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The final bell tolls for a city sports landmark this week. Finley’s Boxing Club, a nuts-and-bolts fighters’ gym that has welcomed world champs and tolerated tomato cans since 1960, is shutting down. Jim Finley, the local legend and founder of the famous fight club located above a garage near Capitol Hill, says the time is right for him to let go of the business.
Not that he’s had a falling-out with the sport.
“I still love boxing. I’ll always love boxing,” Finley, 73, tells me. “And if you do something for 41 years, you’re going to miss it, so I’ll miss the gym. But it’s time to go.”
Finley first fell for the fight game while growing up on a sharecroppers’ farm in South Carolina. He and his relatives listened to broadcasts of Joe Louis’ title fights on the landlord’s radio after working the fields.
Finley began fighting as an amateur after moving to D.C. in 1943 to live with his mother. He fought in local Golden Gloves tournaments throughout his teens but realized he didn’t have the talent to make a career out of throwing punches. So he got into auto service after being discharged from the military, taking over an existing body shop on 10th Street NE in the late ’50s.
Shortly after moving into the shop, Finley installed the gym above its service bays. The original plan wasn’t to turn the space into a for-profit operation. He just wanted somewhere for him and his buddies to work out. But word got around about the new fighter-friendly venue, and folks who looked at boxing as more than an avocation began breaking their sweats at Finley’s place.
“Bob Foster was the first big name I had at the gym,” Finley says. “He helped me set up my ring here.”
Foster, however, wasn’t near big-name status when he first stopped by, in 1961. The Albuquerque, N.M., native was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base, just starting his pro career, when the manager of the fight program on the base and a local boxing promoter both referred him to Finley’s.
Finley remains in awe of Foster. “Bobby could catch you cold and take you out with either hand,” he says. “And he was a mean fighter, a killer in the ring. I’d have to stop him from killing guys in my gym when he trained here.”
Foster would go on to become a world champion and one of the most feared light heavyweights of all time. He is perhaps best remembered, however, for losing championship fights against the top heavyweights of his day, including Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
“If I was a betting man, I could have lost a house and home when Bob Foster fought Frazier,” Finley says. “I knew Foster would win. But one of the sayings in boxing is that a good big man is better than a good little man, and Frazier made him look like a little boy.”
Having Foster’s name tied to the gym so early in its existence proved a boon for Finley’s. Through the years, visiting heavyweight champions such as Larry Holmes, George Foreman, and Mike Tyson made pilgrimages. Local stars from Sugar Ray Leonard on down also pounded a heavy bag at the club.
“Everybody has trained at Finley’s,” says Sharmba Mitchell, a Takoma Park pug now training to regain the world lightweight championship he lost earlier this year. “That gym is so old and historical, it is boxing. Mr. Finley is boxing.”
Finley never tried to grab any of the big money that came through his gym. As the end nears, he derives the most pride from his status as perhaps the only boxing-club operator in the country who has absolutely no ties to promoters or fighters, and who has never looked for such ties. To the end, he always made sure that his club welcomed not only title-holders but also anybody wanting to lace up the gloves.
“The image of boxing is now Las Vegas marquees and pay-per-view stars,” says Jeff Fried, a D.C.-based agent whose stable of fighters includes Mitchell and current world champs Sugar Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather. “But what people forget is, places like Finley’s gym are where they all started. I always loved walking in there and seeing champions and also seeing 16-year-old kids with the big eyes, thinking about what could be, the old guys helping the younger guys, the whole cycle of life, right there in front of you.”
But as of Monday, Finley’s Boxing Club will be no more. Finley sold off the auto-repair business 11 years ago and made the gym a full-time job. He says he decided to hang up the gloves just last month, as soon as the owner of the building that holds the club proposed doubling the rent. Finley says he never considered paying the hiked fee.
“I always said that I’d have my club as long as I’m able to walk up the stairs to get there,” he says. “My knees hurt at my age, but I can still do the steps. But things materialized lately, such as doubling of the rent, which have forced me to change that. Forty-one years is a long time to do anything. Even pulling $20s off trees can get you tired after that long. But I still love boxing. I didn’t want to leave, but I’m not paying double the rent. It’s as simple as that.”
Boxers in the area and many of the boxing students who work out at the gym have tried to talk him out of walking away, but Finley says his mind is made up. And nobody should worry about how he’ll occupy himself with more free time than he’s ever had.
“I never had a formal education when I was a boy, because work on the farm always came before school, and there was always work,” Finley says. “So I’ve tried to make up for that as an adult by reading as much as I can, and I’ll be happy to just read all day. And I’ll keep an eye on boxing. I’ll be around.”
And though many in the fight community would argue otherwise, Finley says his club’s closing shouldn’t leave much of a void on the D.C. boxing scene.
“No matter what anybody tells you, boxing’s never been in better shape in this city,” Finley says. “And it’ll stay in great shape even after I’m gone. I say with all due modesty that there’s not another place around here like mine, but boxing will be fine without me. Losing one monkey won’t stop the show.”
Finley has put the speed bags and heavy bags and wrist wraps and jump-ropes and medicine balls and vintage fight posters and everything else in the gym on the market: The first $5,000 takes everything. For the good will built up over 41 years, he’ll get nothing. Dave McKenna