Boxing in the Old Angle Neighborhood

From Johnny Kilbane to Jimmy Bivins

Cleveland has a rich history of amateur and professional boxing. Much of it derives from the establishment of a number of athletic clubs and gymnasiums that were started on the near west side in the the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries. St. Malachi's La Salle Literary and Athletic Club in 1894. Jimmy Dunn's gymnasium at 2618 Detroit in 1910. Danny Dunn's gymnasium at 2861 Detroit in 1927. And, the Old Angle Gym in the Campbell Block on West Superior Avenue in 1943. These gyms--which over the years trained hundreds, if not thousands, of amateur and professional boxers, including featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane, top heavyweight contender Johnny Risko, and "duration" champion Jimmy Bivins, were all located at or near the intersection of West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue, making the area--just north of the Old Angle neighborhood, an historic epicenter of boxing in Cleveland.

Boxing in the Old Angle, an historic Irish neighborhood located on Cleveland's near west side, has deep roots, reaching back at least as far as the year 1894 when Brother Salpicious of the Christian Brothers of the La Salle Order founded the La Salle Literary and Athletic Club at St. Malachi school for boys on the corner of Pearl Street (West 25th) and Division Avenue. The Club encouraged boys attending St. Malachi to engage in a number of sports, including boxing. It achieved national attention in 1912 when it sponsored the St. Patrick's Day parade in Cleveland, featuring new featherweight boxing champion Johnny Kilbane, who had learned to box at the La Salle Club in the first decade of the twentieth century.

As young school boys who trained at the La Salle Club grew older, other, more professional places were needed to provide continued training in the sport of boxing. Johnny Kilbane, and others like Tommy Kilbane (no relation), Tommy (later "Black Jack") McGinty, and "Young Brick" Masterson, at first often had to travel out of the Old Angle neighborhood to places like Volk's Gymnasium downtown on Prospect Avenue to train. But in 1910, that changed when Jimmy Dunn, legendary trainer of Johnny Kilbane and other early twentieth century fighters, opened his first professional gym in the Angle neighborhood at 2618 Detroit Avenue--just a block west of the intersection of West 25th Street and Detroit. According to an article which appeared that year in the Plain Dealer, Dunn's new establishment was "fitted up as completely as any gym in the city." Johnny Kilbane was training out of Dunn's Gym at 2618 Detroit when he won his featherweight boxing crown in 1912.

Other gyms sprouted up in the neighborhood, and elsewhere, as the sport of boxing--thanks in large part to Johnny Kilbane's fame, became more popular in Cleveland in the 1920s and was viewed as a way to climb out of poverty, despite official discouragement of the sport from City Hall. Jimmy Dunn's Gym at 2618 Detroit saw a succession of new owners, including Tommy "Black Jack" McGinty, the Frisco Club and others, including former boxer Bryan Downey who, around 1930 closed the gym at this location and opened a new one downtown on Superior. Danny Dunn (a cousin of Jimmy Dunn), who for a short time managed the gym his cousin had founded, opened his own gym just up the street at 2816 Detroit in 1926. It became a neighborhood fixture for over a decade, training many boxers, until it closed around 1941. Its most well-known boxer was Johnny Risko, a Slovak immigrant and heavyweight boxer, who trained at the gym in the decades of the 1920s and 1930s when he was one of the top contenders in the United States for the heavyweight crown.

Shortly after Danny Dunn's gym closed, as well as Bryan Downey's downtown in the same year, a movement appears to have begun in 1943 to bring a boxing gymnasium back to the Old Angle. Prominent among the people involved in the movement was John A. Keough, a third generation Irish-American born in the Angle neighborhood, whose son John M. "Jackie" Keough, a welterweight, was one of the top boxers in Cleveland in the 1940s. In or about 1943, Keough opened a gym in two rooms and an allotted basement area of the Campbell Block, an historic building erected in 1891 by Alexander Campbell, the grandfather of another famed fighter--Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd, who went down fighting on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Located near St. Malachi Church and just a block north of the intersection of West 25th and Detroit Avenue, it was named the "Old Angle" gym, according to one source, by former boxing champion Johnny Kilbane.

For much of the next three decades, the Old Angle Gym was THE place to train on the west side of Cleveland. One of the boxers attracted to the new gym was James Louis "Jimmy" Bivins, an African American, whose family moved to Cleveland from Georgia in 1921 when he was just two years old. Bivins fought as both a light heavyweight and heavyweight, winning the "duration" title in both weight classes during World War II. After retiring from boxing in 1955, Bivins returned to the Old Angle gym to become a trainer, introducing a whole new generation of kids living in the neighborhood to the "sweet science," including bantamweight Gary Horvath, who won multiple Golden Gloves championships in the decade of the 1960s. Later, after Keough and his partners retired from management of the gym, Bivins and Horvath took over, operating the Old Angle Gym out of the Campbell Block until that building was torn down in 1975. Afterwards, the two operated a boxing gym for several years in the West Side Community Center at West 30th Street and Bridge Avenue, and then Bivins opened up a boxing gym at St. Malachi Church--where it all started, for neighborhood youths in 1979, running it until the mid 1990s.

In the year 2000, in recognition of the contributions which Jimmy Bivins made to the community both as a legendary boxer and as a trainer of young boxers on the near west side, the City of Cleveland, figuratively speaking, returned to the historic intersection of West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue, passing legislation to name the little park on the northwest corner of that intersection "Jimmy Bivins Park." Unknown to city officials at the time, the same park had eighty years earlier been dedicated as a memorial to Bernard "Brick" Masterson, a popular near west side ward leader, who was also associated with the sport of boxing--as a member of the historic La Salle club and as the father of a promising young boxer who, in the early days, trained with Johnny Kilbane in Jimmy Dunn's gym on Detroit Avenue. No matter the inadvertent slight to "Brick." Had he been alive to witness the renaming of his park, he probably would have been honored to share it with a man like Bivins. It would be entirely in keeping with history and tradition at this epicenter of boxing in Cleveland.