Jim Finley, owner of landmark D.C. boxing gym, dies at 84


Jim Finley shown at his boxing gym in 2001, shortly before the gym closed after 41 years. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)
February 1

It wasn’t an easy place to find, but then it was never supposed to be. Finley’s Gym was above an auto-repair shop, down an alley in Northeast Washington, behind a battered door, then up a flight of creaking stairs.

There it was, in all its shabby simplicity, a cramped space with a makeshift ring, a few jump-ropes and punching bags where boxers practiced their sweaty trade. The walls and ceiling were layered with fight posters dating back decades. Hand-lettered signs from the proprietor, Jim Finley, made it clear that this was a place for work, not for play.

“If you find a better gym,” a sign on the front door read, “I suggest you join it.”

For 41 years, Finley’s Boxing Club, as it was also called, was a landmark of Washington boxing. As soon as Mr. Finley — and he was always called “Mr. Finley,” out of hard-earned respect — opened his gym in 1960, boxers and trainers began to find it, as if by instinct.

It was the home of Bob Foster, a light-heavyweight who was world champion from 1968 to 1974. Sugar Ray Leonard trained there before he opened his own boxing club. Young amateur fighters, rising Olympians and reigning professional champions all climbed the steps and entered Mr. Finley’s world.

He was 84 when he died Jan. 28 at Fort Washington Medical Center in Prince George’s County. He had congestive heart failure, according to a nephew, Kenneth Walker.

Mr. Finley was an amateur boxer in his youth, but he never turned professional or worked as a trainer or manager. Nonetheless, he became a central figure in the D.C. fight scene by creating a spot where the focus was on boxing and nothing else.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a place anywhere like Finley’s,” Washington-based ring announcer Henry “Discombobulating” Jones said in an interview. “It wasn’t a great facility, but it was meant for work. He had a sign that said, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.’ ”

The example was set by Mr. Finley himself. He made his living as the owner of the auto garage on the ground floor, below the gym, at 518 10th St. NE. But his heart was always upstairs, where the whappita-whappita-whap of boxers hitting the speed bag filled the hours of the day.

“This was never set up as a commercial venue, primarily because I didn’t have to depend on it,” Mr. Finley told The Washington Post in 2001. “I backed into this by setting up something for my friends and myself. It just gave me great pleasure to see the kids come in. Some didn’t even know how to hold their hands. But in the next two or three weeks, you’d see them shifting and dodging. They’d gotten it.”

The floor was covered with carpet remnants, and sometimes the ropes around the ring were old strands of electrical wire. Up on the roof, a mirror for shadow-boxing stood next to a doghouse, where Mr. Finley’s German shepherd kept a watchful eye.

Even in the steamiest days of August, the air inside was hotter and thicker than it was outside. Mr. Finley’s gym was always a sweatbox, a no-frills bastion of gritty intensity and Spartan discipline, like the sport of boxing itself.

“When I was coming up, I always heard about Finley’s Gym, Finley’s Gym,” Sharmba Mitchell, a two-time world junior-­­welter­weight champion, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I thought it was some big, extravagant place. It wasn’t. It was just a hole in the wall. But that’s all boxers want.”

Grizzled trainers worked with young proteges hoping to become the next Sugar Ray. Sometimes the champs themselves came by, including Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, along with a legion of D.C. fighters, from onetime middleweight contender Holley Mims to flyweight champion Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson.

Whenever jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was performing in Washington, he would stop by for a daily workout. The gym was featured in “Scorpio,” a 1973 CIA thriller starring Burt Lancaster, and “Along Came a Spider,” a 2001 political thriller with Morgan Freeman.

Everyone who came to the gym got to know Mr. Finley and his house rules.

“I run a very strict ship,” he said in a 2001 interview for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. “We didn’t have what we call a lot of cursing or swearing or things of the sort like that. And a boxing club can get out of hand.”

Those who didn’t follow the rules were asked to straighten up. If they didn’t, Mr. Finley had a way of taking a firm stand.

“I’ve seen him physically knock people out cold who disrespected his person or his facility,” said Jones, the ring announcer, “but only if he was provoked. He was such an even-keeled guy. But once you crossed the line, there was no more talking.”

James Calvin Finley was born March 5, 1929, in Greenville, S.C., and grew up on a sharecropper’s farm, working the fields with mules. His mother lived in Greenville with his two sisters, 18 miles from the farm.

“I was brought up in a house with two uncles and my grandfather,” he said in the oral history interview. “There were no women in the house.”

At the time, boxing was the only major sport in which African Americans could compete on an equal footing with whites, and Mr. Finley followed the fights of heavyweight champion Joe Louis with particular pride.

After coming to Washington in 1943, Mr. Finley graduated from the old Armstrong High School and began boxing as an amateur. He fought in Golden Gloves tournaments in the late 1940s and lost only five times in more than 70 bouts as a middleweight, he later said.

He served in the Army from 1951 to 1953 and then bought a gas station in Southwest Washington with a friend. He later ran a second gas station before buying an auto-repair shop in 1960.

Mr. Finley’s home was in Temple Hills, Md., and he was a member of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Washington. But his true home always seemed to be the gym, where he often spent his nights reading.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Mercedes Smith Finley of Temple Hills; five children, Joan Finley Bryant of Camp Springs, Md., Steven A. Finley and Thomasine Watts, both of Temple Hills, Sheila Finley Cary of Waldorf, Md., and Donald Finley of Accokeek, Md.; two sisters, Wilietta Brown of Washington and Carolyn Edmondson of Atlanta; a half brother, Sylvester Lyons Jr. of San Diego; 13 grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and a great-great-grandson. A son, Stanley C. Finley, died in 1997, and another son, J. Michael Finley, died in 2008.

In later years, as the number of aspiring prizefighters began to dwindle, more and more professional people began to show up at Mr. Finley’s gym, using boxing as a fitness workout.

He was there every day, keeping watch over the timeless rituals of the sport and making sure everyone observed the house rules. The only thing about his back-alley outpost that seemed to change was the rent, which kept going up until Mr. Finley decided he no longer wanted to pay it.

In August 2001, he locked the door one last time and put up a new sign.

“Sorry! Closed! For Good! Thank you. Jim Finley.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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