Filed Under Sports

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.

Images

The Epicenter of Boxing in Cleveland A 1909 view of the intersection of West 25th and Detroit Avenue, looking west on Detroit from West 25th. Jimmy Dunn's Gym at 2618 Detroit would have been a few buildings down the street on the right. This would have been the training neighborhood of featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane who trained out of Dunn's Gym in 1912, the year he won his title. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photo Collection
The La Salle Club Where boxing began on the West Side of Cleveland. This article from the August 4th, 1894 edition of the Plain Dealer announces the first annual "field day" held by the Club which a decade later taught Johnny Kilbane how to box. Eighteen years after its first annual field day, the Club received national attention when its most famous St. Malachi student, Johnny Kilbane, won the featherweight boxing championship in 1912. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Jimmy Dunn's Stable In 1909, Jimmy Dunn trained his boxers at Volk's Gym, on Prospect Avenue in downtown Cleveland. One of those boxers was young Brick Masterson (extreme right) shown in the above photo from the March 21, 1909 edition of the Plain Dealer. The following year, Dunn opened his own gym at 2618 Detroit Avenue thus allowing young boxers like 15-year old Masterson to train in the Old Angle neighborhood where they lived. The boxer immediately to the left of Masterson is future featherweight champion Johnny Kilbane. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Today's Boxer - Tomorrow's Trainer The New York photographer who took this photo in 1912 wrote that it shows "the boys who were instrumental in causing the defeat of Abe Attell," the reigning featherweight champion defeated by Johnny Kilbane in that same year. From left to right are: Danny Dunn, Tommy Kilbane, Jimmy Dunn, and Johnny Kilbane. Both Dunns--who were originally boxers themselves, became trainers and operated gyms in the Old Angle neighborhood in the early decades of the twentieth century. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Danny Dunn's Gym A quality boxer himself in the early twentieth century, Dunn began training boxers and managing gyms in the decade of the 1920s. In 1926, he opened a new gym at 2861 Detroit Avenue. The above 1935 photo shows a street car traveling west on Detroit Avenue passing by Dunn's gym. The gym closed in 1941, leaving the Angle neighborhood without a boxing gymnasium until the Old Angle Gym opened in the Campbell Block in 1943. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photograph Collection
Johnny Risko A Slovak immigrant who in the early 1920s lived on Quail Avenue in Lakewood's Bird Town, Risko one day wandered into Danny Dunn's gym at 2861 Detroit Avenue. Dunn immediately spotted potential in the large young man who was later nicknamed "the Rubber Man," because fighters injured themselves punching his hard body. Risko was a top national contender for the heavyweight boxing title in the 1920s and 1930s, and, according to Danny Dunn, the best fighter he ever trained. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Reviving the La Salle Club As noted in the above article from the March 7, 1943 edition of the Plain Dealer, west side boxing promoters held a fund raiser that year with the announced intention of "reviving" the historic La Salle Club which had operated out of St. Malachi School from 1894-1921, and then for several years thereafter in the Campbell Block. While the Club itself was not brought back, its tradition was returned to the Angle later in the year when promoter Thomas Lowery, John A. Keough (father of boxer Jackie Keough), and a third individual chartered the Old Angle Gym. Lowery and the third individual soon left the partnerhship, leaving Keough and a string of successive partners and successors to operate the gym for the next 32 years. Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
The Keoughs Shown in this circa 1947 photograph are John A. Keough (left), who operated the Old Angle Gym for most of the period 1943 until his retirement in 1966, and his son John M. "Jackie" Keough, one of Cleveland's top boxers in the 1940s. Source: Jerry Fitch-Cleveland Connection
Upgrading the Management John A. Keough, who had departed as a partner in the Old Angle Gym in 1948, resumed operation of the Gym in 1950, bringing with him two new partners, legendary boxing trainer Johnny Papke and former top amateur and professional boxer Larry Madge. From 1950 to 1959, they operated the gym in the Rhodes Building on the southeast corner of West 25th Street and Franklin Avenue. In 1959, Keough successfully moved the Old Angle Gym back to the Campbell Block where it remained for the next 16 years until that building was razed in 1975. In the above circa 1950 photo, partners and trainers John A. Keough (left) and Johnny Papke (right) appear to be carefully watching a boxer at work. Source: Kathleen Keough
Knocking down Bob Pastor James Louis "Jimmy" Bivins was one of Cleveland's best boxers ever. Born in Georgia in 1919, his family moved here in 1921, during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities like Cleveland. In the above photo, he is shown knocking fellow heavyweight Bob Pastor to the canvas in their April 17, 1942, fight. It was around this time that Bivins began working out at the Old Angle Gym, first as a boxer, and then after his retirement in 1955 as a trainer. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photo Collection
The Old Angle Gym For most of its existence, the gym was located in the historic Campbell Block shown in the above 1964 photo. The building was erected in 1891 by Alexander Campbell, grandfather of Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd, the highest ranking military officer to die at Pearl Harbor during the December 7, 1941 attack which drew the United States into World War II. The Campbell building stood next door to St. Malachi Church and was just north of the intersection of Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street. It was razed in 1975 in order to provide a larger maintenance yard for the County Engineer. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photo Collection
Old Angle Boxing Sites of Interest On the above partial page of the 1912-1951 Sanborn Map, the following sites of gymnasiums and other places of boxing interest in the Old Angle neighborhood are shown circled in red: (A) St. Malachi Church; (B) Jimmy Dunn's Gymnasium at 2618 Detroit Avenue; (C) Jimmy Bivins Park, originally known as Masterson Square; (D) Danny Dunn's Gymnasium at 2861 Detroit Avenue; and (E) The Old Angle Gym at 2454 W. Superior avenue Source: Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Carrying on the Tradition In this 1998 photo, Gary Horvath helps 79-year old legendary boxer Jimmy Bivins put on his "duration" championship belt. Horvath was a partner and long-time friend of Bivins who died in 2012 at the age of 92 years. Horvath is continuing the tradition of boxing gymnasiums on the near west side of Cleveland that dates back to the late nineteenth century. As of December, 2015, the former multiple Golden Gloves boxing champion was still training boxers and operating a boxing gymnasium called the Make Them Pay Old Angle Gym at 3212 West 25th Street. Source: Gary Horvath
That Little Park Once made fun of, in 1926, by the Plain Dealer as too small to actually be a park, the little park on the northwest corner of Detroit Avenue and West 25th Street sits at the historic epicenter of boxing in Cleveland. It was originally named Masterson Square in 1921, to memorialize a popular ward leader whose son was a boxing contemporary of Johnny Kilbane. Decades later in 2000--after nearly everyone had forgotten the park's name, it was named Jimmy Bivins Park, after the legendary Cleveland boxer who did so much to help disadvantaged youths on the near west side. The above photograph was taken in December 2015. St. Malachi Church, where the west side boxing tradition started in 1894, can be seen looming in the background. Source: Jim Dubelko

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “Boxing in the Old Angle Neighborhood,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 8, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/750.