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Gyms Closed Friday for the Gloves

"I'm here every day," says Buffalo's Dante Palmer. "I want to turn pro."

One of Isaac Newton’s first experiments as a young student at Cambridge was an attempt to objectively describe color. To do so, he slid a “bodkin” into his eye socket between eyeball and bone, and pressed the tip until he saw white, dark, and colored circles. Next, he stared with one eye into a reflection of the sun for as long as he could. After looking at the sun, his senses were stripped down to two base colors. Light objects all appeared red, while dark objects appeared blue.

After spending three days in a dark room recovering from his experiment, Newton found he could reproduce this effect at will. Newton found red and blue to be primary colors, positioned at opposite sides of any color wheel, as any good art student will tell you by seventh grade, and the red-blue color dominance was firmly established.

Red and blue, besides being the colors of several prominent national flags and a certain local football team, are the dominant colors of amateur boxing. There’s always a red corner and a blue corner to which each fighter belongs, their respective allegiance demonstrated by the color of their gloves and headgear. In the first round of the Golden Gloves in January, there were two rings to accommodate more than 40 fighters initially in competition: a red ring and blue ring. Tomorrow, in the throwback ambiance of the Statler’s Golden Ballroom, the Golden Gloves final will take place, with 18 fighters competing for championships according to experience and weight class, and 10 fighters in non-tournament “match bouts.”

The Golden Gloves’ roots are deep in Buffalo. The tournament started in Chicago in the 1920s and was organized, promoted, and fund-raised in Buffalo for almost 40 years by a retired wrestler known alternately as the Red Devil, the Masked Marvel, and Franklin Kelliher. Monsignor Kelliher, that is.

In 1936, the young priest was given the reins to the Working Boys Home, a homeless shelter/halfway house for roughly 50 young men run by elderly priests from Father Baker’s Home. But the administration of the home belonged to the priests in name only, for it had come to be run by the boys themselves, and Kelliher was directed to restore order.

His first day on the job, he threw four boxing gloves down on the tables and offered any boy who resented the change of leadership an opportunity to knock him out of his position. “If you lick me, I’ll quit,” he recalled later to the Courier Express. (Kelliher died in 1985.) “If I lick you, you will take orders and obey.” Kelliher, 36 years old at the time, stood 6’1’’ and tipped the scales at 235 pounds. Still, he drew challengers and he managed to keep his job until his retirement in 1975.

There’s a good chance Monsignor Kelliher was in attendance at the Broadway Auditorium to see Joe Louis’s only Buffalo fight on Janaury 11, 1937. The Courier Express drummed up excitement in town before the fight: “One of the greatest fight crowds ever to witness either a title or non-title bout in Western New York is expected to jam the Broadway Auditorium tonight to see Joe Louis, the fanciful Brown Bomber from Detroit, battle Stanley Ketchell in a four-round bout.”

From the beginning, it seemed that Ketchell wasn’t much a challenger for Louis, who was between losing his first fight to the German Max Schmeling in June 1936 and capturing the world heavyweight title from “Cinderella Man” James Braddock in June 1937. Ketchell’s attributes as accounted in the Courier Express don’t extend beyond being an animate punching bag: “Ketchell’s only qualifications are that he has the size, build and punch to give Joe a workout.”

By all accounts, the 7,328 fight fans who filled the auditorium were not disappointed by its short duration. The Courier celebrated Ketchell for lasting into the second round: “The bout lasted longer than expected…Ketchell did the best he could while the bout lasted, but was palpably afraid of the amber assassin.” Louis knocked Ketchell cold with a left hand 31.5 seconds into the second round: “He went down like a poled ox, full length, his arms stretched out at length.”

On a rather warm day in March, I entered what remains of the Broadway Auditorium. Anchored on Broadway just east of the intersection at Michigan Street, the auditorium awkwardly shadows its former self like most 19th-century structures that still stand in Buffalo. From the outside it looks like an enormous pile of yellow bricks and glass block, with a pyramidal roof projecting above it.

Walking from the noon daylight into the darkened garage door entrance, the enormous sky of the building, held aloft by its arched steel ribs, comes alive in imagined memory. Daylight streamed into the windows along the eastern side of the roof, the western portion not faring as well against years of lake effect weather.

It’s probably too late for a large storm to occur this season, but if it happened, the auditorium would be ground zero for the dig-out efforts: A massive mountain of lonely rock salt stood sentry astride dozens of well-rested city snowplows. Today, the cathedral on Broadway is a depot for the Department of Public Works that stands in the way of Mayor Byron Brown’s efforts to create an African-American cultural history district anchored by the neighboring Michigan Street Baptist Church, the Colored Musicians Club, and the Langston Hughes Institute.

Across the street from the Buffalo area’s most impressive cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of Victory, is a parking lot next to a large building with many doors. One door is labeled “Roy and Jim’s Lackawanna Community Boxing.” Opening the door and climbing down the curling iron stairs into the basement is a little like stepping back in time. The room is long, dank, punctuated by reds and blues, and lined with old fight posters. Cigarette smoke perfumed the air. Young men and boys were scattered throughout the room working at different stations: pounding speed bags, jumping rope, shadow-boxing, doing situps.

After Dante Palmer finished 15 minutes of effortless-looking jump rope, I noticed he was wearing his mouthguard. Most fighters I’ve seen only wear it when sparring. Palmer explained he started wearing it while training so he could get comfortable breathing with it in, and that it’s become something of a habit. The Buffalo native is 20 years old and started training in Lackawanna because of a connection his mother had with someone who was formerly affiliated with the gym. Now, the gym has become something of a habit. “I’m here every day,” he said. “I want to turn pro.”

On Friday, Palmer will be fighting Buffalo’s Emmanuel Colon in the 141-pound open final for the chance travel to Nevada to compete for the national championship. “Booky’s ready,” Roy Brasch told me.

When I ask where Palmer got the nickname Booky, Brasch plead ignorance.

“I’ve had the nickname since birth,” Palmer told me between rounds of sparring with the 50-something Jim Giambelluca and the 40-something martial artist Marty Cacavas. “I don’t know why.”

“Gym’s closed Friday for the Gloves, guys, so everyone knows,” Roy Brasch announced to the room. At 65 years old, Brasch is the source of the gym’s cigarette odor and its spirit. He and Giambelluca run the gym, charging members $20 monthly. “We’re the cheapest, I’m pretty sure,” Brasch told me.

Brasch and Giambelluca remember Monsignor Kelliher well, having fought on a number of fight cards Kelliher put together. I asked Brasch, who has a way of pronouncing the word “boxing” that makes the plosive B jump out like a leading jab, to describe the monsignor, and he told me, “He was a tough, tough man. He didn’t take no shit. If you got out of hand, he’d pick you up and throw you against the wall.”

At one point, Cacavas found some blood on his shirt and asked Jim and Booky if they were bleeding at all. Both looked confused, but then Jim said, “It’s probably my mouth.” As he washed his well-worn teeth and mouth out with water I asked him if he was having fun. “Always fun,” he said.

“You still spar, Roy?”

“No, I wish. I take Coumadin now. Can’t fight no more.”

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