is going to get hurt if you don’t have the skills.”
Sonya Lamonakis is a Greek-American boxer and New York City schoolteacher. She is ranked No4 in the women’s heavyweight division in the World Boxing Council and is a former IBO world heavyweight champion.
I was at an ATM one night when two men came up each side of me, slit my throat and robbed me. After that I moved to NY and started to box. Within three months I had won my first fight – Sonya Lamonakis
Renee Rickenbacker, below, is a biochemistry student in her final year and has been boxing for eight months. “I got into boxing because my boyfriend told me I couldn’t fight,” Renee says. “Someone got me very upset and my boyfriend asked me what I was going to do about it. It’s not like you can fight anyway. So I thought: ‘I’ll show you’ and started boxing. I feel very empowered by the sport. Besides getting in shape, it’s the mental strength. You have to keep going even though you are completely exhausted.”
She adds: “Boxing has been predominantly male and being a woman in boxing just shows I can do it to. [It is] very empowering knowing that you can do it. I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to actually fight. I chose Gleason’s because I heard Muhammad Ali trained here and they have a legacy of champions. You really don’t know what your body and mind are capable of until you’re in the ring.”
Melissa St Vil is a Haitian-American boxer in the lightweight division, who works at Overthrow Boxing Gym, teaching boxing fitness classes, and she boxes professionally. She is training in the tutu as it is her birthday. Melissa said: “I had a very violent home and boxing was one of the ways to cope with it.”
- Selena Shannon has had two amateur fights and has been training for a year.
The community of support that I have from all the women in Gleason’s is really big for me. As a woman it has given me the ‘yes I can’ attitude. Despite the fact that women are oppressed in this society every day, I can be my own champion – Selena Shannon
“For me it just happened. I wanted to get foot in the door for stunt work so started boxing to learn a fighting technique. But now and for the last year I’ve been training to fight. Gleason’s is a world famous gym, so I thought that I would be a good place. As I started I fell in love and decided to fight.
“I noticed the change in my life due to the dedication it takes and the really raw aspect of the sport; you have to put your heart into it. You find out the person you are when you have no choice, when you can’t back out, in the ring. It teaches a lot about yourself: the better I get at boxing the better I am at life. It opens up a new way of pushing through tough times, through the uncomfortable, and it creates an avenue of change. It is way beyond just feeling safer and more powerful, it is beyond that. It is the mental strength that has really empowered me. You do see a lot of women get involved in the sport who have been abused. It’s definitely a pattern. But rather than be victimised continually with it I can raise above it now.
- Jazz singer Jessica Young, army veteran Natasha Lemaitre and high school senior Fiona Beswick.
Jessica Young says: “At the age of four I started ballet five hours a day, five days a week for 13 years. I compare a lot of the footwork in boxing to ballet: you need to learn to float and move with ease and grace. It then must be combined with the speed and impact of your punches and defence. Similar to ballet, professional boxers make it appear to look swift and easy but it certainly is not. I have been boxing for two years, not only do I love the discipline that is required of boxing but it gives me a sense of empowerment and confidence that can only come from within. The empowerment is not one of a physical nature, it’s entirely mental. I feel fit, I feel strong, I feel confident. There have been times where I thought because I was training so much that maybe I should perhaps enter a white-collar fight and at Gleason’s you’re watching all the other people and all the pro females train, which is inspiring. It gives me confidence and discipline. It all boils down to the sense of confidence and empowerment, this raw ability, something that is innate to human nature. But knowing, as silly as it sounds, that walking down the street in heels and knowing that you have the ability to get all sweaty and gritty at the gym is a really cool balance for me.”
Army veteran Natasha Lemaitre says: “I always loved boxing. Since I’ve been training I love it so much I’m going to build myself up to do an amateur fight. You always feel so welcome at Gleason’s; it’s great for training. I’m in awe of the women boxers. I’ve always been interested and when I found out there was a program for veterans [the owner of Gleason’s lets veterans come to the gym for free] I decided to join and fell in love with it.”
Fiona Beswick is a senior in high school and began boxing in August after taking photographs at Gleason’s for a school project. “I was fascinated by the sport, it was unlike anything I had seen before. I guess I decided to box because I wanted to see what it would be like to broaden my perspective from being someone that knew little about the mechanics of boxing, what it takes to box, and solely having the point of view of a photographer/outsider, to pushing myself to get in the ring. I can say that I have really enjoyed training, especially in an environment like Gleason’s that is very supportive. Boxing challenges what is stereotypically considered feminine as well as traditional gender roles. I think it is important for women to know that boxing is an empowering thing to do and to support female boxing so that women feel comfortable trying the sport and are supported in their aims to become stronger. It is an important thing to have not only for physical health but in terms of mental health. It increases confidence, something I personally definitely lacked. I’m a nervous person and find it very empowering.”
- Two-times world champion Joan Guzmán, right, training Jena Red.
“This training works out the entire body,” says C’Lynne O’Brien, a 51-year-old health industry professional. “It is very empowering and you always feel great after, you can feel yourself getting stronger. You walk into the gym and don’t feel intimidated. It is a very motivating environment.” O’Brien boxed for two years then had some health issues that got in the way. “Now I’ve started getting back into it. Slowly coming back but it doesn’t take long to really feel the difference. As a woman it is empowering. When you walk in there is no difference between men and women in Gleason’s. It is not modified because you are woman. Anybody can do it.”
- C’Lynne O’Brien and Hannah Benson
There is nothing more scary than having a 12-year-old boy punch you in the face – Hannah Benson, who loves being able to learn to face fear
“I am currently an undergraduate senior at New York University,” Hannah Benson says. “I have been focused on athletics since a young age, growing up swimming very competitively from the time I was eight years old. Since I began college I have missed my muscles and the feeling that comes with knowing that I am strong and in shape. The idea of boxing terrified me and excited me, so I decided to give it a try. Since I started boxing at Gleason’s, I found myself a team and a coach who I have built a bond with. Working alongside them makes coming back each day worth it. My physical strength has been a large part of my identity since a young age. I’m not sure what it means for me explicitly as a woman but as a woman with an identity, I do know that the physical and mental strength that I gain from boxing is an important part of me feeling like my best and truest self.”
Gabriella Gulfin has been boxing for four-and-a-half years and is about to turn pro MMA and then pro boxing. In 2017 she took the 112-pound title at New York’s Golden Gloves and in 2016 won the ACC (Aggressive Combat Championships) strawweight belt and is also a black belt in taekwondo. “I started boxing to get better with my hands in MMA.” Gulfin says. “When I was six all I wanted was to be a female Bruce Lee. I had to nag my parents for five years to do martial arts; they bought me piano lessons. I used to run away and sneak into the taekwondo school till finally my parents let me take classes. It turned out I was really good at it and started in tournaments soon after. With boxing I really like the awareness of my body, where my body is in space, how I distribute my weight and especially when I box I feel like I’m dancing, that I’m expressing myself. I’m kind of dancing with the person I’m fighting with. It is kind of like a game to me, a very exciting game with high stakes and I really enjoy that. I like how other women fight, like Amanda Serrano and Heather Hardy I really love. I love that women tend to be very technical when they fight. I pay a lot of attention to detail, when I throw punches, keeping my elbow down, and snapping my punches and chambering them quickly. I don’t notice the empowering element. I guess I’ve always felt empowered. We may not be the same but we are all equal.”
Jenna Gaglioti is an amateur boxer as well as a strength and conditioning coach. “I love working with all athletes. Also, I do love helping people, so I am a mentor to help young adults stay on the right track,” Gaglioti says. “As a little girl, my older brother would always teach me how to protect myself. Competitively, I have been boxing for a year. I can still express myself, so it hasn’t changed but reasons have been added. I want to help female boxing grow. There are so many female world champions that people don’t know about. I want them to be known and recognised for their greatness. Boxing is very empowering. Many people look up to me because of it. Women and men tell me that I am empowering, motivating and inspiring. As a woman, it makes me feel amazing knowing that I can help other people just by boxing.”
- Five-times world champion Alicia ‘Slick’ Ashley, left, sparring
Alicia ‘Slick’ Ashley is a current Guinness world record holder – for the oldest person, male or female, to win a boxing championship, at the age of 50. “I started out as a classical dancer and had a scholarship for dance but I tore my meniscus one year and that just curtailed my dancing. My brother was doing karate at night and wanted me to do it for years and I finally came into it. It came relatively easy because of my flexibility and discipline, and I liked performing and challenging myself more so I started kickboxing. In my first fight I fought a boxer. With kickboxing all you have to do is kick eight times in the round then you could box the whole time, so a lot of boxers got into it. Got their kicks out of the way and would put me in a corner and I didn’t really know how to use my hands, so I learned how to box. I didn’t really want to do it. I thought it was brutal until I started doing it and experienced the nuances of the sport. I really enjoy performing and when I go into the ring I’m that prima ballerina. I’m there to perform and everyone else is just there to make me look good,” she said with a smile on her face. “I’m always trying to place that person in the right spot to make me shine.”
Source: The Guardian