By Randy De La O
My earliest memories of the old Main Street Gym in Los Angeles are of my father and I going there to watch the fighters workout and spar. This would be in the 1960’s. My father bought all his clothing from the haberdasheries that were found up and down Broadway Street at that time, including Mickey Cohen‘s haberdashery, but that was before my time. I went with him knowing that a trip downtown meant a visit to the Main Street Gym, on Third and Main. My father was a boxer in the army during the 1940’s and remained a fan all of his life, perhaps equaled only by his love of the Los Angeles Dodgers. We would spend a few hours there while my father pointed out the fighters and explained the finer points of boxing to me. We would stop at Crony’s on Whittier Blvd, in East Los Angeles and grab a hot dog or two, before heading home. It was a great time and a great memory.
I would think about those days years later while working out at the gym. At that time I was training under Mel Epstein, who eventually became like the grandfather I never knew. Mel was a trainers trainer, old school and hard core. When I met Mel he was 75 years old and was managing middleweight Mike Nixon, and another young fighter Gary Pittman. His most noted fighter was light heavyweight "Young Firpo", whom he managed and trained in the 1930’s. He also managed and trained boxing writer and historian Ricky Farris. Despite the fact that Mel was a west coast figure, no one evoked a more “Runyonesque” aura. He had been involved in every facet of the fight game at one time or another, including promoting and matchmaking.
The Main Street Gym was managed by that other “Runyonesque” character, Howie Steindler. Howie ran that gym with an iron fist and rarely, if ever, tolerated any bullshit in his gym. Howie managed Ernie “Red” Lopez, Danny “Little Red” Lopez and Alberto Davila. The trainers that I remember from that time are Larry Soto, Memo Soto, Gil Cadilli, Benny Georgino, Teddy Bentham, Bob Armstrong, Frankie Williams, Phil Silvers, Ralph Gambina and Harry Shapiro, who had the habit of reaching over and talking into your ear. It was the only way he would talk. Occasionally other trainers and fighters would come by, usually for some sparring. Joe Ponce and Bobby Chacon would stop by regularly. One of the greatest moments during those years was a spectacular sparring session with Chacon and “Little Red”. It was one of those “You had to be there” moments. These two were true cross town rivals, but they kept it friendly outside of the ring.
I can’t remember the name of the first guy that I sparred with, only that he was a “Main Event” fighter at the Olympic Auditorium. I do remember the bloody nose, split lip, bruised body and black eye that I got. I came back the next day for more. In time I gave as good as I got. I had the opportunity to spar with some good welter and middleweights at that time, as well as some lightweights, and a few light heavies, including Mike Quarry. I was a 147 pounds give or take a few. The toughest guy I ever sparred with, hell, the toughest guy I ever traded punches with period, in or out of the ring was Felipe Torres. Torres had lost a decision to Roberto Duran a few years earlier. Torres was a natural lightweight, but when I met him he was around 165 pounds and working on a comeback. At that time he was managed by Glen Williams, although I think it was more of a friendship than a true manager boxer relationship.
I had turned down an offer by Williams to leave Mel and sign with him. He promised me the world, but I was happy with Mel and declined. I think after that he kind of had it in for me, maybe I’m wrong, who knows. I know that when I had a fight at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Felipe was my sparring partner. I had two weeks to get ready. It was only my second fight and it was a six round fight with a ten round fighter named Eduardo Barba from Mexico. I had misjudged Felipe, thinking that because he was a little over weight, and older than me, I would be able to handle him fairly easy. As the saying goes, “when the student is ready, the master will appear“. Well, I suddenly found myself in the ring with a Master, with a capital “M’. He literally tore me apart the fist round. In the second I was determined to get my shot in. I landed a right hand that really seemed to tick him off, he ripped off his head gear and seemed to scratch the ring floor as a bull would, and just tore into me. Every time I stepped into the ring with Felipe, I felt as if I was fighting for my life. This went on for two weeks. What made it worse was that Mel wanted me to spar without head gear, he seemed to think that it toughened a fighter up. I’m not so sure he was right. By the time I got to Vegas for my fight I was bruised , worn and battered on the inside. I lost the decision but it was good fight. It was on the under card of the Mike Quarry - Tom Bethea fight. My fight was the only prelim that night. Bethea lost that night too. Howie Steindler got me that fight, and I remember the night before I left for Vegas, Howie said to me “ You picked your profession, now get out there and do your best”. Some of the guys from the gym said they had seen the fight and thought I had won, but I have to admit, Barba won that fight, fair and square, but I gave as good as I got.
One of the things that I really liked at the gym was the way the heavy bags were set up. There were five or six bags in a row set over raised wooden floors. What was different than most gyms is that the ceiling was so high, a really long chain was needed for the bags. This gave the fighter the opportunity to sway the bag in
circles, follow it or duck under it, something you can’t do on a short hung bag. It makes a difference when training. There were two rings set up and they were always busy. There were two mirror set up for shadow boxing, and a locker room with an old wooden sit up table made by Norman Lockwood. Mel had an ongoing squabble with most of the trainers there over the windows. He wanted them wide open when his fighters were training and every other trainer in the gym wanted them closed. Sometimes he won the argument, sometimes he lost.
There are a lot of great memories from my time at the gym, none more memorable than meeting the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. He was there quite often in the mid 1970’s. My first contact with him was on a weekday afternoon. I was shadowboxing in front of the mirror. Not the mirror by the door when you waked in, the mirror opposite of the doors, by the windows, near the speed bags. If you trained there you know which mirror. I could see Robinson jumping rope behind me as I shadowboxed. He was watching me. He stopped jumping and just stared at me. After a minute or so, he walked over to me and tapped my shoulder and said “ Excuse me son, do you mind if I give you a little advice?” I looked over at Mel, knowing how he felt about anyone bothering his fighters. Even he recognized the magnitude of the moment for me. He smiled and nodded to me. Do I mind if Sugar Ray Robinson gives me advice? Do birds fly? He gave me a good piece of advice about not drawing my right hand back when I jabbed with my left. He told me to “think of my right as a catcher’s mitt and the other guys fist as a baseball. Just relax and catch it.” To this day when I pass that advice on to someone and they question it, I tell them that Sugar Ray Robinson told me that. It’s almost always good enough. During the time he was working out there we got to be somewhat friendly. we would talk almost every day he was there. One day he stopped coming and I never saw him again. Years later when I heard on the news that he had passed away, I felt bad. I read a few biographies on him over the years and there have been some unflattering things said about him, but to me he was a class act and a nice guy. That’s how I remember him.
The Main Street Gym has been used for so many television shows and movies that I would never be able to list them all, but perhaps the most memorable (to me) is the original “Rocky” with Sylvester Stallone, Burgess Meredith and Talia Shire. The reason it is so memorable to me is that I was an extra in the movie. I’m sparring with Monroe Brooks in the movie. Brooks was stopped by Roberto Duran a few years later. Monroe and I became friends and when I had a fight scheduled with local welterweight Chris Gonzalez, at the Forum later that year he stopped by to wish me luck. The fight was canceled just minutes before it was scheduled to start, still I appreciated him coming by. He was another class act. Brooks is currently a trainer in Los Angeles. Mel and I had lunch with Burgess Meredith, and I remember Meredith picking Mel’s brain for any and all information. I see some of Mel in Mickey.
I had the opportunity to meet so many fighters and famed trainers during those days. It’s been so long that I can’t remember them all, but I do remember meeting and shaking hands with Henry Armstrong, Alexis Arguello and so many others.
After the fight at the Aladdin Hotel, I never fought again. It wasn’t a choice, it just worked out that way. I ended up with a family to support and got a job at Mc Donnell Douglas Aircraft Company. Like most fighters I never really got it out of my system and in 1980 I tried one more time. Things were different now. Mel had passed away that year, Howie Steindler had been murdered a few years earlier and the gym just had a different aura about it. Larry Soto was training me now. Larry was training a fighter by the name of Felipe Canela at the time. I got along well with Larry but he was a completely different type of trainer than Mel, and was pretty vocal about it. His style of training seemed more assembly line as opposed to Mel, who seemed to bring out an individual style. Maybe it was just me. At any rate it didn’t make a difference. That year my father became sick with cancer and I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. So between raising a family, working a full time job with overtime, and going to the hospital daily, something had to give, and it was the gym.
I have great memories of the Main Street Gym. It was a great time in my life and I met some great people there. It was, at it’s peak,, the “Mecca of Boxing” on the west coast, rivaling the best of them, including Stillman’s and Gleason’s in New York. The Gym closed down in the mid ‘80’s and was eventually razed and the spot were the legendary gym once stood is now a parking lot. It was an honor to climb up the flight of stairs, passing Howie’s office, look up and see the sign that read “The greatest fighters in the world train here” and enter the doorway. The sounds and smell of that gym still live in me.
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