Photos by Bjorn Bolinder
It’s a warm, Saturday afternoon in May and nearly three dozen men have crammed into a tiny studio at Clay Health Club and Spa, a luxurious fitness center on the border of Chelsea and Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Strolling through the lobby, everything seems exceedingly white and pristine. There are two smiling receptionists stationed behind a long desk. There is a fireplace, a chessboard, a massage table, and a small café. The words “Our temple for yours” are mounted on a wall by the entrance. But inside the studio, the air is thick with sweat and adrenaline. The loud snap of gloves hitting mitts is drowned out only by a ceaseless pulse of dance music and a sporadic chorus of grunts.
Founded roughly a year and a half ago, Velvet Gloves Gentleman’s Boxing is the first and only boxing club in New York City that caters specifically to gay men. Members of all ages, backgrounds and athletic abilities gather here at Clay twice a week to practice their jabs, hooks and uppercuts free from fear of judgment. Because while a plethora of LGBT-friendly sports leagues have popped up in the area over the years (football, basketball, softball, rugby, rock climbing, you name it), a safe haven for those interested in learning the art of pugilism was conspicuously absent prior to 2013. To some on the outside, the world of boxing has long held a reputation for being intimidating, excessively violent, and stubbornly exclusionary, a perception Velvet Gloves is hoping to change.
“The way boxing has been marketed, it seems like it’s going to be so brutal from the very beginning, that you’re going to get hit or that it’s dripping in machismo,” says Vance Garrett, an event producer, who, along with his personal trainer Francisco Liuzzi, built Velvet Gloves from the ground up. “When Francisco started teaching me boxing, it just felt right. It felt like what my body wanted to be doing. I thought, ‘This is something that I think my friends would love to participate in.’ I just didnt see it anywhere out there in New York.”
“[I asked myself,] ‘Why aren’t gay guys doing this?” he continues. “‘Are they intimidated by it? Do they just not want to go to those gyms? Is it because they’ve never been invited into it?’”
Though in 2013 Orlando Cruz became the first professional fighter to come out while still active in the sport—and gay athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins have started to break down barriers in football and basketball, respectively—boxing has indeed had its bouts with homophobia over the years. Floyd Mayweather, who recently battled Manny Pacquiao in the “fight of the century” on May 2, has used homophobic slurs in the past. Pacquiao, for his part, has spoken out against same-sex marriage, calling it “against the law of God.”
“It does still feel like there’s a taboo in the boxing world for sure with gay men,” says Garrett.
For some, part of the draw of Velvet Gloves is to actively work against these taboos, chipping away at stereotypes concerning what sports gay men can and cannot excel at.
Nick Deutsch, a musician living in Harlem, first came to Velvet Gloves on a date. He says the classes have made him feel more confident walking down the street—just the simple fact of knowing how to throw a punch, even if he never has to—and helped him prove something both to himself and to others.
“It’s kind of one of those things that’s like, ‘Let me do something that’s the opposite of what people would think I could do,’” he explains. “Most of my hobbies are arts-based, so it’s fun to have something, in a way, that would be considered traditionally more masculine, just to prove it to yourself, even if it’s just like ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
Deutsch is sitting on the roof of Clay donning a pair of dark sunglasses, surrounded by umbrellas and lounge chairs. Every once in a while the group comes up here after class to chat, unwind, and have a beer. Other times the venue is a bar or restaurant around the corner. Velvet Gloves is not just a fighting tutorial, according to Garrett, but a social club for those who have been “disenfranchised or put-off from the current social scene out there,” a place to meet like-minded people and try new things.
Liuzzi, who just moments ago was busy teaching more than 30 students how to pivot their feet and throw one-two combinations, comes over and pulls up a chair. A straight ally who’s worked as a personal trainer in Chelsea for over a decade, he carries himself with the confidence of a seasoned athlete. He’s been boxing for years, training at the infamous Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
“You could ask just about any guy who’s taken this class more than a handful of times and that’s one thing that they’ll all say,” he explains. “They’ll probably never, ever use it, but the idea that they can throw a one-two combination probably better than 95 percent of the people walking around the street is definitely something that builds self-confidence.”
“There’s discipline,” he adds, “but it’s also kind of sexy to know how to throw a punch.”
Though sparring has not been introduced into the curriculum just yet (Garrett makes sure new members know they’ll never be hit in the face), Velvet Gloves is far from an aerobic boxercise class. Sessions begin and end with a heavy dose of conditioning—a punishing amount of jumping jacks, burpees and push-ups—but the foundation of the program is learning to punch and to punch properly.
Starting this month, Velvet Gloves will begin offering free classes outdoors on the High Line, the aerial park built on an abandoned railroad track above the west side of Manhattan. With room for more members and classes being conducted out in public, no longer will the group be able to remain quite so insular.
“The gawking thing, I don't think anyone in our class is worried about that. I think every gay man has experienced that before,” says Garrett. “I think we’re going to look amazing. We really know what we’re doing and we have, as a group, a year and a half of experience now. I’m excited to show the rest of the world what we’ve been up to. It’s time to bring it out of the studio and into the public space. We’re ready.”
The expansion and increased visibility does indeed seem inline with Velvet Gloves’ mission of making boxing more inclusive for all. Ultimately, Garrett puts the message behind the group simply: “If this is the sport for you, if this feels right for your body, if this is how you want to express yourself physically, if this is something that captivates you, there is a group of guys in New York City who are learning the craft and you’re welcome to join us whenever the time is right.”
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