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Los Angeles

Boxing Gym Is Fighting for Survival

The South L.A. fixture, a place 'where Rockys are made,' is rebounding. Friends helped clean it up after the owner died.

March 22, 2004|Regine Labossiere | Times Staff Writer

When Shadeed Suluki surveys the worn wooden floors, the aged treadmill that screeches with every thunderous step and the cracked-leather punching bags at Broadway Boxing Gym, he sees a place that could return to its former glory.

The gym at 108th Street and Broadway in Los Angeles used to be a bustling place where boxers waited impatiently in line to lift weights, punch the bags or spar in the rings. But in the last couple of years, membership has declined. Patrons say the gym went from a haven for youngsters to just another rundown facility.

Before the gym's former owner, Bill Slayton, died of bone cancer in October, he asked that Suluki, an old friend, run the gym. Suluki left Bomb Squad Gym in Hollywood, where he had been working, to take over everyday operations.

In the five months since Slayton's death, Suluki and others have been upgrading the gym. They started with mopping and scrubbing the back rooms. They put up signs saying that Suluki was now in charge and that if anyone had any questions or needed any help, they could see him. They stopped people at the door, asking them for dues or whether they owed Slayton any money.

Lamon Brewster, a heavyweight boxer who has trained there for about 10 years, said restoring the gym was a team effort involving Suluki, the Slayton family and some boxers who had been patrons for a long time. "We cleaned up that gym from head to toe," Brewster said. If people didn't like the changes, "either they stopped coming or they started shaping up."

It didn't take long to improve the gym because no one would argue with a roomful of boxers, he said.

The boxers there are determined to do right by the former owner, Brewster and Suluki said.

When Slayton bought the place in 1977, he wanted to establish a second home for youngsters so they could fight their way out of poverty and create boxing greats along the way, his friends and family said.

He worked in partnership with heavyweight boxer and friend Ken Norton for a while, creating a bustling gym that attracted people from all over the Los Angeles area during the 1970s and '80s.

"It was booming. When you walked up the stairs, you could hear the bags going, the bells ringing," said trainer Alphonso "Bumble Bee" Long, who frequented the gym in the 1980s. "It used to be exciting, just to know you were going to the gym."

In the building's heyday, Long remembered, all the heavy bags would be taken and people would clamor to use whatever equipment was left. It was a place where people couldn't wait to go, he said. The gym always smelled of sweat -- one of Long's favorite odors.

Boxers such as Norton, Michael Dokes and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Henry Tillman trained there. "This is a true gym," Suluki said. "This is where Rockys are made."

But in the late 1990s, the place began to change, according to Suluki and others. It sometimes attracted substance abusers and others who were not there to train, several members said.

Slayton knew he had to remove some of those people, but he was sick and not at the gym every day. He would warn people that they had to leave, but some would sneak in when he wasn't there, Brewster said.

Part of the effort to turn the place around involved calling boxers who had once worked out there and asking them to return. Suluki also phoned some former professional boxers, including Long, asking them to train the newcomers.

"The gym's doing better," Suluki said. "Every week, every month, people are coming back."

Last year there were only about 60 members, but now there are about 80, he said.

Los Angeles Police Senior Lead Officer Fred Starkey said it's the "real gym" atmosphere that always has brought people to Broadway Boxing.

"It's one of the rare locations in this community where people can work out and mingle and not worry about gangs or anything," Starkey said.

Another benefit of the membership increase is a boost to the gym's finances. According to Norma Ward, Slayton's daughter who oversees the gym, membership fees cover monthly expenses and help maintain the building, which the Slayton family owns. Fees range from $15 to $25 a month.

"This is a real gym," Brewster said. "When you come here, you smell sweat and blood. This gym is for boxing."

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