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The Golden Gloves Aren't Golden Anymore

In New York City, boxing has gone the way of the Italian mafia, the Times Square porno theater, and the checkered cab.

When one thinks of New York sports, a few in particular stand out as the truly heavy cultural signifiers: Yankees baseball, the New York Marathon, the US Open, and, for much of the last century, the Golden Gloves. Most of the above remain rooted in current NYC culture, but the Golden Gloves has curiously, and slowly, vanished. But why?

Like bullfighting, boxing is a pretty macabre athletic endeavor, and the Golden Gloves are positively haunted. Sportswriting legend Paul Gallico founded the tourney in 1927 as an open competition among amateur boxers, and his idea included a sub-novice division, which was essentially open to anybody willing to throw or take a punch.


At the time, New York was a heaving mass of ethnic neighborhoods, each with its own assortment tough-guy punchers, and the Golden Gloves attracted 1,000 entries in its first year. Gallico saw a need to get the fighting under a proper spotlight and away from the backrooms and seedy betting barns of the day. By that year’s finals, demand had pushed the event to Madison Square Garden: Over 20,000 attended, and hundreds were turned away at the gates.

Eighty-five years on, the tourney does not cast as long a shadow as editions of days past. A chat with longtime trainer Juan Ribas in his Brooklyn gym confirms what had already seemed apparent. As if the phrase had been long ago loaded up for a reporter, Ribas quickly exclaimed, “The Golden Gloves are no longer golden.”

Ribas was around when the Gloves meant something: Fighters used to be able to count on a Golden Gloves championship to sprout a good career—or at least a shot at one—with some going on to win titles professionally.

The list of boxing greats who got their start in New York’s Golden Gloves is a bit astounding: Mike Tyson (of course), Emile Griffith, Riddick Bowe, Floyd Patterson, Zab Judah—and those are just the sanctioned champions. There were Olympic greats like Jose Torres, who won a silver medal in ‘56, and Mark Breland, a five-time Golden Gloves champ and Gold medalist at the '84 games. (Breland’s 1982 Golden Gloves bout with Pedro Estrada in 1982 remains a classic: The emotion of the crowd, and the fighters’ intensity has rarely been matched in professional bouts.)


There are no young stars coming out of the Golden Gloves—or maybe boxing at all—and the young guns I met at Ribas’s gym were generally part-timers looking to stay in shape and compete. When asked if the newfound popularity of MMA was to blame for boxing’s downward slide, most, if not all, of the assembled shook their head in indifference. If MMA is a brash, bro-ready metal riff, boxing is closer to a Frank Sinatra nostalgia track; it’s quieter, the stars are dimmer, the cards smaller. The sport’s gatekeepers, like the recently deceased cigar-chomping sportswriter Bert Sugar, continue to fade away.

The sport’s rule changes in the 1980s—adding helmets, mostly—rid amateur boxing of its signature violence. Golden Gloves boxing was no longer a knockout game, but one where any landed punch, whether a knockdown or weak jab could count for a point. By 1989, the tournament had left the main arena at Madison Square Garden; this year, like the others, it was at the smaller Theater at MSG.

I met up with Ribas and his fighter Mauricio Sandoval before the late March omnibus, in which Sandoval was contending for the 114-pound title. The Theater has been the tournament’s home since the crowds stopped coming, but I was still taken aback by the half-empty seats and overall sleepy mood. There were pockets of fighters’ family members and friends interspersed with some old-time fight fans and what looked like people who just stumbled in off the street. Fifty bucks later, I was in one of the “good seats” and set for a 12-bout card.


It was drowsy for a Friday, but the crowd finally stirred a bit in the second fight—only a bit though. The 123-pounder on the losing end had tears streaming down his face, but the girl next to me would not stop texting. Sandoval’s fight was the ninth on the card, and my eyelids were getting heavy; the only excitement was when a fight broke out on the far side of the theater between rival fans. (You know your sport is in trouble when a fight in the stands is more interesting than the one in the ring.)

Sandoval’s bout was against Dharmendra Anjiloi, a 20-year-old security guard from the Bronx, and seemed to be the fight of the night. It was short: three two-minute rounds, over before either man—or the crowd—could fully get a head of steam. Sandoval won, and was visibly proud standing next to Ribas. He got what appeared to be a gold hat and necklace.

The crowd and I both lurched slowly to the exits over the course of the next few fights and I found myself on 8th Avenue, wondering what the mood would have been like 30 years ago.

In a city full of million-dollar apartments and bourgeois gentrification, it’s harder to find working class scrabble willing to punch each other. For Ribas, though, “boxing is forever,” and in a way it’s true: Until we’re replaced with robots, boys will punch other boys. Even a casual fan could probably rattle a dozen or so heavyweight champs across a 100-year timeline—the problem is, these days I have a hard time naming more than a few active fighters.  Eighty-five years on, neither the Golden Gloves nor New York is quite the same. Boxing in this city has probably gone the way of the Italian mafia, the Times Square porno theater, and the checkered cab.