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A Familiar Ring : The Broadway Gym's Fighters Have Little Besides Desire and Toughness

March 21, 1993|ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two sweaty boxers, their muscular arms bulging, hammered away at one another in the center of a ring as their trainers shouted instructions. Another man groaned across the room as he fired a left-right combination into a heavy leather bag. Others shadowboxed or jumped rope.

Unlike other training facilities where boxers have access to the latest in workout equipment, the Broadway Boxing Gym is a throwback to the days of cigar-chomping managers working with fighters who have few resources but an abundance of heart, desire and toughness.

"Whoever's got the longest wind, and whoever throws the hardest punches is the one who comes out on top," said heavyweight Jacky Johnson, 29, reflecting on the nature of the sport as he slowly rolled hand wraps over his callused knuckles. "This ain't meant for everybody."

The gym, at 108th Street and Broadway, has a gritty feel. No fancy equipment or plush facilities here, just a couple of boxing rings and a row of punching bags and old weights lined up on opposite sides of a hardwood floor. The second-floor gym has been used as a set for several movies, said owner Bill Slayton.

A fixture in the neighborhood since the early '70s, the gym is a place where boxers nearing the ends of their careers dream of one more chance, where former champs talk of past glory and where up-and-comers like Johnson, a manager at The Boys supermarket in Ladera Heights who is training for his first professional fight, hope for their shot at the big time.

"I'm going to make some money," said Johnson, a father of three boys who will make his pro debut in April.

Unlike Johnson, Dee Collier, 32, has already been in the limelight. A former North American Boxing Federation and California State heavyweight champion, Collier is making a comeback after a three-year layoff. He lost a 12-round split decision in 1986 to Buster Douglas for the International Boxing Federation heavyweight title. Douglas later went on to shock the boxing world when he beat an ill-prepared Mike Tyson.

"They stole the decision from me," Collier said of his loss to Douglas.

Each afternoon, the muscular Collier trains before spending eight hours with his biggest fans--the prisoners at the federal penitentiary on Terminal Island, where he is a guard on the graveyard shift. "They're always rooting for me," he said.

Collier is trained by Slayton, an easygoing former amateur boxer who fought during the '40s and trained former heavyweight champ Ken Norton. Slayton, 70, also trained actor Mickey Rourke for his boxing scenes in the 1988 movie "Homeboy."

For Slayton, keeping the gym open is more a labor of love than a profit venture. He said he makes no money off the gym--fees are $10 a month for amateurs and $20 for pros--but he is able to keep the place open with rental income from a law firm on the first floor of the old stucco building.

"There's no money in this," Slayton said as he sat amid boxing gloves and head gear packed into his cramped office. "But I like what I'm doing, and I feel the pride of ownership."

The Broadway gym is home to 1984 Olympic gold medalist Henry Tillman, who works out in the afternoons in hope of another shot at glory. Tillman was knocked out in 1990 by former heavyweight champ Tyson.

The gym is also home to Ike Williams, the undisputed lightweight champion from 1945-51. Today, the 72-year-old Williams lives in a low-income hotel in Mid-City and usually hangs around the gym in the afternoons. Williams, who said he has been robbed three times, keeps two ice picks in his coat pocket for protection. "I was the best in the world," he said, "but I'm afraid to walk the streets at night."

On a recent afternoon, as Williams watched Collier spar with Daniel Dancuta, the 21-year-old former national champ of Romania who is 3-0 as a professional, middleweight Santiago De La Cruz stood by, pondering his future.

De La Cruz, 24, said he would like to be a champ one day, but he understands the harsh realities of the ring.

"All it takes is one punch and you're through," he said. "The fans won't support you."

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