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Bougie Boxing: The Upscale Gym Movement Arrives in NYC

Fightland Blog

By Peter Madsen

Photo courtesy of OVERTHROW

In a Manhattan landscape increasingly peppered with bourgeoisie comforts like $10 juice bars, $8 bone marrow broth counters, and dog yoga sessions, it shouldn’t surprise me that boxing—a traditionally gritty working-class sport—is going upscale. Late last year boxing studio OVERTHROW New York assumed residency in the three-floor landmarked hub of the bygone activist group the Yippies. In mid-April, SHADOWBOX will open its 3,600 square-foot space in the gym-heavy Flat Iron District. Both offer classes that abide by the SoulCycle-popularized pay-per model (as opposed to the conventional annual/monthly gym membership), and each session bares a SoulCycle-worthy price tag a few ticks above $30. Who are behind the emergence of boutique boxing, and what kinds of people do these classes attract?

A TIDYING OF BOXING’S IMAGE

SHADOWBOX owner Daniel Glazer was supposed to meet me at one of those coffee shops with hand-painted windows. When I arrived, I was certain I’d beat him there. Scattered about were a few well-coifed men and women, all thoughtfully sipping handcrafted brews while flicking screens. Then my phone vibrated and one of guys at a table raised a hand in recognition.

“I thought that was you but I wanted to make sure,” Glazer said, unintentionally making me wonder how contrastingly scruffy a freelance reporter must appear. We took a seat with our coffees; Glazer a cortado, myself the least expensive drip.

SHADOWBOX founder Daniel Glazer works out with SHADOWBOX partner and trainer Raymond Montalvo at the traditional Mendez Boxing gym. The pair will open the upscale SHADOWBOX in mid-April. (Photo courtesy of SHADOWBOX)

I’d read an article in one of those yoga-exalting PMA lifestyle sites about how Glazer began relieving the high stress of the finance world by slugging away at air mitts and heavy bags, yet I was having trouble seeing the punishing pugilist beneath his tasteful sweater-corduroy ensemble and thoughtful speech. He said he would occasionally spar with his trainer, earning a parade of black eyes and busted lips. Eventually his wife—who also hits bags—persuaded the new dad, 31, to relegate his partner-workouts to air mitts.

“Boxing is like taking a drink from a fire hose,” Glazer said, his eyes wide with the sincerity of the converted. “It is never a repetitive experience. Whether it is blocking and rolling under, building up combos that go from standard jab-cross to jab-cross-hook-roll-under jab-cross-duck-pivot—it just goes on and on.”

Glazer concedes that the inherent violence and risk of injury initially repelled him from the sport for which both his parents still enjoy training. One day nine years ago his father “dragged him in the ring.

“As humans we’re born to fight, but that doesn’t mean we should get in three fights a day, trying to tap that inner spark,” he said. “But you can synthesize it and get the best parts of it with air mitts and a heavy bag.” To put it succinctly, you can tap into the innate without needing to suffer the long-term effects that result from blow after blow to the liver or brain.

Photo courtesy of SHADOWBOX

While Glazer considers spin classes repetitive and nothing like the limitless craft he considers boxing to be, he does cede credit to SoulCycle’s founders for setting the standard of the sub-hour workout. Like those spin devotees, SHADOWBOX participants will reserve online any one of 40 hand-painted heavy bags that run on tracts for various classes. Wraps and gloves are available for rent or sale. A vintage-style boxing ring—constructed with wood reclaimed from a collapsed Connecticut barn and stretched with natural duck canvas—will be prominent before the 20th Street-facing windows. It’s an intentional move to simultaneously stoke its allure while demystifying the sport. While sparring won’t happen within its ropes, plenty of shadowboxing and air mitt work will.

“’When you have the ring to yourself you can move around like Muhammad Ali, dancing backwards, spinning and rolling under—it’s a lot more fun than working out in a corner,” he said. “Boxing hits up some of your genes that may have been dormant and have been waiting to be exercised,” Glazer said, adding that that heightened physicality may lack in contemporary lives.

Much of SHADOWBOX’s space, which used to house a newspaper factory, will be painted off-white with highlights in robin-egg blue. The tin ceilings and brick walls have been restored to their former glory, and the building’s original wooden support beams remain in excellent condition, Glazer said. As made indispensible by SoulCycle, SHADOWBOX’s café will offer Intelligensia coffee and cold-pressed juices and that can be ordered before class so that a gym-goer can pick it up on the way out the door.

“A New Yorker’s 45 minutes are very valuable,” Glazer said. “People want to get in, get a great sweat and get out with a coffee in hand, Glazer said. “That’s the New York way, and it’s increasingly becoming the way of fitness.”

He’s right. Not coincidently, a class at SHADOWBOX will cost $34, the same price as a session at SoulCycle.

TAPPING THE UNDERGROUND’S MYSTIQUE

The next day in Greenwich Village at 9 Bleecker Street, OVERTHROW owner Joey Goodwin, 30, tall and quick with a wide grin sat inside the door heavily stickered with street-wear brands and graffiti aliases. He chatted with a friend who greeted gym-goers and collected their $32 cover charge as they trickled downstairs for the first of the evening’s beginner’s classes. Candles in red jars illuminated their descent while a projection screen greeted them with footage from the presently on-hiatus boxing party Friday Night Throwdown; its promoter, Bekim Trunova flitted across the scene, exhorting the crowd with a raised hand. (Goodwin fought twice in its earlier incarnations.) Red light bulbs in protective caging jut from exposed brick, which lends a conspiratorial glow on the space where several heavy bags, wrapped in duct tape, hang. Wallpapered on an adjacent wall are Xeroxes of the previous tenant’s radicalized newspapers “The Yipster Times” and “Overthrow”. At the far end, a red neon fist, burned hot: another almost religious nod to the debt OVERTHROW owes the legacy of the previous tenants of 9 Bleecker Street—the last of whom lived there until she was was evicted early last year.

Among the eight participants attending trainer Charlie Himmelstein’s Friday night “Boxing & Booze” class—we were promised drinks afterward—were several new-comers, mostly clean-cut women free of visible tattoos in their mid-20s clad in yoga tights and running sneakers. Two women, blonde and nearly six-feet-tall, carried the unmistakable grace of working models. While this session was the first Himmelstein has ever taught, he is no stranger to either boxing nor modeling—it was his chiseled good-looks (which is to say nothing of the Sid Vicious-inspired chain-and-lock necklace and the safety pin stuck in his left ear lobe), coupled with his exaggerated, rock-‘em-sock-‘em Popeye punches that earned him the moniker “Rockstar Charlie.” It also launched his modeling career. Himmelstein’s record (which includes innumerable victories at FNT and impressive showings at the New York Golden Gloves) however, proves he is more than a showman. Overthrow’s head trainer and general manager Alicia Napoleon, 29,—which is to say nothing of her burgeoning professional boxing career—was onsite to oversee Himmelstein’s first class. The Long Island native fetched me some wraps and threaded them between my knuckles and around my wrists. Charlie and co-instructor Jullien Herrera, also a model, shouted instructions at this class of a dozen through hands-free microphones. A mix of club music and punk classics streamed overhead. We began with a mix of exploding squats and shadow boxing hand work; Charlie challenged us to touch the low-hanging ceiling if we could and to mimic his hooks and jabs. As someone who works out several times a week yet is totally new to boxing, I set about slapping the ceiling with every leap. Unsure of my footing and self-conscious of my formless punches, I overcompensated by throwing them as hard as I could. We then transitioned to jumping jacks and shadow jump-roping. Several minutes into the class, I quickly approached my anaerobic threshold, a line in the sand I am keenly aware of as a runner and cyclist—one of which I most always remain on the aerobic side. Here, the non-stop calisthenics change-up left me gulping for air by the time we were allowed a minute break to grab water before strapping on pairs of 16-ounce gloves and forming two lines. Having neglected to bring any, I rushed to the bathroom and guzzled from the sink. For the next 20 minutes we formed two rotating lines before Himmelstein’ and Herrera’s outstretched air mitts. After we pounded them 50 times they clapped them together and we returned to the end of the line where we did non-stop pushups, crunches, and held what for me was an excruciating teepee-shaped pose. The second series of cross strikes I administered to the air mitts were markedly weaker, and by the time we were broken off to groups of three to clobber heavy bags I was nearly staggering. In my group was a guy whose arms looked as heavy as mine and one of the near-six-foot blonde women, who was hardly dazed—in fact, she and another towering blonde were among the strongest in the class. As we began to drum the heavy bag, me and my buddy’s strikes weren’t sufficiently counteracting hers, which resulted in the heavy bag making a swaying motion that messed up everyone’s rhythm.

Photo by John Gagliano, courtesy of OVERTHROW

“Come on, boys!” she hollered at us. I tried to nod and grin but I was so gassed I probably resembled some loose-neck drunk at a bar. Soon after Himmelstein called the workout and my arms dropped to my sides so quickly jolts of pain shot up my biceps. As we were run through a series of cool-down stretches, a tall, angular boxer nicknamed “Rage” handed out Bud Light’s from an 18-pack. While I raised a quivering beer to my lips, I noticed my blonde bag-mate had returned to hitting the air mitts trainer Herrera held in front of her. After she finished I introduced myself and gave her props on her conditioning. The woman, Hailey Clauson, who said today was her last as a teenager, smiled.

“Girls like me love boxing,” she said, explaining how she began incorporating boxing training into her five-day-a-week regimen three months ago. When I asked if she ever sparred she demurred, explaining how it wouldn’t be a good idea as she’s a model. Right I was. Signed to One management, she recently appeared in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. “I see a lot of girls doing this—it’s great cardio, it’s great for your abs and legs, and you’re burning off all the fat on your body,” she said, adding that she’s since let some fellow models in on her secret.

Head trainer Napoleon later said boxing increasingly appeals to women (by my count women at OVERTHROW outnumber men three or four to one) because of their increasing empowerment in society. The professional light middleweight boxer whom, after a first-round KO in the first minute, is presently 1-0, spoke to the animalistic release that boxing affords.

“It’s great to talk out your issues with the people in your life, but exercise is a very important thing. For some reason, boxing is the number-one therapeutic exercise,” she said. “We all love a fight in our lives, and everybody feels good after hitting a heavy bag.”

OVERTHROW trainer "Rockstar Charlie" Himmelstein absorbs "Rage"'s punches during a recent class. (Photo by John Gagliano, courtesy of OVERTHROW)

PASSING THE GLOVE

Until early 2014, 9 Bleecker Street, in its most recent incarnation, housed a Yippie museum, a coffee shop and a downstairs comedy theater. Eleven months later—the first time since her eviction as the last remaining Yippie—Alice Torbush walked down the street as a singular thought popped on her head: “Now the neighborhood really sucks.”

When she reached Number 9—now festooned with the vintage OVERTHROW logo—she stopped. “Hey, you’re in my building” she thought.

Presently touring the premises on this day in late March with Goodwin as cheerful host and eager history student, Torbush dismissed having hard feelings.

“I am happy it is this instead of a Kate Spade or another drug store or bank.” I asked if it was jarring that this OVERTHROW is no longer hers. “No, no, I love that,” she said, adding that she’d selected the very typeface for its newspaper that Goodwin has carried forward. She now keeps boxes of Yippies archives at her new coastal home in Pittsville, Maryland.

Goodwin, wearing a CBGB’s T-shirt, a sideways baseball cap, and running shoes, sat on a folding chair and listened as Torbush recounted the many faces of 9 Bleecker Street, and how for a period it was the de facto warm-up spot for bands playing at CBGB’s, just across the Bowery. She explained that the second floor was where Yippie Dana Beal’s first imagined the opiate-counter-acting drug Ibogaine he would soon create (Goodwin said he occasionally gets dinner with the drug’s most ardent advocate.) Now the building’s upper floors house Goodwin’s live-in office. A pair of creative agencies, along with Himmelstein’s studio (he also works as a fashion photographer)—count as Goodwin’s tenants.

Photo by John Gagliano, courtesy of OVERTHROW

Of OVERTHROW, Goodwin said he doesn’t yet know what it is; Torbush laughed appreciatively.

“We could approach a businessman and say this will be the SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp of boxing, but that’s not fun; that doesn’t have a soul,” he said, having received familial funding to secure a 10-year master lease on the building.

“Boxing was never soulless to me,” Goodwin said, adding that he trained at the traditional Mendez Boxing gym until opening OVERTHROW. In fact it was at Mendez where he met his head trainer and potential business partner Napoleon.

Goodwin said he hopes to mimic the melting pot aspect not only of the Yippies but of the nearby legendary West Fourth Street basketball courts, where he said he cut his teeth as a teenager.

“There was a sense of rebellion—you weren’t playing for the school team,” he said. Players Goodwin met were street-ball legends, homeless guys, models or Black Panther sympathizers. Torbush nodded and said she had often stopped to watch while sipping coffee and running errands.

“You can talk politics, you talk family, you make jokes, get into arguments and into fights. You never knew what was going to happen,” Goodwin said.

Alice: “When I came [to OVERTHROW] in December it was like that. There was something happening on every single floor. It was just filled with people."

As for the persnickety reality of running a business, Goodwin charges $32 per class, while monthly membership for just using the gym will be $150. There will be a friends and family discount as well. He hopes 9 Bleecker will also host a number of music performances and boxing exhibitions. In the meantime, they’ve yet to assemble the boxing ring, which will be visible from the street, once they knock down the wall and install windows.

Photo by John Gagliano, courtesy of OVERTHROW

On a drizzly Thursday in late March at the exact moment a gas leak caused an East Village building to explode, Glazer and his trainer Raymond Montalvo stepped into one of the rings at Mendez Boxing gym and begin winding into an air mitt routine. Meanwhile OVERTHROW manager Alicia Napoleon was wrapping up her personal workout after training a couple clients. Ringside, she was unaware of its occupants. When I told her who they were she grinned nervously—perhaps I was making her uncomfortable pointing out OVERTHROW's competition, within earshot. After we chatted a bit she went over to a bench by the gym’s concession stand and ate a yogurt while chatting with acquaintances before heading downtown to teach at 9 Bleecker Street. As Montalvo and Glazer ceded their ring rights to two head-gear-wearing boxers intent on sparring (as is a boxing gym’s hierarchy), I pointed out Napoleon. “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen her spar. She’s really good,” Montalvo said while Glazer nodded approvingly, mopping his brow with a T-shirt sleeve.

Montalvo is no slouch himself. Born in Puerto Rico to a family of boxers, he counts 14 boxers in his extended family and grew up in his uncles’ gyms. Now 30 years old and ten years retired from a pro career, Montalvo first met Glazer at an LA Boxing gym in Connecticut, where he took him as a client before the UFC acquired the LA Boxing chain and converted them to MMA gyms. It was this merger that pushed boxing to the company’s periphery, and inspired Glazer to consider filling the high-end boxing gym niche that LA Boxing had all but abandoned. Involving Montalvo in his consequential business plan was his first move: not only will his rich boxing heritage inform the six trainers he will oversee,  he is also a shareholder. Glazer’s father, Andrew, who is the owner of the construction company responsible for their 20th Street renovations, will be an adviser. He was also there briefly at Mendez, watching the two train. Of his son he said “he’s gone from the trading floor to the training floor”—a loveable eye-roller of a dad-ism. The day after, the senior Glazer who is the boxing aficionado responsible for dragging his son in the ring in the first place, sent me an email that included an excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:

“I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.

“Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant… I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter.”

I was moved, not only by Mandela’s words and his poetic depiction of fighting but by the sincere devotion the Glazers and Montalvo no doubt have for boxing. And I also fully accept the notion of training to box yet never entering a sparring match as completely valid.

However, what still remains a barrier of entrance for me to both OVERTHROW and SHADOWBOX will be a barrier to many: namely, the minimal ~$250/month one needs to ensure that any meaningful results will stick (assuming one goes twice a week). In our initial interview Glazer appreciated how the cost may be restrictive to some, yet he chalked up the price point as the result of doing business in New York City in 2015.

As a cash-strapped freelance reporter, my access to what one may, in varying degrees of fairness, label as “bougie-boxing”, regretfully, begins and ends with this reporting.

 

Check out these related stories:

Gangsters and Boxers in London's East End

The Revival of Collegiate Boxing

Bukom, Boxing and Beyond: An Evening Training Session in Accra, Ghana

 

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