Since 1985, the Sarasota Boxing Club has been a sports and fitness institution where fighters of all ages, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds come together to train. But the club's current lease is up, and the property owner is asking for a higher rent than the club can afford. This has sent legendary boxing coach and club founder Harold Wilen looking for a new home.
The club began in a space on Sixth Street and Central Avenue—in what is now the Rosemary District—and was supported by volunteers and Allan Hill, a Sarasota circus owner who donated $10,000 to convert the space into a boxing gym. The club grew in popularity in part because it provided a safe place for children from underprivileged communities to spend their free time. It was also a learning center where kids could find academic assistance. Because of its growth, the club moved to a location on Lime Avenue, and now occupies a garage on Harvard Street, off U.S. 301.
"The club has an incredible history, and a lot of it is swept under the rug because Sarasota is not a boxing town," says Wilen. "I'm proud of the hundreds of boxers I've brought up."
Wilen has coached some famous names, including Sarasota's "Joltin'" Johnnie Langston, who was brought to the club by his mother as a child. Now, he's ranked No. 10 in the world in the World Boxing Association's cruiserweight division. Johnny "Ghetto Blaster" Williams, another Wilen student and now coach, fought at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1997, the same night Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear.
Wilen dedicated his life to boxing after being called a "mama's boy" (his words) as a child. He grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s and made friends with a neighborhood kid named Guido, who boxed.
"I wanted to be just like Guido," says Wilen. "A strong boxer who could stand up to anyone."
After a stint playing college baseball, he began boxing every day in Manhattan under coach Artie Curly, which led to a pro career that lasted from 1965 to 1970, including getting to the quarterfinals at a Golden Gloves tournament in New York City.
"I was at the boxing gym every day, rain or shine," says Wilen. "Then I started training people and realized I love it." He taught out of his garage in Trenton, New Jersey, and then moved to Sarasota in 1982. In 1985, he happened upon the location that would become Sarasota Boxing Club. Word of mouth drew kids and adults of all ages, trying to build up athleticism, but also, discipline and mental strength.
The current location is not without memorabilia. I was lucky enough to get a tour by Wilen himself. The gym is old-school. It looks like a movie set. Wilen pointed toward old photos hanging on the walls, all of him coaching students. He even has a photo with ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who came to the gym after he retired. There are also several medals, trophies and tons of posters of his prodigies. He told me he's coached tennis pro Maria Sharapova when she was a child, as well as Serena Williams, who was recovering from an injury at Bradenton's IMG Academy.
The blue and red ring that was donated in the '80s fills up the space, and a pile of Everlast gloves are stacked on a table. From the lack of air conditioning to the routine automatic buzzer that echoes through the gym (whether students are there or not, it goes off every two minutes), the place is teeming with empowering and competitive yet welcoming energy.
Enough energy for me to get in the ring.
I'd never taken a boxing class before, but Wilen assured me that even beginners can make strides. He helped me strap on some 14-ounce gloves and taught me how to properly enter the ring, between the bungees. I took a wide stance, and Wilen adjusted me: gloves up to cover your face, knees bent, ready to pounce. He held up some pads and taught me jabs, hooks and the one-two punch.
Before I knew it, I'd worked up a sweat, but I was smiling the whole time. And Wilen has not lost any strength. He punched back harder than I ever could. The session ended with Wilen telling me, "Job well done," and offering some other advice. It's no wonder he's a successful coach and positive influence in others' lives.
If you want to try a class, the club is open Monday-Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The club is located at 2030 Harvard St., Sarasota until October 2022. If you have ideas about a new home for for the club, Wilen is looking for a location in or around the downtown Sarasota area, around 2,500 square feet and about $3,000 per month in rent.
Email Wilen at [email protected] or call (941) 539-6836.