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John's Boxing Gym Fights to Stay Open in Melrose

By Patrick Wall | February 23, 2012 11:27am
Gjin Gjini, owner of John's Boxing Gym, says he has had to take on thousands of dollars in debt to fund renovations of the new space.
Gjin Gjini, owner of John's Boxing Gym, says he has had to take on thousands of dollars in debt to fund renovations of the new space.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

MELROSE — A legendary South Bronx boxing gym is up against the ropes.

In less than a week, John’s Boxing Gym will vacate the building it has occupied since 1980 and move down the street to a new space that is still under construction.

The owner, Gjin Gjini, said he is confident the new site will soon be ready — but he’s less sure that he will be able to afford it. Rent will rise from a nominal $35 a month at his current space to $4,300 in the new building, Gjini said, and the total cost of the down payment and renovations could exceed $80,000.

Gjini, 35, a former boxer from Albania, said that he already borrowed about $40,000 for the move, but he still needs more financing. So he has come up with a plan: convert the for-profit gym into a charity, then solicit donations and government funding.

“We’ve been here for 30 years,” said Gjini, who bought the gym from its founding owner in 2004 and renamed it after his oldest son.

But, he added, “If the politicians don’t help out, this place will go down.”

For decades, boxers from the Bronx, and some from as far away as Brooklyn, have sparred at the two-ring gym at 436 Westchester Ave., near the Hub. The recent IBF champion, Joseph Agbeko, trained at John’s Gym; a young Mike Tyson also sparred there.

"This is a home of champions," said Lorenzo Siberry, 46, a longtime trainer at the gym, whose fighters range from age 8 to 48. Three of his charges have won the Golden Gloves, he said, and two have gone professional.

The city owns the building, which sits in an otherwise vacant lot, and had leased it to Gjini on a month-to-month basis. But last spring, the city sold that lot and an adjacent one to a developer, Triangle Equities. Gjini has until next Tuesday, Feb. 28, to move out.

At the beginning of February, Gjini found a new home for the gym at 450 149th St., roughly one block south of the current location. Situated in a second-floor space above El Valle Restaurant, the new gym will offer 4,000 square feet of boxing space, about the same as the current gym.

To transform the long-abandoned office space into a boxing gym, Gjini said he first had to hire contractors to haul away piles of debris and knock down old walls. Now workers are installing new lighting, flooring and plumbing. Finally, they will disassemble the two sparring rings at the old building and carry the parts over by hand, to rebuild in the new space.

The new space is slated to open March 5 — though Gjini admits that it may only be "80 percent" completed by then.

Gjini, who also runs a tile installation company in Connecticut, where he lives, said he had taken on major debt to fund the renovation.

"This is a big hit to my pocket," he said. "I’m doing this because I love boxing; otherwise, I wouldn’t be here."

Because the gym provides many young people with a place to stay fit and keep out of trouble, Gjini said, he will soon apply for non-profit status, which would allow the gym to receive tax-exempt donations and certain government funds.

In the meantime, the non-profit South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation will act as a conduit for any discretionary funds that local City Council members agree to offer the gym.

"They’ve been in the community so long, we don’t want to just see them leave," said Jamila Diaz, the corporation’s commercial revitalization director. "We know it’s one of the best places for kids to go to in the community."

Another way Gjini plans to raise funds is by charging a modest fee for after-school youth boxing classes. For children younger than 8, who aren't allowed to enter the boxing ring, Gjini said he would offer karate lessons.

What he wants to avoid, Gjini said, is raising the monthly membership fee above its current rate of $50 per month, which he said is less than most gyms charge. He said many of the gym’s members could not afford to pay more.

One boxer, David Young, said that the gym's affordability is the main reason he travels there each day from Harlem.

"It’s the cheapest one near me," said Young, 24.

Young said he planned to make the short move with the gym. But the gym manager, Pashk Gjini, the owner’s 17-year-old brother, said that when some members learned about the pending relocation, they "decided to play it safe" and find a new, fully constructed gym.

Still, Gjin Gjini promises that in six months the new location will be "booming."

"Like they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day," Gjini said. "But they got to give us a fighting chance."