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In Boxing, Gym Drew Them All

For more than half a century, it was a musty pugilistic monument--preserved in liniment and sweat--where generations of Los Angeles prizefighters learned the lessons of “the sweet science.”

The Main Street Gym, on the edge of skid row, was the rattiest workout venue in the city (some said the world), but it also was the most famous. “World Rated Boxers Train Here Daily” read a sign at the entrance. It was where young boys with little education and lots of heart came to train and listen hungrily to boxing tales from the old men who had spent more than half of their lives there.

The grimy little gym, where the bells bonged every three minutes and the dirty wooden floors creaked, drew some of the greats and not-so-greats who didn’t know a left hook from a fishhook. It opened in 1933 at 321 S. Main St. as the successor to the Spring Street Newsboys’ Gym. The building burned down in 1951 (while the night watchman slept), and the gym moved across the street to 318 1/2, atop the old Adolphus Theater.

There were other gyms in the city, but none had Main Street’s reputation. At various times, fabled champions Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson, Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Joe Frazier, Jim Jeffries and Sugar Ray Robinson trained there.

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But it was the gym’s proprietor, former featherweight Howie Steindler, who ran the place with unquestioned authority--like a drill sergeant in boot camp--and kept it going with the help of two savvy sidekicks, Arthur “Duke” Holloway and Rip Rosenburrow.

Steindler was an amateur fighter in New York before drifting to Los Angeles in 1942, when he began working as a crane operator at the shipyards. Later, as a prop man for RKO Studios, he met George Hansford, a former featherweight professional, whom Steindler trained for a successful comeback.

Drawing on his years of experience, Steindler took over Main Street Gym about 1960. The feisty, crusty and often sarcastic manager/trainer kept a lock on his phone and the gym’s office in his pocket. He cultivated a tough guy persona, but was known up and down skid row as a soft touch for a hard-luck story.

In the beginning, to make ends meet, he also worked as an auto mechanic, chauffeur and cabdriver.

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It was risky navigating the street in front of the gym with the Union Rescue Mission nearby. But Steindler kept a billy club hanging on the wall in case of trouble. Occasionally, a bum would find his way up the stained marble stairs, where Steindler or one of his assistants would eject him with just a few harsh words--except on rainy days.

Holloway, a big man with a big cigar and derby, trained and nurtured some of the greatest, including Joe Louis, whom he trained back into shape after the champ was discharged from the service after World War II.

Routinely, young boys peered through a crack in the door, straining for a glimpse of their heroes, while others paid a dime or two for admission to watch sparring matches and champs readying for a fight at the Olympic Auditorium, Hollywood Legion Stadium or Wrigley Field.

Before Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, died in 1946, he hung out at the the gym, flashing his gold-toothed smile at the young tough youths. At different times, cocky heavyweights would coax the 60-year-old man into the ring. He would strip to the waist and put on his 16-ounce gloves. Johnson never threw a punch. He just stood there and picked off with his gloves every punch thrown at him.

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In 1977, Steindler, 72, locked up the gym, walked down the dirty marble staircase and got into his new Cadillac for the last time. On the street near his Encino house, he was jumped by unidentified assailants. They beat him savagely, smothered him by pushing his face into the car’s seat cushion, robbed him and threw him on the floor in the back seat. They then parked the car on the Ventura Freeway, near the Laurel Canyon Boulevard offramp in Studio City.

Theories of what triggered the slaying of the local character were numerous. Steindler had longed to manage a world champion, and he had finally managed to achieve his ambition with featherweight champ Danny “Little Red” Lopez. He also managed his brother, Ernie “Indian Red” Lopez, treating them both more like sons than meal tickets. But not everyone shared Steindler’s happiness, and there was talk of a contract hit.

Adding fuel to such speculation was the fact that Steindler tried to contact state Sen. Alex P. Garcia (D-Los Angeles) the day before his death to discuss problems he was having with the State Athletic Commission.

The slaying remains unsolved.

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Steindler was the model for the archetypal old trainer played by Burgess Meredith, whose character managed Sylvester Stallone’s character, Rocky Balboa, in the “Rocky” movies. Scenes for all three films were shot in the Main Street Gym, as were those for “The Main Event” and other movies.

It was a place of bruises and dreams, spit and blood, and its ambience for the movie industry was perfect. Life-size cutouts of champions and a poster of boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling lined the peeling walls. A sign on the wall read: “Please do not bring children under 8 years old in the gym. We don’t want anyone smarter than us in here.”

Steindler’s daughter, Carol, a lifetime boxing fan, assumed control of the gym after his death, managing it until 1984, when it was demolished for a parking lot.

She then managed another Main Street Gym, behind the Olympic Auditorium at 18th Street and Grand Avenue, until that too was torn down, closing a colorful chapter in boxing history.

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