Johnny Tocco’s legendary boxing gym still thriving

Fighters train at Johnny Tocco’s Boxing Gym in downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, September 5, 2012.
Photo: Leila Navidi

Johnny Tocco's Boxing Gym in Vegas

This place is drenched in sweat and dreams and stories and testosterone. Fighters jab the heavy bags, spar, boast and razz one another. It might be 100 degrees outside and 20 more inside. No air conditioning. It’s disrespectful to the fighters. The hotter the better.

Some think Johnny Tocco’s Boxing Gym is closed, a leftover relic from another era. But those in the boxing world know better. They know that the run-down, mural-covered structure next to a tire shop in the Arts District is legendary. So do the fighters who call it home, pledging allegiance each day to the grittiest gym in town, the “oldest” gym in town, the landmark where all the greats have trained before their fights — Larry Holmes, Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson, Marvin Hagler. It’s a living museum. Retired boxers work out here. Some train, including Floyd Mayweather Sr. and Mike McCallum, a world titleholder.

Photos of Tocco and Liston hang prominently. Memorabilia taped to the battered walls holds the names of fight locations — Atlantic City, Madison Square Garden, Aladdin — and boxers who have come and gone, reminding the fighters why they’re here. If they forget, the trainers step in.

The Details

Johnny Tocco’s Boxing Gym
9 W. Charleston Blvd., 367-8269

“You want to work hard, this is the place,” says Danny Garcia with his 6-0 fighter, Jesus Alberto Gutierrez, on the speed bag behind him. “This is a dog gym. You got to learn from the beginning, you can’t ‘play’ boxing. From the minute they walk in through the doors, this is the danger zone.”

Las Vegas has changed since the late Johnny Tocco, a gruff, salty, celebrated trainer, opened the gym in the early ’50s, making its survival today all the more poignant, a testament to the endurance of its past and present fighters — tough, battered and still standing.

Anthony Lenk, 24, of Las Vegas trains at Johnny Tocco's Boxing Gym in downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, September 5, 2012.

When Tocco opened the gym at Main and Charleston, the Mob was still running Las Vegas, the Dunes and Sands were on their way to becoming famed stops for celebrities performing in town, and the old railroad yard down the street — where the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health recently launched the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study — was just an old railroad yard. There were no galleries in sight, and the area was decades away from becoming an Arts District. Women weren’t boxing champs, nor were they allowed to set foot inside Tocco’s. Even the wives had to wait outside, says Elizabeth Benitez Smith, who now owns the gym with her husband, James. Now, women train here.

Tocco, much loved despite his intimidating demeanor, died in 1997, shortly after selling the gym to BAM Promotions. The gym ultimately landed in the hands of the Smiths, a young couple working in the Clark County School District, who liked the Arts District and saw the building as prime real estate amid Downtown redevelopment. With no ties to the sport (only a coincidental link to James’ grandfather, boxer “Indian Johnny” Smith) and no idea of what else to do with the building, they kept it as a boxing gym and pledged to remain true to Tocco’s passion for the sport. When Smith started renovating, the fighters asked her to stop. They want the grit, she says.

Part of the gym’s charm is its battle-worn condition. That goes for Chiekwe Nwokoji, who came to Las Vegas from Nigeria (via Tennessee) to learn to fight at Johnny Tocco’s and train at an MMA gym at night. “I learned right away to stay off the ropes,” he says. “They have too much give.”

There are no treadmills, weight benches or elliptical machines. Only a mostly ignored stationary bike and a stair-climbing machine in the corner. Smith says there are guys in their 60s and 70s who boxed back in the day and come to Tocco’s for their workouts. “They miss it. They would rather hit a bag than walk on a treadmill.”

For fighters, strength and conditioning training is something you learn at another gym. So is MMA. “The only way you can learn how to fight is by fighting,” says trainer John Maynard Roberts, who has few, if any, loving words for MMA. In fact, he’s got one word for fighters who want to do MMA: “Bye.”

Roberts’ loyalty to boxing goes beyond training. He painted the murals out front to make the gym stand out and to let people know it’s still open. They’re a shrine to boxing, much like the building itself: three dozen fighters, including Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Tyson, Joe Lewis and even Jimmy Wilde, a Welshman who started boxing professionally in 1911, face Charleston Boulevard. Sitting in the center is Tocco, who was known for looking out for his fighters.

Johnny Tocco's Boxing Gym in downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, September 5, 2012.

But Roberts isn’t done. He plans to do a 20-foot-tall standing mural of Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champ, on the roof.

Towering murals (painted by another artist) in the back, featuring Ali, Salvador Sanchez and Rocky Marciano, greet the fighters when they come in through the door off the alley. They’re a familiar site for trainers who have been coming and going to the gym on and off for decades. They consider themselves a close family.

“I’m 29. I trained here as a kid when it was all pros,” says Garcia, who grew up a few blocks away in the Naked City. “Boxing, to me, is like a bad marriage. I’ve tried to leave it before, but I can’t.

Lydell Rhodes, 24, of Las Vegas takes a break while training at Johnny Tocco's Boxing Gym in downtown Las Vegas on Wednesday, September 5, 2012.

“Boxing is really tough. It’s a poor man’s sport. A lot of MMA fighters are college graduates. In boxing, you can’t do that in life. There are guys in MMA only a couple years and they’ve been really successful. Boxers devote their lives to this. It’s a short window, and there’s no guarantee in boxing.”

That doesn’t stop 12-year-old Jesse Rosales, a 2012 Junior National Golden Gloves Champion, who trains at Tocco’s Monday through Friday, two hours a day.

“It’s old-school,” he says of the gym. “I want to become a champion. I got a trainer and the support of my family.”

Rosales might be too young to know about Tocco the trainer, but there are several around who do. Tocco was Kelcie Banks’ cut man back in the day. Banks now is a trainer at the gym.

“Being in the gym brings back old memories,” he says. “Before, the desk was by the front door. You’d walk in and see Johnny chomping on his unlit cigar. He was one of those grouchy old Italian guys with white hair. I miss his crazy old ass. Believe it or not, his ghost is still here.”

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