“You can still make a lot of money letting guys punch you around. What else does a guy fight for? But it always seemed it was for more than money. That’s why you affected people so.”
—Jimmy Cannon from “You’re Joe Louis”
“The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
—Gordon Gekko from “Wall Street”
Whether or not one agrees with Gordon Gekko, what boxing trainer Eric Kelly has uncovered at the Church Street Gym about Wall Street’s current crop of would-be masters of the universe, is that, for some, greed doesn’t seem to be enough.
Last summer Ramin Hedayati, a producer for "The Daily Show" and Chris Roan, director of development for the ad agency Mother New York, paid a visit to Kelly’s gym in New York’s financial district, where they both were members. For almost two hours they filmed Eric Kelly interacting with clients for the website Animal New York. Kelly, a self-described "menace" in his youth, had an enormously promising boxing career derailed a decade earlier when a pool hall brawl left him with permanent damage in his left eye. Kelly then cleaned up his act and, with three children to support, began working as a boxing trainer. He returned to New York, landed a job at the Church Street Gym and soon developed a following among the 1 percent, the brokers and bankers of the financial district. The brief unscripted video, "Boxing Lessons with Eric Kelly," highlighting Kelly’s profane skills of observation as he verbally undresses his placid Wall Street clients, immediately became a viral sensation, collecting more than a million hits.
Many of the 1 percent now find themselves eagerly descending the steps of the Church Street Gym.
So what is behind this romance between Eric Kelly and Wall Street? Well, in a country where 400 of the richest Americans control as much wealth as the bottom 150 million, perhaps something money hasn’t been able to buy is missing. Because where some financial wizards famously toasted champagne in defiance above the marchers of Occupy Wall Street, many of the 1 percent now find themselves eagerly descending the steps of the Church Street Gym. They come specifically to request Kelly’s colorful assistance in disregarding their bank statement in the hope of discovering something authentic; their true self worth.
Although I arranged to speak with Kelly after he finished work, I arrived at the gym early to spend a couple hours watching him interact with his clients. I was curious how much Kelly or his charges may have been hamming it up for the cameras. Most characters around boxing gyms are notorious for having a fairly limited loop of jokes and routines. Hang around for a few minutes either observing or participating in the laugh track and it gets a little depressing.
The Church Street Gym, which opened in 1997, is advertised as the largest boxing gym in the city. Of course by “largest” the owners mean square footage, not any other metric of importance that might bring in customers. Contrary to a few complaints I read online, as I walked down the steps it certainly smelled cleaner than any boxing gym I’ve ever trained at. Maybe it was the freshly painted walls or the art exhibit-like photos hung on the landing, but even before I got to the main entrance, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the surroundings were designed to reassure customers that they were entering a facility as safe and healthy as a Whole Foods. Once inside, I discovered a gym still so new that the thousands of boxing clippings strewn all over the walls–– dominated by a beautiful, totally incongruous mural of Joe Louis in his prime––had virtually no personal relationship to the trainers or fighters in the gym. However, before Kelly strolled into view, I did manage to locate a handful of photos of him happily posing on the wall with people similar in every way to those he called “fuckin’ nerds” and “miscreants,” and had simultaneously trained and insulted in the video.
“Any of y’all tell this journalist the truth I’ll knock you the fuck out.”
Kelly entered the room, slyly acknowledged me with a nod, and one by one, tongue-in-cheek, ordered his clients over to speak with me about their experience training with “the greatest trainer in the world.” He demanded a handful of people training confirm his claim, and they cheerfully, well, obeyed. Kelly might have been 20 pounds heavier than his fighting weight, but he still moved with the grace and calm purpose of a fighter. As he looked over his clients his injured eyelid rose slightly and slumped. “Remember!” he barked. “Any of y’all tell this journalist the truth I’ll knock you the fuck out.” Everywhere I looked I saw eager smiles, pleasure, even delight.
“Can anyone tell me what the fuck is going on in this place?” I asked the first client Kelly had sent over.
While there was nothing about this person that jumped out at me as ridiculous before he opened his mouth –– a banker from JP Morgan, he looked exactly like the other white, skinny, affable “nerds” Kelly trained in the video –– for some reason his eagerness to talk made me nervous.
“You know,” he began with a sheepish smirk, “maybe, deep down, we just miss that whole Occupy Wall Street movement a little bit. Maybe some of us are a little nostalgic for that hatred and Eric Kelly picks up the slack.”
It took me a minute to know whether or not he was kidding. When it was clear he wasn’t, I took a stab at the elephant in the gym.
“Are you talking about guilt?” I asked.
“Of course not.”
“What’s there to feel guilty about?”
“I dunno,” I shrugged, wondering where to begin. “The bailout? The bonuses? Betting against clients? No moral hazard? Not one prosecution in the entire mess? A rigged system that socializes your losses and not anybody else’s? That’s just off the top of my head.”
“I dunno,” he grinned reassuringly. “I just think people in my line of work enjoy Kelly’s motivation at the gym.”
“He really knows how to push you.”
“Okay,” I acknowledged. “I’m just trying to identify why that might be.”
“Maybe it’s the stress of being full of shit as soon as you leave your front door every morning.”
Another of Kelly’s clients cut in, “Maybe it’s the stress of being full of shit as soon as you leave your front door every morning. Being full of shit at work. Where don’t you have to be full of shit in this city? But you don’t have to be here. I love Kelly. I signed up for a full year in advance after my first day with him. He doesn’t care where you come from or how much you make. He’s constitutionally incapable of being dishonest. And he’s really fucking funny.”
“Here’s something funny,” Kelly interrupts, deadpan, after sneaking up behind us. “Bear crawl across the gym for the next three minutes, motherfucker.”
Kelly and I watch the student painfully get on all fours and crawl off toward a distant wall beneath the gaze of the gym’s patron saint, the mural of Joe Louis.
“So you’re a dominatrix?” I ask Kelly.
“I’m not even a teacher with these financial dudes, man,” Kelly says as he scans the activity of the gym. I watch Kelly’s healthy eye move over shadowboxing, the blur of a speed bag, the percussion of gloves slapping mitts, the rattle of chains above a struck heavy bag. “Nah, I’m a special-needs teacher. You know why special-needs teachers make more money than regular teachers?”
“Because they’re dealing with special needs motherfuckers!” Kelly shouts to the room. As a handful of faces turn to register the latest punch line echoing out across the gym, I can’t spot one with any annoyance or frustration. Everybody just seems to be enjoying the show.
Apart from the confines of S&M parlors, I try and imagine the other modern day, upstairs-downstairs New York City jobs where the 99 percent collide with the 1 percent. Among the nannies, doormen, personal assistants, chauffeurs, and escorts, wouldn’t the slightest hint of contempt or grievance against the rich and what they stand for mean being fired? And what about the conspicuous racial component that divides New York? But here in the gym, once the rich discovered Kelly’s true feelings toward them in his viral video, not only was nobody clamoring for him to lose his job, they couldn’t wait to line up, money-in-hand, and gleefully take a turn being a target of his mistreatment.
“I’d abuse you motherfuckers for free!” Kelly shouts. He tears open a package of Twizzlers while he turns his attention to train an overweight client. “But since you paying––it’s even more fun.”
The client looks over at me and grins. “Last week he ate cupcakes while he trained me. Cupcakes.” It’s hard not to imagine a dominatrix doing her nails while the slave licks her boots.
In between rounds Kelly approaches and reaches out a hand for me to shake, “So what you got for me, champ?”
“What exactly are these people paying you for?” I try out as my icebreaker.
“Lemme get changed after this round and meet you upstairs and I’ll answer that question. But this is like asking me for the secret formula in Coca-Cola, or how they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar, man.”
“‘Guess what? You might be a pussy.’ Daddy never had that conversation with these motherfuckers.”
“At the end of the day all these Wall Street cats wanna feel like men,” Kelly explains calmly, lightly tapping me against the shoulder while we wait outside his gym in the cold for the mother of one of his young students to pick up her son. “They just never had daddy say to ’em, ‘Hey champ, you’re 19 and a sophomore in college now and you ain’t never been in a fight in your life. Guess what? You might be a pussy.’ Daddy never had that conversation with these motherfuckers. ‘Hey son, you might be soft.’ So guess what? They come to Eric Kelly to do it for ’em.”
Ever since “Boxing Lessons with Eric Kelly” went viral last summer, curiously, Kelly has been in more demand than ever from the same Wall Street-types he so mercilessly ridicules and emasculates in the video. In fact, the fascinating intersection of the 1 percent colliding with this sudden, self-appointed, vitriolic spokesman of the 99 percent at the Church Street Gym also garnered attention from CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Henry Reisch at the William Morris Agency, who recently signed Kelly to a contract. Reality television producers are licking their chops at Kelly’s prospects as a star in the making. Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin, the first producer to win an Emmy and an Oscar and a Tony award, stopped by the gym to pay Kelly a visit. After Sean “Diddy” Combs viewed the video he invited Kelly to his home in the Hollywood Hills to offer counsel on Kelly’s future prospects. A friendship was formed.
I ask Kelly about that experience.
“When my video dropped and basically exploded, I get this phone call. Sean Combs is on the other end of the line. Sean motherfucking Combs. I have mad respect for him. Mr. Combs invites me to his home in the Hollywood Hills. He gave me some of the best advice I ever got: ‘Don’t be a gimmick, be a brand. Become an entity.”
“Gimme a second,” I ask. “Help me to understand something. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what your gimmick is.”
“I ain’t no motherfuckin’ gimmick. Telling the truth ain’t no gimmick.”
“What I mean is, what would your gimmick be? Or your brand? Or your entity? What would they try and do to turn you into a gimmick?”
“My gimmick would just be some black guy who talks a lot of shit to rich white people. Offers that ‘Fuck you!’ to the 1 percent the 99 percent can’t find for themselves. You know, the funny guy with some weird ass, Weird Al Yankovic-type shit. That was a gimmick. Flava Flav—Flava Flav as a TV star—that was a gimmick. I’m a real dude. Webster was a gimmick because he was a midget. Steve Urkel was a gimmick as a nerd. All the dudes I train are fuckin’ Steve Urkels.”
“Is everyone on Wall Street a Steve Urkel?”
“Nah. Most of ’em, though. Most, not all. I mean, I believe in Wall Street. I just don’t believe in them in the physical sense. As long as they stay behind the keyboard and the calculator, fine tune their little formula––‘Carry the one’––do their shit basically. Stop fucking up. All these motherfuckers grew up watching “Care Bears.” Everybody else watching “G.I. Joe” while they’re screaming, ‘But mommy, I wanna watch ‘Care Bears!’”
“Would they believe in you if you walked into their job?”
“I’d do better at theirs than they do at mine, that’s for damn sure. Imagine these dudes trying to learn how to box at the gym where I learned. Can you imagine what that would look like? These motherfuckers wouldn’t have lasted a day in my world. I’d love to have seen these guys walk into the first gym I walked into.”
Of course most of those gyms no longer exist. Old school boxing gyms, the kind you still see in movies like “Million Dollar Baby,” like the Brooklyn gym Eric Kelly trained at on his way to the 2000 Olympics, are almost entirely extinct in New York and across much of America. The magical tension that once greeted visitors when they stepped inside has evaporated along with the stench.
Once, everywhere you looked in a gym you saw people fiercely vying to impose their frustrated histories on their opponents’ futures, the jungle atmosphere of hungry up-and-coming amateur boxers plying their trade side-by-side pro-fighters throwing everything they have, all of them trying to earn respect in one of the loneliest professions on earth. Gym owners paid the bills to cover the cost of supporting a steady stream of young men desperate to learn but unable to pay by way of the occasional “smoker”—local boxing shows—the kind Mike Tyson once fought every few weeks to build his career as a contender. These have largely dried up due to increased regulation and red tape. So too, have those gyms.
Today, stepping into almost any boxing gym around New York feels like entering a theme park compared to what they used to be and once represented. Even the middle-class can hardly afford the rates of training in a boxing gym – forget at-risk youth anything like Kelly when he was starting out.
“You know if things worked out,” Kelly laughs, holding up a finger and circling it around, “my dream was always to open up my own little gritty gym here in Manhattan. But I’d never be able to afford to [now]. Nobody else can either. You’d have an easier time finding a 30-year-old virgin in New York. I take that back, all them motherfuckers I train are probably virgins. But I’d have to open a pussy-ass white-collar outfit like where I’m at now. I’d have to hang ribbons off all the bags and have ’em breast cancer awareness pink. But that’s reality out there.”
The few gyms that remain have been forced to go the way of Church Street, echoing the gentrification of the neighborhoods around them and catering to white-collar clients in order to stay afloat. The jungle has been paved over and replaced with a zoo. Yesterday’s stars are today’s luxury trainers for those who can afford to pay $100 or more an hour for private instruction. Gyms that once provided a way out for the poor and uneducated, now offer an emotional way out for those so pampered and privileged they don’t feel much of anything. To these people, Kelly is very much the exotic, a throwback attraction to a by-gone era.
“The reality today,” Kelly explains, “blood and sweat just ain’t enough no more to cover your dues at no boxing gym.”
The mother of Kelly’s boxing student arrives, apologizes for being late, and thanks Kelly for waiting with her boy.
“Where was that from the video?” I ask.
“That kinda stuff. Those kinda moments. Where’s all that important human stuff that goes on between you and them? I grew up in boxing gyms. Not the kind you did, but not like this either. You’re in these people’s corner. That’s what being a trainer is about.”
“What sells is somebody from the street having a go at some pampered motherfuckers.”
“Of course that’s what it’s about. But that shit don’t sell. What sells is somebody from the street having a go at some pampered motherfuckers.”
“Nobody ever stood up to you?”
“Sure they have. They call my boss. They write emails. They go on motherfuckin’ Yelp.com and talk shit anonymously! They do everything but being a man and taking it up with me directly. They’d rather sandpaper a lion’s ass than stand up to me.”
“Not one has stood up to you?”
"You couldn’t melt down any them pocket-protector-wearing motherfuckers on Wall Street and pour them on me.”
Under the ongoing construction of the World Trade Center, Kelly and I walk over to his favorite financial district bar to talk some more about the meaning of his new found success. He orders a Coke and points out that he’s gone his lifetime without having touched a drop of alcohol, smoked a cigarette, or gone near drugs. After a pause he turns and confesses, “Loving the ‘hood was always my vice.”
“What do you think being able to fight says about somebody?” I ask Kelly. “In that video, when you’re making fun of these Wall Street guys for not being able to fight, what are you trying to say?”
“You ever been in a fight?” he asks, innocently enough.
I nod, feeling Kelly’s damaged gaze unriddle me.
“You out looking for it or did it find you?” he follows up.
“The one that really counted—the first one—found me. It was the only one that happened outside a ring.”
“So tell me something,” Kelly pauses, performing an ultrasound with his eyes during the pregnant silence. “Did you learn something about yourself you never learned before from that experience?”
“Getting beat up changed my life forever.”
“At least you admit it,” Kelly smiled. In my insecurity it took me his entire pause to let down my guard and find the sympathy in it. “It changes anybody’s life forever, kid. You were hurt pretty bad?”
“I was humiliated.”
“All boxers are more afraid of being humiliated than getting hurt. But that need to get to the bottom of who the fuck they are takes over. I just don’t know much that says more about your pride as a man. How you struggle to survive is a testament to your character. Huge. Inside yourself you can say to that scared part everyone has, ‘I can defend myself and I’m ready to defend myself if I have to.’ That shit changes everything about a man. Now I’m not going to go out looking for trouble—please don’t bring no trouble this way. But stuff happens in life. You get tested. You gotta be ready to step up to the plate. Life ain’t like them bankers fuckin’ up the economy gettin’ bailed out when you fuck up. Out here you gotta live with the consequences of the choices you make. Look at my fuckin’ eye, man. My own fault.”
Eric Kelly fought his way off the streets of Brooklyn and rose to be a four-time national boxing champion. He was once ranked fourth in the world as an amateur and in 2000 was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. His prospects as a fighter were enormous. He routinely sparred with pound-for-pound great Andre Ward and fought him as an amateur, dropping a close decision. But before he had a chance to turn pro and pursue his dream of a world championship, Kelly closed the book on his boxing career by the same means he launched his new budding entertainment career: he opened his mouth.
The damage to the nerve-endings and muscles in his eyelid remained, ending his pro career.
In 2003, Kelly was training at the Kronk Gym under Emanuel Steward in Detroit. One night in a pool hall after training, Kelly was having fun just “talking some shit” and got into a fight with three men. Someone smashed a pool cue over Kelly’s eye. Even after multiple surgeries the damage to the nerve-endings and muscles in his eyelid remained, ending his pro career before it ever had a chance to start.
“How hard was losing your pro career?” I ask him.
Kelly reaches up and pulls the brim of his ball cap 360 degrees around his head while he turns the question over.
I take a different approach. “Can you have a better life after what’s happened with this video dropping than what you expected to have as a fighter before that pool cue took it away?”
Kelly looks at me and then across the bar to no one in particular. He jams a hand down into his pocket and fishes out his phone. He puts his head down, studies the screen for a second, and sighs. I watch the glow of his phone fountain into his injured eye.
“Nah, I can’t,” he says, putting away the phone. “That dream was my passion. I’ll always play catch up. But my glass is half-full. I got three kids. That’s what kept me straight after losing my dream. That’s what let me hold on to boxing the way I have now. I love everything about boxing. Boxing is my life.”
For many of America’s boxing champions, boxing gyms have been the only lifeline offered against lives spent working street corners. At the last years’ Olympic Games in London, America’s miserable performance showcased just how far the sport of boxing has slipped in this country.
For a long time, many of America’s own most pressing narratives marched in lock-step with the narratives of its most beloved fighters.
The story was always pretty easy to follow. Maybe that was the point. What’s more basic in exposing a man or a people than through what they’re willing to stand for, or stand up to? After Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion, one great white hope after another attempted to dethrone him and everything he represented. Jimmy Braddock was the working man’s champion during the Great Depression. When Joe Louis took on Max Schmeling in the 1930s, it wasn’t lost on anyone he was championing a moral war against Hitler and fascism at the same time. Prior to their two fights, when had white America ever cared so deeply and gotten behind the struggle of an African-American? Muhammad Ali was in the thick of the ‘60s and challenged the establishment over Vietnam. By the end of the 20th century, there were few more suitable emblems of unfettered capitalism gone amok than Don King waving the stars and stripes and shouting “Only in America!” at one of Mike Tyson’s billion-dollar economic stimulus packages to the Las Vegas economy. And last May, in the most recent example of boxing’s power to reveal the nation’s true unspoken character, didn’t the justice system itself suspend the incarceration of Floyd Mayweather for domestic abuse strictly because of his economic value to down and out Vegas?
Even today, as boxing’s relevance wanes, Mayweather, for years the sport’s best fighter but never a major attraction, finally found traction as the most marketable athlete in the world through the rebranding of his narrative, becoming “Money” Mayweather. His calibration of that handle was never more disturbingly effective than when he demonstrated the grandeur of his wealth by gleefully burning $100 bills inside a night club.
When certain acquaintances of mine––all white attorneys at large law firms (my father was also a white attorney)––first emailed me Eric Kelly’s video, it took me a second before I even began watching to identify what already felt so strange. Then I realized it was the first time I could remember any of these people ever sending me anything related to boxing. These were the same people who half-jokingly aspired to and defended living in gated communities and delighted in referring to the programming available on general cable TV as “peasant vision.” And while all were avid sports fans, after Mike Tyson’s departure boxing had failed to reach them in any meaningful way. They’d long since traded it in for Ultimate Fighting and MMA, sports devoid of any personal narrative. Apart from his choice of haircut was there anything in, say, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell’s narrative that resonated with the casual observer? But even without much in the way of story, this “human cockfight,” as John McCain once described it, surpassed boxing’s profile in the United States. Like it or not, it reflected more of what people wished to see.
Boxing, even in a gym setting, reveals and gets to the bottom of who you are like nothing else.
Then Eric Kelly’s video accomplished what no mega-fight in the last 10 years had: it got people talking about something at the heart of the sport that’s been forgotten for awhile. Boxing, even in a gym setting, reveals and gets to the bottom of who you are like nothing else.
To understand the substance of Eric Kelly’s appeal to the “born on third base motherfuckers from Pleasantville,” as he calls his Wall Street clients, perhaps the obvious starting point is the personal: Kelly is a love-him-or-hate-him Dickens’ character with a gift of profane gab that Aaron Sorkin and David Simon would kill to take credit for. He elevates roasting his clients into an art form: He mocks everyone yet seems to offend nobody. Forget Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle doing their best paint-by-number of Richard Pryor’s pathos—there’s little artifice in Kelly’s routine.
So the masters of the universe on Wall Street won. They sold worthless nothings for unprecedented fortunes while nearly driving America into a depression in 2008. Titanic had hit the glacier, the unsinkable ship was sinking, and there sure weren’t many lifeboats to go around on the bottom decks. They privatized the profit, socialized the debt, and then retreated to their gated communities to bask in moral hazard and count their fortunes. When have the rivers dividing Manhattan from the rest of the world ever felt more like moats guarding untouchable castles? Sure, they surfaced long enough to mock the unemployed herds with champagne from the turrets of their fortress, but that’s the closest they ever got to Main Street—until some snuck into the Church Street Gym. After the video took off, even more came running to sniff around, giddy on the fumes.
I ask Kelly if he believes he has anything in common with the high paying clients who seek out his services at the gym.
“Sure,” Kelly shrugs, “We both enjoy me telling the truth. Mostly they just want what nobody else will tell’em. The truth.”
“What’s the truth?” I ask.
“Listen,” Kelly smiles, “Every time they walk into the gym and I lay eyes on one these fellas, I ask them even before they throw the first pussy-ass punch of their lives, ‘Yo, where you from? You born in Heaven, motherfucker?’”
“They’re all soft?” I ask.
“You ever change a baby’s diapers?”
“After you do you’ll know what 95 percent of these cats are like. Soft as baby shit. Baby shit. How hard can you be growing up in Pleasantville, motherfucker?”
“What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”
A few days after my interview with Kelly, I paid one last evening visit to the Church Street Gym. It’s a big space with a lot of different vantage points to observe the proceedings. Kelly had two clients furiously alternating throwing combinations at his hand pads while another group worked a circuit in the corner of the gym, with two long, thick ropes to grab at the ends and shake waves with, an incline bench for sit-ups, and an old beaten-up heavy-bag on the ground to slide across the gym floor.
Kelly was a lot less animated on this night. James Brown came on over the speakers and while everybody braced for Kelly to turn it into a duet, he savored the song in peace until he was asked by two beginners shadow boxing in the mirror to come over and help.
“What you Google motherfuckers need?” Kelly asked, casually strolling over in their direction. “I’m enjoying my man, James over here.”
Neither man smiled, refusing to break from the hard stares they gave their own reflections as they awkwardly spun combinations from their hips and snapped their shoulders. They stared hard at themselves, as if looking for something right in front of them they still weren’t able to find.
“So what you want?” Kelly asked upon arriving, looking at their faces in the mirror rather than in real life.
“We need some help,” one of them said. “How we look?”
And then, sure enough, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man spoke as king:
“Ain’t you heard, motherfucker? You can look as hard as you want in the mirror, but vampires ain’t got no reflection. But look away from the mirror and at me and I’ll see what I can do for you…”
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