Ask old-timers, and most will say the District used to be a boxing town. Even if the town’s fight scene didn’t stack up against Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Las Vegas, there was the House of Champions, the Latin Connection, Round One and Midtown. Perhaps most famous was Finley’s, which was visited by Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Larry Holmes.
Not many of the old-school spots are still standing: There’s Downtown Boxing, in an unmarked building outside Union Market, and Tony’s Boxing Gym in Trinidad, which is run by a former D.C. police officer.
Today, the District’s boxing scene seems to be going through a rebirth, but with a much different look — one that reflects how the city has changed. A sport that once attracted largely blue-collar men in the District is now being marketed to the city’s influx of affluent residents — especially women.
In the past three years, Urban Boxing has opened locations in Foggy Bottom, Bethesda and Arlington. It remains the only chain to offer one-on-one sparring. NuBoxx has brought fitness-style boxing classes to NoMa, and it’s looking toward a second location on U Street NW. Later this year, Rumble — backed by Equinox — plans to open a location downtown, while an apparent challenger, Bash, is preparing to open in Arlington.
The growth is part of a broader boom in boutique boxing, driven by celebrities who have made it standard issue in their Instagrams and breakneck millennial spending on other workouts tailor-made for social media.
“Strong is the new skinny,” says Josh Leve, founder and chief executive of the Association of Fitness Studios. “Exercise, specifically boxing, has become an outlet for stress as well as building strength.”
In the District, the boom in boxing has perhaps been helped by a surge in this town’s bare-knuckles political climate.
“This is a political town — it’s all about competition, power, what you can do to control your environment, control your outcome,” Cesar Torres, a doctor from Shepherd Park, said after a recent workout at Nuboxx. “These days, especially, you always have perpetual tension between two sides.”
The boxing model is similar to how SoulCycle and Flywheel put a new spin on, well, spinning, and Orange Theory on interval training. And like those gyms, the high-end boxing gyms are drawing from a pronounced “influx of female consumers,” according to a report from the market research firm IBISWorld. More than 81 percent of the consumers at boxing gyms are ages 18 to 34.
The new studios are also benefiting from a surge in disposable income. Monthly memberships at Nuboxx, for example, range from $189 to $259. Rumble, which charges $36 per class in Manhattan, says it will be priced like “other premier players in the market,” such as SoulCycle, which charges $30 in the District.
At Downtown Boxing, in contrast, the price is $110 a month. At Tony’s Boxing Gym, it’s just $60. Indeed, as the boutique offerings have sprouted across the District, the old-school boxing offerings have been chased to the city’s edges, pushed out by rising rents and redevelopment.
“It’s a question whether these traditional, hole-in-the-wall gyms can survive,” says Thomas “The Promise” Trebotich, a former fighter and owner of the International Sports Conditioning Association, a certification, training and trade group.
Ask Downtown Boxing owner Dave White to look back, and he often uses geography to count time: the place “three locations ago” in the heart of Chinatown, the one at F and 11th streets NW for a few years, then the newly trendy Blagden Alley. Each time, he was pushed out by rising rent.
The gym now sits in a free-standing, nondescript building near Union Market — “downtown” in only the most generous sense — ringed by a chain-link fence and noticed only by those looking for it.
The setup is at least partly deliberate. “There’s a very small number of people who still want to do this,” White says.
The “this” is well-worn gloves, pads, a corner stool and a jar of petroleum jelly — applied to make a boxer’s face slick to help prevent cuts. Recently, a Gallaudet undergrad was doing push-ups, then sit-ups, inside the ring.
“I make it very clear to them how difficult it’s going to be, that they better watch a workout before giving me any money,” White says. There are no annual memberships, he says.
As more workouts transform into higher-end versions of themselves, it doesn’t come without cost. While higher-income households nationwide — those earning $75,000 a year or more — have enjoyed an increase in fitness activity in the past five years, those making less than $50,000 have seen such activity fall, according to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
“The affluent are getting more active while the less affluent are becoming more inactive,” the report, issued in the spring, said.
Nuboxx owner Rachel Snider says she’s aware of the effect of this kind of disparity, especially in a city that’s seen as much change as the District. The gym’s second location will provide more room, she says, and “I want to do some youth programs as well when we have more space. Boxing helps so many people in so many ways.”
On a recent Saturday morning, Saleem Abdullah sat outside Tony’s Boxing Gym, periodically waving to the neighbors and cars that went past. The gym’s strength and conditioning coach is a native of the neighborhood. He was hired after 27 years in prison. He trains a half-dozen people in the morning, Abdullah says, maybe another three to four in the evening. Three years on, a chief focus has become the neighborhood kids — as many as two dozen a night.
“I have them do homework first, then cardio, jump rope, sprints. I try to give them an education,” Abdullah says. Greeting a teenage fighter arriving for a workout, he paused. “I love what I do. This city changed. But it’s always been a boxing city.”