Justin Blair, proud owner of the Church Street Boxing Gym
Rumbling with the sound of gloved fists pounding soft targets, the downtown gym hums with the echoes of fighters popping speed bags, throwing quick, powerful punches at heavy bags hanging from the 22-foot ceilings, and the excited calls of instructors motivating their students, teaching them how to deliver the uppercut, to defend against the jab.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the Church Street Boxing Gym, hip hop blared across the 8,000-square-foot club as white fans spun above gloved men and women, grunting with fatigue as they practiced their hooks, shadow-boxed in front of oversized mirrors, and leaned into the wall bags.
With its old-style, back-to-basics atmosphere, the Church Street gym, located at 25 Park Place between Church and Broadway, attracts boxing novices searching for a complete workout as well as professional fighters preparing for a bout. World-class champions like Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Felix Trinidad, and Roy Jones Junior have all trained here. Featured on HBO, Showtime, Maxim, and Men's Health magazines, the downtown gym caters to all levels of skill and experience, a gritty club where any curious New Yorker can learn the tough lessons of the sweet science.
With its fast-paced rhythm and total-body demands, fighting offers a tiring and fun workout, which is why gyms throughout the city began offering boxing classes to their members. Justin Blair, who owns the Church Street gym, noticed the peaking interest in the sport, and decided to capitalize on it.
|The Church Street Boxing Gym is located at 25 Park Place between Church and Broadway
"I saw a market back in 1997," Blair says, "and believed that I could meet that. I signed a deal for this space. It was much larger than anything I anticipated, but the price was right so I made my move."
Tall and lean, Blair, who is 32, boxed as an amateur himself, beginning at 16 when he first walked into the Times Square boxing gym on 42nd Street.
"I'm not a team player," Blair says. "It's nice when the glory is all yours, and the defeat is all yours. And at that age, a young guy coming into his own, it's very empowering to see the physical results of getting in shape, and to also see the results of mentally and emotionally learning how to defend yourself."
After fighting as a middleweight for seven years, Blair retired, attended college at the University of New Mexico, and then returned to his native New York City, where he worked for local boxing promoters before striking out on his own.
Opening his facility on April 1, 1997, Blair steadily attracted new members to his club by offering a full service, no-frills gym.
"It takes a couple of years for people to know that you're around," he says. "There are so many flashes in the pan. It takes a while to get your legs underneath you."
Today, in the busy winter season, up to 700 New Yorkers are members at the gym. Walking down two flights of stairs, members enter a spacious room outfitted with lines of speed bags, wall bags, and five heavy bags, their steel chains rattling as fighters punish them with closed fists. A shrill bell sounds every few minutes, warning members to rest or get back to work, practicing their jabs, skipping rope, or strengthening their abs -- all under the silent, intense eyes of Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey, whose portraits, captured in black-and-white murals, blanket the walls.
|There are over 700 men and women training at the gym
Fees start at $140 per month, which allows members unlimited instruction with in-house trainers.
"Keep in mind that if you sign up with the other major health club chains, you're looking at spending anywhere from $75 to $120 per month," says Blair, "without any instruction. The average person comes in, three to four times per week. It becomes very economical."
And those unsure about the $140 commitment can take advantage of the $5 Friday promotion.
"It allows someone to come down for a one-time workout for $5," Blair says. "It gives people the chance to work out with one of our trainers and see if they like it."
Church Street provides all equipment, except hand wraps. The eight instructors retain an intimate, experienced knowledge of the sport -- all are current or former fighters, including several Golden Gloves champions, national champions, and boxers with professional experience.
Gregory Vicenty, 44, is an instructor at the club. A former two-time Golden Glove champion, Vicenty -- a goateed, wiry fighter who also competed while serving in the U.S. Army -- appreciates the gym for its traditional, old-school look.
"You don't want a gym with too many TVs, too many distractions," he says, "especially when you're boxing."
Guests at Church Street enjoy working out one-on-one with trainers, independently, or in classes, but most choose not to spar, according to Blair.
"Getting in the ring is not a requirement," he says. "Seventy-five percent never get in the ring. They just enjoy training."
|Getting in the ring is not a requirement
But for those members who do enjoy locking up with an opponent, the gym offers the chance to trade punches.
Charles Reiter, a brawny 24-year-old who has been a member at the gym since last October, enjoys the physical contests.
"Lots of people are here to get in shape," says Reiter, a former high school and college wrestler. "But I like the competition."
Besides newcomers to the sport, and amateurs hoping to perfect their skills, professional fighters have also frequented the facility. In the past, champions like Evander Holyfield and Felix Trinidad have rented out the back room, a separate, quiet area secluded from the main gym with its own private elevated ring.
"We know how to look after them," Blair says of the veterans who have trained at Church Street. "When they know they have a place where they can train in peace that is of value to them."
When not in use by the pros, Blair uses the back gym for his after-school program, which serves kids from the ages of 11 to 15.
Hiram Perez, 23, directs the kids program. A broad-shouldered boxer who still competes as an amateur heavyweight, Perez previously worked as a camp counselor for the Boys Club of New York.
"You can't expect too much of them," Perez says of his students. "But sometimes they exceed your expectations."
Besides its primary function as a fitness club, the downtown gym also doubles as a venue in which Blair can advance his second career goal: working as a fight promoter.
|The back gym is used for an after-school program, which serves kids from the ages of 11 to 15
"I wanted to get into the business of promoting events," Blair says. "I worked with a couple of small-time promoters, and I felt that I could do a better job, both ethically and financially, than they were doing."
He adds, "What I found was that I had this fantastic space right here, and we built a very solid following over the years by doing little club show events."
At the "Friday Night Fight Series," local fight fans can come down to Church Street, grab a cold beer, and -- for about $20 to $30 -- watch one of three different events: White Collar bouts featuring fighters up to the intermediate level; Amateur boxing, which showcases fighters competing in a fully sanctioned, competitive match; or Muay Thai brawls, where professional and amateur kickboxers battle inside the ring.
"I do about 10 fights per year," Blair says. "And it's been fantastic."
After seven years running his gym, Blair continues to work on the downtown club, hoping to ensure its popularity and future in the NYC boxing community.
"My goal is obviously to build the business and streamline it, always working on the service, and the facility," he says. "Emotionally, what would I like for the business? I would like, in 50 years time, for an old man to talk about the first time he walked into the Church Street boxing gym way back when. And who knows, maybe someone will still be running it then."
Church Street Boxing Gym, 25 Park Place, 212.571.1333, http://nyboxinggym.com/
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