Go to Jim’s Gym for the workout. Go back for the workout and the stories.
Jim March stopped going into Pittsburgh to earn $25 or $50 at the Saturday night fights when he got married at 17. But listening to country music on WKKW one day in December 1983, stoking the wood burner in the basement and eight months out of work, he heard the announcer taunt him. “WHOOOOO’S the toughest man in West Virginia?”
March chuckles as he tells this story, leaning in with a snaggletoothed smile and a twinkle behind his electric-taped glasses. “And I’m going, ‘Well I assume I am!’” He leans back again in his creaky old out-of-place desk chair on wheels, wearing his gym around him like a pair of fight-worn boxing gloves. “I don’t know, but I’m thinking I am.”
Even Morgantown natives, when they hear where Jim’s Gym is downtown, have the same reaction: “There isn’t anything behind Black Bear.” While becoming an institution over the past quarter century, the only dedicated boxing gym in town has stayed invisible in plain sight. The lack of any sign partially explains it—this gym is strictly a word-of-mouth joint. It’s made of the same hard-knocks nonconformity as its owner, a guy who’s survived an almost sociopathic level of All-American-boy risk-taking—read his self-published If Oprah Reads This I’ll be Rich if you think that’s an exaggeration.
March realized as a young teen in the ’60s watching Muhammad Ali on TV that he wanted to box. He loved the Pittsburgh fight scene, loved the money, loved the energy at the Saturday night fights. He stopped fighting, but then he heard that taunt. He trained and starved himself for a month to make the Light Heavyweight class, scrapped his way through five bouts, and took $1,000 home, the Toughest Man in West Virginia in 1984.
When March’s son Jim was 13, he asked his father to teach him to fight. “He was the sweetest kid. I told him he wouldn’t like it.” He loved it and turned out to be good at it—so good that, as a student at University High School, he was competing in matches all over the country. March told him he had to get straight As if he wanted to be taken out of school to fight. But it was hard to keep his grades up and also train all the way up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. To lighten his load, the elder March started the gym in Morgantown in about 1992.
That’s the origin story of Jim’s Gym. March’s son went on to fight in Boston, but the gym had taken on a robust life of its own. March once left town for three weeks unannounced, meandering on his motorcycle in the southern tier of New York state. When he made his way back to Morgantown, there were guys standing at the door of the gym hoping it would open. That’s how he tells it.
Behind that peeling green facade on the alley called Moreland Street lies another world. Enter at the warped walk-through door cut out of the garage door around 10 o’clock any Tuesday through Friday morning. You’ll find yourself in a large room dominated by a boxing ring, the floor of it about belly-high. The pale glow of fluorescent fixtures completes the ’50s film feel. Stuff your pay into the five-pound coffee can with “$5” scrawled on it in fat black marker. March will just be plugging the interval timer in.
When the bell shrills—BRRRRRING—everyone there does arm circles for three minutes. It’s harder than it sounds. It’s harder still when BRRRRRRRING after the one-minute rest between bells BRRRRRRRING it’s time to do another three minutes. Three. Long. Minutes. BRRRRRRRING. The next rest is just enough time to pair up with another gym-goer and find a medicine ball to toss between you. BRRRRRRRING. Keep the foot opposite your dominant hand forward, hips low, hands up, elbows in, and toss. Toss. Toss. March will pair up with somebody if there’s an odd number. Wherever he is, either he’s telling a story or someone else is. Anything might come up: The building of Big Bear Lake on a former strip mine. The Phantom of the Gym, a homeless guy who’s been staying there and cleans up. Dolly Parton’s qualities as an entertainer. Toss. Toss. Toss. Toss. Toss. BRRRRRRRING. Shake your shoulders out just in time for BRRRRRRRING another three minutes of tossing. Shoulders starting to burn. You tune into March’s stream of consciousness to distract yourself, until you miss a toss and take a razzing. BRRRRRRRING.
Now everyone wraps their hands. If you’re a beginner, March will show you how. “Spread your fingers,” he’ll say, slipping the looped end of the hand wrap around your thumb. “Watch, because this is the only time I’m going to do it for you. Secure the wrist. Barber pole it up the arm. Square it off. Back down,” and so on between each of the fingers and back to velcro tight around the wrist. While he wraps the other hand, he tells you you’re going to hit with the flats of your knuckles. Push, connect, twist.
The easy BSing breaks out into a full-group discussion about what the bathroom rule should be for transgender students in the high schools. March, whose tendency to bring his eclectic readings into conversation is part of the appeal for this academic community, lays out the gender-separation conventions of several ancient civilizations. No one has an answer for that.
Hands in gloves, side-body between the ropes, and there you are in a boxing ring.
In the morning sessions, people can spar among themselves, or March will hold up pads for them for a minute or so at a go. “Here.” By his right shoulder. “Here.” Left shoulder. “Two here.” Right shoulder. “Keep your arms up! Here.” Left hip. “That’s it. Twist! Here,” and so on. Some people grunt when they punch.
After everyone’s had several rounds, the gloves come off and it’s time for “the bar”—no-nonsense like all the other parts of this gritty workout. Choose a five- or six-foot-long metal dowel from the ones leaning against the wall and stake out some floor space between the punching bags. March leads the group in a grueling few minutes of lifting the bar every possible way: curl it up to the chest for a while. Curl it up higher. Push it out in front. Then straight up. Balancing it in one hand, lift it up to the armpit, then lift it straight out to the side. Other hand. Then two hands overhand, all of that again. Shoulders screaming now. BRRRRRRRING—somehow you’ve managed to block that sound out, though it’s continued this whole time. And the workout is over.
Afternoons from 4 to 6 it’s a more serious crowd. And Friday evenings, real sparring.
March takes anyone who walks into the gym seriously, man or woman, young or old. “I’ll treat them just like they’re a fighter. If they are a fighter, I try to make ’em a better fighter. If they’re a kid, I try to turn them into a kid that could be a fighter. That’s all I do, train ’em to be the best fighter I think they can be.” He tells stories about single moms who’ve taken their sons in to be toughened up, squads of ROTC members who’ve wanted to train up to become Army Rangers, guys who were probably headed for jail but found an outlet at the gym and got themselves straightened out—more than one of them ending up with respectable boxing careers.
“I started this place for the one reason, but I never could actually pull the plug because there was always somebody in the pipeline,” he says. “There’s a certain long, long, long, long, long string of people whose lives have been altered by this place. They’re scattered all over the country. There must be 1,000 of them.”
He leans back again in his creaky old chair. “It’s been very satisfying. It has been very satisfying.” 118 Moreland Street, @jimsboxinggym on Facebook
photographed by Julian Wyant