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Downtown Boxing Club Down for the Count in Battle Against Gentrification

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Nobody goes to a boxing gym to run half-heartedly on a treadmill while watching TV. I’ve been to the one in Hollywood where Manny Pacquiao — one of the most famous fighters in the world — trains, and even that place is cramped, dirty, and functional. Minimal creature comforts means minimal distraction.

Even by the Spartan standards of boxing gyms, Downtown Boxing Club manages to impress with its lack of frills. It’s just a short walk from the Convention Center Metro stop, but it’s tough to find, tucked away in Blagden Alley off of Ninth Street Northwest.

Inside, there’s a boxing ring and a bag cage and metal shelves of boxing gloves and shoes that cover most of one wall. There’s one toilet — it works — and a furnace that doesn’t, really. The walls and floor are concrete. The Sunday afternoon when I drop by is the first day trainer Dave White has been able to open in nearly a week. It’s just been too cold.

While a half-dozen guys, all in their twenties and thirties, hit the assortment of heavy bags or shadowbox inside the ring, the thermostat reads 43 degrees. Fahrenheit. One guy is working out with his shirt off.

White is here seven days a week, but Sunday brings the advanced group, for sparring. While I shuffle my feet to keep warm, he sets up a video camera on a tripod outside the ring so the fighters will be able to review their matches later. When it’s ready, he calls them into the ring round-robin style, just for one or two minutes at time.

“Keep your gloves up,” White shouts from outside the ring. “Come in, get him inside the best you can, come in with that uppercut, go to the head, aim it and make it as accurate as you can, then get those gloves back! Back real fast!”

The guys here today are the diehards, the ones who show up to work with White four to six times a week.

Emmanuel Osei, a 35-five-year-old lawyer for the government, says he’s lost 30 pounds in the three years he’s trained here. He runs down a typical 90-minute workout.

“We do shadowboxing for about six minutes,” Osei says. “Then you hit the bag for 40-45 minutes. Then you get in the ring with him and spar for three minutes, or sometimes two times two minutes. Afterwards, you jump rope for nine minutes. After that you get in the ring and you do 100 pushups and you do 400 sit-ups.”

But these guys aren’t going to be getting those sorts of workouts here much longer. On the outside of the gym, notice of a pending liquor license application is posted. As rents in the surrounding neighborhood rise, White is being priced out of the space he’s leased for seven years to make way for a restaurant called The American.

Josh Cohen, a 23-year-old consultant who’s been training here for two years, isn’t pleased by this development.

“It’s a shame,” Cohen says. “This is such a great place and everybody in here appreciates it so much. It’s such a great place to work out. Dave’s a great trainer. There’s not too many no-frill places you can go without a contract and just focus on getting your workout in. Nice people. It’s no L.A. Boxing thing. No one’s trying to sell you on anything. It’s all about working out and having fun here.“

Dues here are $100 bucks a month, pay-as-you-go. For that you can come in and train as often as you want, though you’re not getting in the ring to spar until Dave White’s convinced you’re ready. Newcomers generally take at least two months.

“I have to make sure that when they get in there they’re not gonna get in there and run out of gas,” White explains. “You can be in really good shape and still run out of gas because of the anxiety and all the rest of it. And I have to make sure they have the technical fundamentals down. They’ve got to keep their gloves up, they’ve got to stay in their stance, they can’t cross their feet.“

White is 62. He started boxing late, at age 29. He moved to D.C. from Atlanta in 1984, and opened his gym in the late nineties across from the Metro Center Red Line stop.

“I was in a building that had a Popeye’s Fried Chicken on the ground floor, a beauty salon on the second, a sexual massage parlor on the third and I was on the fourth,” White recalls. “And that space was affordable. And then the neighborhood changed, and they closed the Popeye’s, and I had to move.”

The space we’re standing in now is White’s third location in the 15 years he’s been doing this. The first time he looked at it, he passed.

“What I really would rather have is a lower ceiling, steel I-beams, and a lot more bags hanging from the ceiling,” White says.

Delays with the liquor license for the new restaurant, which was first announced last summer, have already given him a reprieve of several months. But it now appears all but certain Downtown Boxing Club will be relocating in 2014.

White isn’t thrilled to be seeking his fourth location, but he’s been through this cycle before. He remembers what the neighborhood was like when he moved in seven years ago.

“This neighborhood wasn’t all that great. There was still a lot of prostitution. There were still guys selling drugs and using drugs in the alley when I moved in. That was on the decline. Things got better, they’re putting up condos two blocks from here, and I’m going to have to move again. Which is basically what I’ve experienced twice already. I’m lucky it didn’t happen sooner.”

He’d prefer to stay in this part of town, but finding something he can afford here probably won’t happen.

“When you’re looking at space for a boxing gym, you’re looking at the low end of the commercial real estate market,” he says.

Wherever he ends up next, bars and condos are likely to follow. Eventually.


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