At 5 o’clock every morning for the last 39 years, while the sun is inching its way up toward the horizon and the hustle and bustle of New York City is slowly beginning to hum around him, Bruce Silverglade ’68 makes his way to Water Street in Brooklyn and turns his key to open Gleason’s Gym. He flicks on the lights and breathes in 84 years of history.
Gleason’s is the oldest active boxing gym in the country. Its roots can be traced back to the lower Bronx, where it was first planted by Peter Robert Gagliardi, who later changed his name to Bobby Gleason to appeal to the predominantly Irish fight crowd in New York at the time. While the gym has relocated several times over the years—from the Bronx to Manhattan and now Brooklyn—when you step into Gleason’s, it’s like time has stood still.
Hanging from the ceiling, double-end and uppercut bags sport a broken-in appearance earned through innumerable punches. Treadmills, steppers, and stationary bikes have tracked more than a million miles, and scattered near benches are dumbbells and weight plates, which, like the rings of tree stumps, proudly display their age in rust and scratches.
“You can get just as good of a workout on my treadmills as you can if you go to a brand-new gym with new treadmills. Mine are just a little old,” Silverglade said. “Some of my weights have a little rust on them, and I can replace them, but I won’t, because their character is irreplaceable. That rust brings business to me.”
84 years of history
Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jake LaMotta, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Mike Tyson—if they’re a household boxing name, chances are they’ve trained at Gleason’s. The gym has trained 136 world champions since it opened in 1937. It has also been the set of 26 movies, including four Academy Award-winning films: “Raging Bull,” “Rocky,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
Decorating the walls of Silverglade’s office and the entirety of the 13,500-square-foot facility are posters, championship banners, and news clippings that archive the gym’s many notable accomplishments. But you can also find photos of the lesser-known—recognitions of the small-scale successes.
“The people who train here are amazing. When I look out my window in my office and I see them out there training, everybody looks like everybody. They have gym clothes on. They’re sweating and doing one form of workout or another,” Silverglade said. “If you take the time to go out on the floor and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ or ask them what they do, you’ll realize how amazing they are. They’ve written books. They’re doctors, lawyers, and athletes.”
During the early days of Gleason’s, the gym appealed mainly to professionals and amateur fighters, but today, only 15 percent of its membership consists of fighters.
“I have 67 nationalities here. ... We have professional fighters and world champions, as well as people who have never stepped in a ring, but they’re here for the conditioning,” he said. “It’s a complete mix of people at all times. Seven days a week, from open to close, the gym is always busy.”
At the center of the gym is a yellow metal sign with a quote from Virgil—a unifying mantra. Many carry it on their backs, too, inscribed on variations of Gleason’s Gym-branded T-shirts.
Now, whoever has courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves, and put up his hands.
To be a boxer, you just need to have spirit in your heart, and Silverglade said all of his 1,200-plus members do. No matter who they are or where they’re from, in their hearts and in the ring, to Silverglade, they’re all equal. They all pay the $110 membership fee.
(But, shh, here’s his little secret: if Gettysburgians come to visit, he always offers a discount!)
A heart for boxing
Before Gleason’s, Silverglade, who majored in economics and wrestled at Gettysburg, worked 16 years with Sears Roebuck and Company. At the time, it was the No. 1 corporation in the world. But it wasn’t where his heart was.
He grew up around boxing. His father, Edward, was the manager of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Boxing teams, the latter of which won 11 out of 12 medals that year. He was also one of the founders of the National Police Athletic Activities League (PAL) that prevents juvenile crime and violence by building relationships among kids, cops, and the community. Most of Silverglade’s childhood days were spent in the PAL boxing gym with his dad because it was right down the street from their home.
“After some time, I realized my dad was right. Sports are fun—much more fun than a desk job in my case, and I’ve never been a suit-and-tie business guy,” Silverglade said. “I was trying to pave my own path to be different from my dad, but I was fighting my real passion.”
Seeing an opportunity to turn his passion into a career, Silverglade left his steady job at Sears in 1984 to purchase a 50 percent partnership with Gleason’s—later becoming the gym’s sole owner in 1991. He never looked back.
Working at Gleason’s Gym has always been more than a 9-to-5 job for Silverglade. It is a passion project that has breathed new life into the experiences from his youth—when he first saw how boxing rings could bring people from all walks of life together. It’s changed his life, and it continues to change the lives of others, too.
“This is a community here. The businessmen who come in here meet Black and Hispanic youth whom they might not normally associate with, and they say, ‘Hey, these kids are great. They’re focused and concentrated. I want a kid like that in my corporation.’ Then the kids from the projects come in and meet the businessmen and other people they might not normally associate with and they, too, realize that not all white-collar people are selfish or out to get them. They meet women and see them training just as hard as men. They talk to one another, and these interactions open their eyes,” Silverglade said.
Inspired by his father, Silverglade has found his own ways to uplift others and teach them to fight back against life’s trials. It starts with the daily interactions he has with gym members, but it doesn’t end there.
Silverglade has had a hand in establishing four charity programs at Gleason’s: StoPD for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, Fighters4Life, Veterans in the Ring, and Give A Kid A Dream. Beyond Fighters4Life—a charity event that raises money to support various causes—the other programs at Gleason’s bring those in need into the ring for free and introduce them to the transformational power of boxing.
Through this philanthropic work, he has given the troubled and overlooked a place where they can feel seen and understood. And, above all else, Silverglade has helped people find hope.
The Give A Kid A Dream program alone has hundreds of success stories. And success in the program is not measured by how well the participants learn to box, but rather by how well the youth develop themselves and use their newly acquired discipline to redirect the course of their lives in a positive way. Many have gone on to attend and graduate from college, pursue meaningful work, and escape the cycle of disadvantage.
“Boxing is more of a mental workout than it is physical. You have to have complete discipline. You have to know right from wrong,” Silverglade said. “As these youngsters start feeling better about themselves by working out their minds and bodies through our Give A Kid A Dream program, they realize that they’re not alone in the world. They can fight back against the troubles they face, and we’re here to help them. And it helps a lot of kids. We don’t win all, but we win a majority of the cases.”
It’s a way of life
At Gleason’s Gym, Silverglade is creating champions for life—people who exit the gym at the end of a challenging workout feel better than when they entered.
They wipe the sweat off of their foreheads, merge their bodies into the sidewalk’s steady stream of people, and head back to work, home, or wherever else their travels may take them, equipped with the strength and skills to take on the world. They’re resilient.
When life knocks them to their knees, they find their way back to their feet. When their eyes hang heavy, they find the strength to push on. They carry themselves with confidence and poise in the midst of adversity. They fight back against their fears—unshakable.
“I want people to let go of the stigma that boxing is a bad sport that encourages violence and gets people hurt. Really, we help the vast majority of people who come into a boxing gym. Whether it’s getting them off of medication, helping them mentally, or helping them become a better athlete, we’re making them all better people,” Silverglade said.
From sunup to sundown, Gleason’s Gym challenges people to be their best, and Silverglade sees no end to this in sight. Some members have gone to Gleason’s for 25 years. Others may be stepping into his boxing gym for the first time today. Silverglade is 75, and he still trains every day alongside the dogged and determined—living proof that the work in the ring is never done.
As the sun retreats back into the New York skyline, and the rat-a-tat-tat of boxing bags begins to turn quiet for the evening, Silverglade says so long to the last few members who trickle out the door to the city that awaits them. He heads home for the night—returning bright and early the next morning, like clockwork.
“I open the gym early every morning, and I stay late in the evening. And I don’t do it because I have to. But I do it because I love what I do. I love being here and I love the people. I love all of the things that happen and the lives that are changed because of Gleason’s Gym. It brings me joy,” Silverglade said. “I don’t plan on retiring. ... So as far as I’m concerned, I’ll continue to come into Gleason’s every day—and if I do, I know I’ll be happy.”
by Molly Foster