Rick Kogan: 100 years old, the Chicago-born Golden Gloves are continuing to mold boxers and inspire lives

Young fans in front of Chicago Stadium's three rings at a Golden Gloves tournament in February 1940 in Chicago. - Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — Have you ever watched two men or two women battle one another in a boxing ring?

I mean in person and up close, where you can smell the sweat and hear the grunts and the cheers and perhaps even sense the pride and the pain? Boxing can be brutal and bloody. It can also be beautiful.

But it has likely long been off your radar. Can you name the current heavyweight champion? Know the names of any of the others who populate the professional provinces of the sport?

The real thing has long been a fixture in Chicago. Boxing remains a significant part of the landscape, even if its reputation has been sullied over the last few decades, and its popularity challenged more recently by the flashier offerings of mixed martial arts and professional wrestling.

Right now, the city is in the midst of the latest edition of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament. It began earlier this week and will continue through preliminary bouts until the championships take place in mid-April. It will include 470-some male and female boxers in three-round bouts taking place at the Cicero Stadium.

The city is one of 30 Golden Gloves national outposts, most of them holding similar tournaments. The winners from these will be featured in the national championship that will take place over three days in May at Harrah’s Casino in Chester, Pa.

This is the 100th year of this venerable event in Chicago and this story is meant not only to note that anniversary but to celebrate the longest-running and largest non-national amateur boxing event in America.

Even though this newspaper was instrumental in the formation of the organization and was long a sponsor of its annual contests, it was hardly an early advocate for the sport.

In a page one story in October 1867, the Chicago Tribune covered a 44-round bout between a couple of guys named Davis and Gallagher and described it thusly: “One brute pounds another for the benefit of a gang of other brutes.” It further called for a state law to make prizefighting a crime, writing, “Anything is preferable to barbarism growing up among us.”

But grow it did, even in the face of laws enacted to curtail and erase it. Long part of Chicago’s subculture, bouts (and betting) frequently took place in basements and backrooms of taverns. But in time, the city was dotted with private gyms where one could learn the sport, see the action. The Catholic Church, through its Catholic Youth Organization, became a major teacher and sponsor of the sport along with the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic High School League and other schools, and the Chicago Park District. They would all nurture and promote boxing.

In 1923, the Tribune, long having shed its distaste for the sport, organized an amateur boxing tournament that would be the foundation of what would soon become formally called the Golden Gloves. This event was what the Tribune called “a great boxing carnival … the greatest amateur boxing tournament ever held in Chicago,” featuring some 424 young men fighting over three March days at the Ashland Boulevard auditorium. It was the brainchild of the newspaper’s sports editor Arch Ward, the visionary who also created the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 1933.

The Golden Gloves tag was first attached to fights that took place on March 24, 1928. At the Coliseum, eight Chicago boxers fought eight boxers from New York to an 8-8 tie. Growth was rapid, as Golden Gloves organizations formed in cities across the country and the globe.

Boxing has long represented, especially for young immigrants, a rung on the ladder to the American Dream. Many immigrant groups, primarily those who were Jewish, Irish, Italian, Black and Latino were marginalized in life and work, often ignored by the very men who would eagerly be paying customers for boxing matches. Every immigrant neighborhood had its “champ,” and boxing became a flag of racial or ethnic pride.

But the aim of the Golden Gloves has always been goals beyond potential fame and riches. It was founded to “provide opportunities that build character, self-respect and lasting leadership skills” and is still at that chore.

I once talked about boxing with a tough and lovely man, the late Martin McGarry, a native of County Mayo in Ireland. He came here in the mid-1960s and became a Golden Gloves champ, a union pipe fitter and started McGarry’s Boxing Club out of his home in the Beverly neighborhood.

McGarry taught hundreds. One of the teenagers he coached would become a Golden Gloves champion too, and later gave himself the title of Lord of the Dance. His name is Michael Flatley, and he is known for creating Irish dance shows such as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance.” He has said he will be back in Chicago in mid-April for a special Golden Gloves ceremony honoring former participants who became successful outside the ring.

McGarry died in 2018 but once told me, “Boxing was in my blood. It gives people confidence and it betters their outlook on life. And helps them also to work tremendously, to perform on the job. And it teaches them respect for other people, which is very important. It’s a foundation for good character.”

I boxed for a time, at the old gym near Navy Pier. It was called the Fire Department Gym because firefighters ran it and then-Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn used it to keep his men in shape. But it was really for everyone, to play basketball, volleyball, exercise and box, which I enjoyed for a time in my early 20s until getting knocked flat by a skinny teenager, thus ending my ring “career.”

But I became a great admirer of the sport and those who taught and fought. In addition to sitting ringside in New Orleans for Muhammad Ali’s 15-round decision in his rematch with Leon Spinks in 1978, I have seen dozens of Golden Gloves fights, most when they were held at St. Andrews Gym on West Addison Street, where I watched male and, since 1994, female boxers of varying abilities but similar desires, dance and flail, swing and miss and hit.

Those competing were a wildly mixed bunch, from tough teens expressing their manhood to stockbrokers taking their exercise routine to an illogical extreme; the Golden Gloves formal tournament age range is 18 to 40. Many of the younger fighters harbored dreams of Olympic Games glory or pay-per-view millions, perhaps seeing the footsteps of such Golden Gloves alums as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard or Ali (when he was known as Cassius Clay).

Those fantasies are fragile, and quickly end with an opponent’s furious flurry. But at St. Andrews, I saw, as I wrote in 2000, “Fire in the eyes of fighters, blood on some chins; dreams at once crushed and nurtured in the lightning flash of a left hook that sends one boxer to the canvas and another into the air, as if lifted by the roar of an appreciative audience.”

“The Gold Gloves is a great thing,” says Larry Roeske, director of the Chicago Golden Gloves. He is a painter for the city of Chicago. He is 62 years old and has never boxed and neither have his seven sons. He was introduced to the Golden Gloves nearly 20 years ago by a friend who was a volunteer with the organization and now functions, as he puts it, as “The jack of all Golden Gloves trades.”

He attends every bout, organizes the bouts in a dozen weight divisions, searches for sponsors, writes programs, deals with public relations, hangs banners, handles ticket requests and T-shirt sales … and on and on. “It’s a lot of work but it’s been worth it,” he says. “I have seen a lot of troubled kids grow into decent human beings.”

He and other organizers, volunteers, boxers and fans will tell you that the Golden Gloves, which offers instruction and mentoring year-round, helps keep kids off the streets and away from gangs, and that it teaches discipline and self-esteem.

In the crowds, you can see friends and families, mothers who worry and fathers filled with pride. Some families have been Golden Gloves-goers (and participants) for generations. The crowds are not the bejeweled and star-studded gatherings that one often sees at major professional fights. They are neighborhood folks and the Golden Gloves is boxing at its most innocent level, where sportsmanship rears its beautiful head.

Perhaps the success of the “Creed” film franchise says something encouraging about boxing. So might a recent Harris Poll, which surveyed more than 2,000 adults in 2021. It found that boxing was the country’s fourth most-popular sport with 33% saying they were fans, behind football (62%) and baseball and basketball (both at 49%). It also ranked boxing above MMA (30%). A decade before, boxing did not place among the top 10 in a Harris Poll.

The reasons? Its difficult to explain why an estimated 300 million people in 1971 watched on closed circuit TV a fight between Ali and Joe Frazier. Or why the Cicero Stadium will be packed with fans and families and fighters on so many nights in the coming weeks. Yes, the point of boxing is to hit your opponent or knock him or her to the canvas. But maybe it is something more rarefied, as novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who often went to Golden Gloves matches with her father, wrote in her book “On Boxing,” “In the brightly lit ring, man is in extremis, performing an atavistic rite or agon for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh.”

Three rings of action kept the heads moving during the Golden Gloves tournament at Chicago Stadium in 1954.. - Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS

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