Walking up the stairs to the second floor at 77 Front Street in Brooklyn, New York, you enter a hallowed piece of real estate that reeks of the sweat of boxers and wrestlers in training and the heat hits you as stiff as a clothesline to the chest.
Barely escaping a view of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan, Gleason’s Gym is a staple of the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn and has bred a litany of successful boxers such as Mike Tyson. However, Gleason’s list of successful professional wrestlers is even more impressive, with alumni such as Tommy Dreamer, Taz and Bill DeMott to its name.
One man, that’s been there since the beginning is responsible for giving them their start, former WWF wrestler and 1996 Hall of Fame inductee Johnny Rodz.
“I have seen them all come and I’ve seen them all go,” said Rodz. “But if they leave here and are not successful, it’s all on them because we make sure everybody puts in the work to succeed.”
With success stories like Dreamer, Taz and DeMott a prevalent topic among the hopefuls who train between the red walls of Gleason’s, recent alumni such as Jorge Santi, who currently wrestle on the independent circuit remember the legendary gym as their home.
“Gleason’s Gym is a character by itself,” said Santi. “The gym is a raw workout with no AC and very little heat. There is no worst when you’re conditioning to be the best, but it has its grit and I love it for it. I didn’t make it….yet. But I’m not bitter. He [Johnny Rodz] promises you to wrestle but he does not promise you the dream to make it, it’s on you. If you were to make it, he does not take a percentage of your earnings like other wannabes, he just wants to be recognized.”
Additionally, the reputation that Rodz established with his students and wrestlers have a high respect for him. In Santi’s case, it was all about getting a chance to train with Rodz and accomplishing that goal by any means necessary.
“That was the only gym that I knew did pro wrestling. There were other ones but his gym and World of Unpredictable Wrestling was on TV once or twice a year, I wanted to be a part of it,” said Santi. “Even if my family didn’t have the means and they didn’t. I worked at Taco Bell for $5.25 an hour to pay a high tuition of $2,000 dollars. It was a lot of money to me when I was 16/17 years old.”
Sitting in his office decorated by pictures and artifacts that illustrate his global career, including signed pictures of former alumni and his old wrestling licenses and boots, the 76-year-old Rodz brings the experience wrestlers yearn for. Having wrestled in countries such as Japan and Mexico, Rodz teaching isn’t something you learn at any school.
Much like doctors go to medical school to learn their craft prior to administering surgery, aspiring professional wrestlers go to wrestling school before competing in a match. However, Rodz doesn’t like the term “school” used to describe Gleason’s.
“I don’t like the term wrestling school,” said Rodz. “Gleason’s isn’t a school, it’s a club, a gym a dojo. You pay to be here and then you come whenever it’s convenient for you and put in the work. There are things in life that will get in the way. Emergencies, family, school and all of those things. So this gym works to help you.”
Rodz pinpoints Bill DeMott, who is a trainer and has been recently accused of being too rough and abusive towards trainees. In Rodz’ mind, DeMott did nothing wrong and was merely doing his job by seeking out the ones who want to be serious wrestlers and those who take wrestling as a joke – because he was brought up the same way.
“Yeah, I remember when Bill DeMott used to train here,” said Rodz. “I was tough on him, I’d kick him out of the ring and before he’d take a shower, I’d rip his pants off and curse him out. He’d go home crying and he’ll tell you that. But it helped him.”
The rough training is far from a surprise when it comes to Rodz. Back in the ‘1950s when he first began, Rodz describes it as “grueling, hard work and only the strong survived.” That mentality even rubbed off on his students.
“I’m proud to have been trained by Rodz and the guys, because if I didn’t, I’d probably be some indy bitch acting like I’m the best,” said Santi. “You can be the best without doing a flip. What I learned there taught me body awareness, how to handle (expletive) and self-worth. There’s a lot of guys that make fun of him, a lot of guys that say he a money taker, but they are the guys who couldn’t cut it.”
For anybody interested in becoming a professional wrestler, training with Rodz will entail a myriad of trials and tribulations. Despite the aforementioned success stories, there been many who walked in only to realize that wrestling isn’t for them.
“It always surprised me that people would pay the one-time $3,000 membership fee only to barely come and do anything, it’s like they have nothing better to do with their money,” said Rodz.
Laying on the ground, fixing one of the pillars underneath the ring with his two mammoth sized hands, Rodz isn’t just hands on with his trainees but the gym as well.
Using a high powered drill and a variety of screws, Rodz fixes the lone wrestling ring, with EVERLAST written in the center. Not only taking pride in his work with the students of Gleason’s, Rodz also takes pride with the equipment in Gleason’s.
“I designed this ring myself,” said Rodz. “I paid $15,000 for it and I will be the one to fix it.”
As two of his newest students arrive, get in the ring, run the black ropes ropes, take a few bumps and work out, one of the people closest to Rodz takes the reputation of the school just as seriously.
50-year-old “Cowboy” Billy Walker not only survived being trained by Rodz but is also a stage-three colon cancer survivor. Despite not having the opportunity to wrestle for a big time promotion, Walker is happy to have the opportunity to be in the business.
“I am nothing in this business except for what I know and who I know,” said Walker. “Just being able to learn from Johnny Rodz and be around him all these years has been a pleasure.”
And while he may not have a big white banner with red letter hanging in the gym with his name on it, Walker’s contribution to aspiring wrestlers it to toughen them mentally.
“I’ll take a trainee and stretch them,” Walker explained. “Then I’ll say to them, ‘You want to go to WWE? But you can’t handle what I’m doing to you right now?’”
There is a large sticker of a Wrestlemania 24 poster outside the ring. It stands there as not only a reminder of the fact that WWE shot footage of several commercials and programs in that gym, but that making it to WWE isn’t out of the question.
In fact, several WWE champions have made stops at Gleason’s to work out with Rodz, including the late Eddie Guerrero and the Big Show. A picture of two men inside Gleason’s wrestling ring hangs in a scratched up frame on Rodz office wall, a source of pride for Rodz.
“Looking at that picture, it’s amazing that Gleason’s is not just a place for people who want to be a future of wrestling, but a nice stopping ground for successful wrestlers,” said Rodz.
Several recent members of Gleason’s gym, including current WWE superstar Colin Cassidy trained with Rodz. And for the previously mentioned Billy Walker, there is one line that describes what makes the trainees from Gleason’s different.
“A lot of kids today know how to play Guitar Hero,” said Walker. “But those of us who trained the old school way, the right way, we know how to play the guitar.”
Finishing up the necessary repairs for his ring, Rodz returns to his office, takes a seat and takes a bite out of a slice of pizza, soothing his appetite from a hard days work.
Rodz says that he “has no problem putting in the work that is necessary” when it comes to training his students and help the gym he has been a part of for three decades. Which makes Rodz want to spread the message that if they enter Gleason’s and don’t slip on one of the many sweat stains on the floor, they will be go through the ringer to reach their dream.
“I have been here for 30 years,” said the 50-year veteran of the wrestling business. “If you want to train here, you better be ready.”
Photos by Patrick Hickey Jr.