By 9:30am every weekday morning, Bob Jackson, a boxing trainer of 51 years, heads south from the Bronx to clock in at Brooklyn’s toughest workplace, Gleason’s Gym. By 10:30 his aging Ford Taurus rolls into the garage below the 70-year-old institution. He climbs from the chilly streets up through the industrial concrete staircase and across the gym floor into his tiny office in the rear. The door to his office, barely hanging on its hinges, covers the sound of early morning sparring sessions, punches popping off heavy bags and the loud grunts and shouts that punctuate the general ruckus. His morning coffee is surprisingly good, with enough sugar in it to keep a bull running all day.
“It’s important for me to come to work every day, I’ve worked all my life,” Jackson says sitting down, skimming the Daily News before his fighters show. “I’m older, but I’m no rocking chair-type guy. When the Grim Reaper comes for me I’ll probably be ringside with a towel around my neck.”
By 12 o’clock Jackson, 68, is preparing former world-title challenger Raul Frank for his daily workout, rubbing his shoulders down with a secret liquid from a generic spray bottle. Stray squirts wet the scrapbook-style walls that feature rare photos and newspaper clippings of the nearly forgotten sport Jackson loves so dearly. From his chair, gazing through his thick specs at the busy bodies out on the fight floor, there is no place Jackson, who retired after 35 years as a corrections officer in Sing Sing, would rather be.
“The hardest part about being a boxing trainer is caring, and I care about my fighters,” says Jackson, bobbing and weaving to see through the ropes as a young prospect spars in a ring outside his office. “I don’t just care enough to want to see them do good in the ring, I want to see them be successful in whatever it is they ultimately do.”
Jackson’s life in boxing began at age 17, when he had to sneak into the Air Force to escape reform school after an altercation involving the husband of a married woman he’d become involved with. Always a tough kid, Jackson, who “was not a bully,” didn’t take to being disrespected and turned his temper on anyone who tried to test him. By the time he got to the service he’d been out of school for three years, and had it not been made mandatory by the Air Force boxing coach, Jackson would never have finished high school. But time in the military was good for Jackson, and the structure it gave him still helps shape the way he lives today.
“The Air Force formed what the rest of my life would be,” Jackson says, back at his desk, skimming the paper. “I was in Special Services with the boxing team and I was never in any danger, except for maybe getting my ass kicked in the ring.”
When he got out of the Air Force, Bob worked his way into the game as a coach. Besides studying under his mentor Pat Robertson, a fine New York fight man, he served in corners alongside Cus D’Amato, the great fisticuffs philosopher and father figure to Mike Tyson, and Al Gavin, widely regarded as the greatest cut man of all time. Working with fighters like Chuck Wepner, Junior Jones and Oleg Maskaev, Jackson earned a reputation for being a tough-loving fighter’s trainer and all-around nice guy. In the early 1970s, working at Stillman’s Gym on 14th Street, Jackson says he pioneered “white-collar boxing” an alternative workout for the many doctors, lawyers and Wall Street types who came in to burn calories in those days. Today, white-collar boxing has become a popular way to work out without getting bored.
“I started white-collar boxing,” he claims, studying fight tape of the previous evening’s Gold Glove bouts. “We had all these yuppie/puppy types coming up to me in the gym, wanting me to train them, I told them I had real fighters and was too busy. After a while, I gave in and I only wish I had copywritten the name.”
In 1993, a preacher from Far Rockaway brought his 15-year-old nephew into Gleason’s. Rohnique Posey was running the streets and scrapping in school when he came to the gym looking to get caught up in something positive, and from the beginning he only wanted to work with the gym’s best trainer. At the end of their first session Jackson sent his new student home with a note to his uncle waiving his training fees. Since that day Jackson has been like a father to Posey, watching as the once wild welterweight grew into a humble and reserved young man, who some say could become a world champion.
“Bob means the world to me,” says Posey, 28, who doubles as a rapper under the handle “Pioneer.” “He helped me more outside the ring than he did in the gym, he made me realize that I have to handle things like a man.”
Even while some say boxing is dying out and that the lack of interest will ultimately doom the sport, don’t count on Bob Jackson giving up the game he loves any time soon. So long as there are troubled kids looking for an outlet, or structure, or just simply a home, Jackson will be sitting in his office in Gleason’s eagerly waiting to start working.
“I’ve never been addicted to anything in my life,” Jackson says sternly, sitting in his chair taking in the afternoon commotion in the gym. “I am addicted to boxing though and that may have cost me marriage, family, relationships maybe. You have to watch out for that.”