The smell of smoke still permeates the air around NE 84th and Russell. The majority of the buildings—and all the used cars that once sat on the block, overflow from nearby Cascade Auto—are now hollowed-out shells of their former selves. It’s the result of an August four-alarm blaze that started as a grass fire on a nearby hillside, then surged out of control.
The only structure that survived the four-alarm fire is a tan, concrete building that has, since 2000, been the home to the Grand Avenue Boxing Club. But while the outside of the training center looks relatively unharmed compared to all the rubble surrounding it, the interior tells a different story.
With the electricity knocked out, the two-story space feels dim and dour. The tall ceilings above the gym’s rooms for sparring, hitting the speed bag, and shadow boxing have visible water damage. Another room, a former racquetball court, has a small pile of soggy tiles in the center. The upstairs is even worse, with the early odors of mildew and mold are palpable. As pointed out by Ryan Ottomano—one of the gym’s regulars, who's also trying to oversee clean-up efforts—the plastic latch on the building’s circuit breaker panel melted from the heat.
It’s one hell of a body blow to a gym that's been the training ground for up-and-coming pugilists in the area since it opened on the corner of SE Grand and Stark in 1949. But with the sweat equity that its regular crew of boxers and trainers are ready to put into repairs, and with some financial help from a GoFundMe campaign, it’s a hit that Grand Avenue Boxing can hopefully absorb.
“It’s gonna be hectic around here for a while,” says Manny Valdez, one of the gym’s trainers, who was on hand to aid in clean-up work even as he recovered from knee surgery. “This has been a safe haven for these boxers. This is their home. We just need to see if we can get back up again.”
The biggest concern at this point is protecting the building from the rain. Recent downpours have already added to the damage wrought by the fire department’s hoses, and there are fears that more rain might spell the end for the gym.
If Grand Avenue Boxing were to close its doors forever, that loss would be felt throughout the Northwest's boxing community. The gym is known for its hard-nosed, working-class approach to training that helped mold the careers of future champions like Steve “2 Pounds” Forbes and Molly “Fearless” McConnell. And through 2008, owner Fred Ryan helped fund regular Golden Gloves tournaments, until they became too expensive to manage.
The boxing club isn’t done producing contenders: 141-pound fighter Bryan Sanchez, who got his start at Grand Avenue Boxing, is now considered the top amateur in the state, having won three consecutive regional Golden Gloves tourneys and advancing to the quarterfinals of last year's national Golden Gloves. The next step is going pro.
“I’ve been coming here for about five years,” Sanchez says. “I love the old-school feel of it. No heat in the winter. No air conditioning in the summer. People have the same mentality as me: They want to be the best. Nothing was sugar-coated. Some places play patty cake with you. Here it was, ‘Let’s get to work.’ I liked that.”
That mentality is what keeps bringing Sanchez to Grand Avenue Boxing, even after the fire. He’s helping remove destroyed carpets and mop up pools of water, but he’s also continuing his training in the gym’s parking lot. He’s not alone in that dedication: Even though the gym has a relatively small number of dues-paying members (around 15 to 20, according to Ottomano), many more young men from the neighborhood swing by regularly, finding a safe haven amid the punching bags and weights.
“Everybody helps everybody, like a family,” says Sanchez’s coach, who goes by JC. “Not only for people that are fighting and have promising careers, but the little kids who can’t play football and basketball. They’ve got somewhere to go.”