By Michael Silver: Professional boxing is the only major sport whose athletes do not have a union, pension plan, or even a semi-respectable centralized authority to keep order. Even when the sport had a semblance of organization and uniformity some 30 years ago (a time when the average boxing fan could easily name every champion--mainly because there were only 10 weight divisions and, with few exceptions, one champion per division!) it still could not reform itself as far as benefits or basic health insurance coverage was concerned. Some things just never change. But in 1955, in New York City, an ex-fighter named Jack Grebelsky, who believed in the adage “charity begins at home”, decided to organize a group of retired professional prizefighters and create a branch of the recently formed National Veteran Boxer’s Association. The National VBA was started in 1953, in Philadelphia, and within two years six other cities had started their own chapters. (New York was number 8 on the list). Most of the membership of the fledgling organization was drawn from the ranks of retired former pro boxers who had been active from the 1910’s to the 1940’s. As this era represented the golden age of professional prize-fighting in America there was certainly no shortage of potential candidates.
Eventually the VBA would count over 30 separate “Rings” located in various cities throughout the United States. The heyday of the organization was the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s. The stated purpose, as outlined in the organization’s charter, was to “foster, promote and perpetuate a spirit of benevolent fraternity and charity among active and inactive valid professional boxers, and to provide for the physical, mental and monetary welfare of indigent professional boxers”. A fighter had to have fought a minimum of 10 professional bouts to qualify for membership.
Because New York City had been boxing’s international capital for almost 50 years it was fitting and logical that Ring 8 would eventually become the largest and most effective organization of its kind in the United States. Its motto said it all: “Boxers helping Boxers”.
New York’s Ring # 8, like boxing itself, has had its ups and downs over the years but it remains one of the few surviving chapters of the V.B.A. still active on a regular basis. It is a tax exempt organization that has helped hundreds of boxers. It continues to pay for medical examinations for fighters, provides optical assistance, picks up the Medicare deductible, and provides a $500 death benefit. It recently inaugurated the Bill Gallo College Scholarship Fund which is given to qualified amateur, professional (active or retired) boxers who wish to attend college or an accredited trade school. Six recipients have so far been awarded scholarships. It is named in honor of the famous Daily News cartoonist, and life long member of Ring 8, whose award winning art work has often dealt with the sport.
Another reason Ring 8 has been so effective in helping down and out ex-pugs is because of the organization’s Chairman of the Board, Charles Gellman. This former 1930’s club fighting middleweight used the money he earned fighting during the Depression to pay his way through college, eventually earning a degree in Public Health. He has endeavored to pay back boxing ever since. As the administrator of two hospitals in New York City during the 1960’s and 70’s, and as President of the Greater New York Hospital Association, Charley has used his influence and position to help-free of charge-scores of ex-fighters with medical and financial problems. In 1997 Ring 8 acknowledged his service to the organization and to boxing by presenting him with the Ray Arcel Humanitarian Award, which is named for the legendary New York trainer. Although the 86 year old Gellman is ailing himself these days his example of selfless altruism continues to guide the organization’s direction and spirit.
Over the years Ring 8’s membership has included boxing legends Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Graziano and Sandy Saddler. Other New York champions such as Ben Jeby, Charley Phil Rosenberg, Petey Scalzo, Corp. Izzy Schwartz, Lou Salica, Tippy Larkin and Phil Terranova were active in the organization, as were dozens of other lesser known boxers, trainers, managers and officials.
All of the above named fighters have since passed away. Sadly, over the past 20 years most of the early membership has either died or, for health reasons, can no longer attend the meetings. Perhaps out of apathy, or for other reasons, few contemporary fighters, active or retired, have come forward to replace them. Of course boxing is a far different sport than it was when Ring 8 first began in 1955. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, San Francisco and New York are no longer the great fight hubs they once were. In fact, in each of these cities professional boxing is all but non existent.
As membership in the V.B.A chapters continued to shrink many “Rings” began to close their doors. One by one they fell by the wayside. The few “Rings” that tried to remain active had a tough time surviving. By the late 1980’s there were less than half a dozen chapters still in existence, meeting sporadically, with only a handful of members present.
But, like an over-the-hill fighter holding on until the final bell, New York’s Ring 8 refused to throw in the towel, meeting every month in a rented union hall in mid-town Manhattan. Coffee and bagels were served to the 25 or so die-hards who still made it their business to attend. Although Ring 8’s annual holiday dinner remained a popular event its active membership was down to about two dozen participants. Ex-Fighters like Tino Raino, Charley Gellman, Johnny Colan, Danny Kapilow, Herbie Kronowitz, Patsy Giovanelli, Allie Stoltz, Petey Hayes, Al Reid and Coley Wallace (who portrayed former heavyweight champion Joe Louis in the movies) were among the faithful who kept the organization chugging along through its lean years.
Then, in 1993, just when it seemed as though Ring 8 was about to take a standing 8 count, the organization was revived when Tony Mazzarella, a dyed in the wool boxing enthusiast and fan, who also happened to be a deputy commissioner on the staff of the New York State Athletic Commission, came to the group with a generous offer. Tony Mazzarella offered the use of his popular restaurant, the Waterfront Crab House, in Long Island City, as a permanent venue for the group’s monthly meetings. Perhaps it was the food, or the ambiance (Tony’s saloon is a shrine to boxing with hundreds of photos and assorted memorabilia lining the walls alongside the bar) but attendance and membership began to increase dramatically. Name fighters who had rarely attended meetings in the past now became “regulars”. Although in recent years Ring 8 has been devastated by the loss of many of its aging ex-boxers the organization’s roster has been supplemented with many boxing fans and supporters who can join as associate members. Annual dues are twenty five dollars but only boxers are eligible for benefits and to hold office or serve on the Board of Directors. The meetings are usually held the third Tuesday of every month (excluding July and August) beginning at 7 p.m. Boxing fans may find themselves rubbing shoulders with former champions Emile Griffith and Juan LaPorte who usually attend with their former manager Howie Albert. They represent the organization’s most active champs in a roster that also includes Vito Antuofermo, Kevin Kelley, and Buddy McGirt.
For the nostalgic set there are stars of the 1940’s and 50’s including Johnny Colan, Joe Miceli, Keene Simmons, Danny Giovanelli, Vinnie Cidone, Henry Wallitsch, the Spanakos twins, Pete and Nick (who between them have won over 12 Golden Gloves titles). They freely mix and mingle with other fighters, trainers, officials and approximately 100 or so fans and supporters who attend the monthly gathering. The oldest member is 93 year young Sammy Farber, a Lower East Side featherweight who turned pro in 1929 and is a veteran of some 65 pro fights.
Ring 8’s membership is now in excess of 300 people, rivaling the numbers of its best years. Meetings are presided over by Ring 8’s current President Bobby Bartels, a 1960’s era welterweight, who reviews current business, tolls the ten count for deceased members, and introduces the guest speaker for the evening. Occasionally there is a surprise as when 1950’s middleweight contender Eugene “Silent” Hairston was introduced and honored, or when Danny “Bang, Bang” Womber, who once beat the great Kid Gavilan, was discovered at a Salvation Army shelter and was brought to Ring 8, given an award, and treated like the celebrity he once was. Just to see the expression of gratitude and happiness on the faces of these forgotten gladiators was worth 10 times the price of admission. Several years ago Ring 8 acted on rumors that ailing former featherweight champion Sandy Saddler was being neglected. The organization placed Sandy in a proper nursing facility where he was able to live out his final years in relative peace. The group did the same for ex-champs Phil Terranova and former heavyweight contender Tami Mauriello.
The biggest Ring 8 event is still the annual Holiday Dinner which takes place in December. Hundreds attend and the event is usually sold out weeks in advance. This year Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti were the guests of honor. Awards were also given to Gatti’s trainer, Buddy McGirt and to female boxing pioneer Jackie Tonawanda.
The annual dinner is just one of several ongoing attempts to raise funds for the organization. Considering the terrible financial and physical condition that so many ex-fighters find themselves in, Ring 8’s efforts are minuscule compared to what truly needs to be done for these ruined warriors. Again, without a union, pension plan, or health benefits the boxer is at an extreme disadvantage. But at least there is one organization that is trying, with whatever limited resources it has at its disposal, to make a difference. Pity that the real power brokers in boxing which include the major promoters and the few mega-million boxing superstars do not pitch in and help.
Michael Silver is the historian for the Ring 8 organization. He is also a journalist whose articles on the sport have appeared in The New York Times, Ring Magazine, ESPN.com, Boxing Monthly, and numerous other publications. He is a former Inspector with the New York State Athletic Commission and a member of IBRO (The International Boxing Research Organization).
The next open meeting of Ring 8 will be held on Tuesday January 21 at The Waterfront Crabhouse, 2-03 Borden Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101
Anyone wishing to join the organization is welcome to attend.