A sign on Johnny Tocco’s Boxing Gym proclaims it “The Home of World Champions.”
Johnny Tocco died in 1997, but his gym is still aimed at being a pipeline for champions.
Jimmy and Elizabeth Benitez Smith bought the property, at 9 W. Charleston Blvd., 12 years ago — not because of boxing, but because they believed in the revitalization of the area by the Arts District.
Jimmy Smith never boxed, but it runs in his blood.
“My grandfather used to box professionally in the ‘30s,” Smith said. “They called him Indian Johnny Smith. He didn’t box (much) in Las Vegas, but he did box in Nevada, They used to box in places like Goldfield, and thousands of people would show up in the middle of nowhere to see the bouts.”
Tocco opened a restaurant and boxing gym in his native St. Louis. In 1953, he came to Las Vegas for a fight and stayed.
“The stories say that he had connections with the mob,” said Luis Monda, who used to manage the gym and now trains fighters. “Someone ended up dead in his restaurant, so he came out here where the mob had a place called the Zebra Lounge. He asked if he could set up a ring there, and that became this place.”
A bar was still inside the gym when a scene from “Casino” was filmed there, Monda said. Smith did some renovations when he took over but stopped when boxers complained that things such as replacing the decaying flooring and making the bathrooms operational were making the place too fancy.
“Bernard Hopkins came in here and said, ‘What are you doing? It’s starting to look like the Four Seasons in here’,” Smith said. “Then I took him out back to the ring, and he said that was all right and he felt like he was home again.”
The gym still looks like the stripped-down, barebones facility it has been for decades. There are three main rooms — two with boxing rings, a locker room and the Smiths’ office. Although the address says Charleston, the entrance is off the alley on the south side of the building. It doesn’t welcome visitors so much as it double-dares them, and that’s the way the customers and staff seem to like it.
“That’s Sonny Liston’s tire over there,” trainer John Roberts said, pointing to a 3-foot-diameter truck tire with a couple of holes in the sidewalls. “He and his sparring partner Gary Bates used to go up to Mount Charleston and chop down trees to train, but the rangers caught them. Of course, they didn’t arrest the champion, but they threw Bates in jail for the weekend. When he came out, he told Sonny that from now on, that instead of chopping trees, they were going to hit that tire with a sledgehammer.”
Roberts has trained people at the gym for years and noted that it was Liston who put the place on the map. The gym has seen its share of famous boxers throughout the years, though, including Larry Holmes, Michael Dokes, Mike Tyson, Marvin Hagler, Floyd Mayweather and both Laila and Muhammad Ali.
These days, when a big name comes in, it’s more often to reminisce or check the place out. The trainers’ goal is to develop the next generation of fighters.
“The big names might bring in a couple of people,” Monda said. “But the big names also want everything for free, so that doesn’t keep the lights on.”
The gym is open to the public from 8 to 10 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, and spectators can watch the gym’s up-and-comers spar in the same ring where legends have trained. If you come, don’t bother with the doors on Charleston Boulevard. Take a stroll between the bail-bond place and the bus depot down the alley to Las Vegas history.
To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-380-4532.