Chicago's Windy City Gym Is on the Ropes

One of the nation's oldest boxing gyms is closing because of building violations. The Windy City Boxing Gym is in a poor part of Chicago, and can't afford renovations. It will have to find another location by the end of the year or its run is over.

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From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

The more you sweat, the less you bleed. That's a proverb about training for war. But right now, it's probably taped on the wall of a few boxing gyms across the nation. At a time when a lot of people think of the gym as something with juice bars, valet parking, built-in TVs on the elliptical trainer, boxing gyms, real ones, stand out. Chicago's Windy City Boxing Gym is one of the nation's oldest, and now it may be forced to close its doors and find a new location.

Alex Helmick of Chicago Public Radio reports.

ALEX HELMICK: The Windy City Boxing Gym is straight out of an old Hollywood movie, with the smell of dried sweat and worn leather hitting you in the face as soon as you opened the steel grate door.

(Soundbite of gym)

HELMICK: The gym has been on the second floor of a red brick warehouse for more than 30 years, and when you walk in, it's like stepping back in time. The wooden floors are warm from thousands of hours of shadow boxing. Old stationary bikes line up against the poster-covered wall. Punching bags are wrapped in duct tape, and if you hit them hard enough, bits of dust scatters in the air.

(Soundbite of gym)

HELMICK: Gerald The Humbler Taylor's body glistens with sweat as he works out with his trainer. You can see the ripples of his muscles as the dim fluorescent light hits his body. With each punch, it seems he's trying to beat the devil out of those mitts, or exercise his own past demons.

Mr. GERALD TAYLOR (Boxer): Spent half of my life in jail. And in jail there's where I picked up boxing and came out here boxing and met Sam. Since I've been with Sam, everything had been okay.

HELMICK: Sam Colonna is the gym's head trainer. Sam's trained and managed his fair share of champions in his 16 years at Windy City. But that's not why he does it.

Mr. SAM COLONNA (Trainer): I do it from my heart, because if I did it for the money, I'd probably make a penny an hour.

HELMICK: That charitable attitude may have helped a lot of kids, but it put the gym in some financial straits. The gym's owner, Chicagoland Golden Gloves Charities, has received more than 30 building code violations from the city of Chicago. The charity said it can't afford required renovations. It charges just $20 a month for membership.

And sometimes, when a kid can't afford the money, the owner looks the other way. Willy Williams volunteers at the gym. He's a slender 70-year-old black man with giant glasses. And he moved from gym to gym, watching young fighters learn the craft, until he settled on Windy City 15 years ago. Willy thinks the lessons the gym provides to the kids in the community go beyond the ring.

Mr. WILLY WILLIAMS (Boxing Manager): As long as you get out there and say I tried, I'm proud of that. You don't have to win, just say I did my best. That's what I love about this.

HELMICK: And getting back up and trying again?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Of course. You don't quit. You can get him today, but tomorrow is another day.

HELMICK: And a new day for boxer Gerald The Humbler Taylor too. He's been out of jail now for four months. He says the Windy City Gym is helping him stay on the straight and narrow.

Mr. TAYLOR: I got a job now at the health club, the Xsport Fitness, and I'm soon to be a professional boxer, and boxing for Sam, who's going to be my trainer and manager.

HELMICK: Sam Colonna finds the gym a healing experience as well. He turned to training after his boxing career was cut short nearly two decades ago. While on his way to the gym, he was shot at close range by a mugger. Sam now has to wear a brace to keep from limping, and has some pain in his back, but...

Mr. COLONNA: You'll never hear me complain about it. I'm just happy and glad that I'm doing what I'm doing. My biggest goal was to get back in that ring, and I've way done more than that, you know?

HELMICK: Sam says he hopes the gym gets exactly what he's been given, and what he's given others - a new home, a second chance.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Helmick in Chicago.

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