The new address is on Dundas St. W., but to find the entrance you need to round the corner to Sheridan Ave., and even then it’s easy to miss.
But then you head down the stairs, past the portrait of 19th-century heavyweight legend John L. Sullivan, posing bare-chested with white pants and a black belt, fists held high. And you see two rows of heavy punching bags and, beyond them, a low-slung boxing ring where retired heavyweight Tony Morrison sits on the apron, holding up target mitts while a pair of grade-school-age girls take turns punching them.
Then you know it’s the same old Sully’s Boxing Gym.
The club, which reopened in early July and is having its grand reopening on Sunday, bills itself as the city’s oldest continuously run boxing and wrestling gym, with a history that stretches back to 1943. But earlier this year, facing eviction from its previous location on Dupont St. W., it nearly closed down, threatening to scatter members and coaches alike. A successful crowdfunding campaign raised the money for moving expenses, and in June a below-the-sidewalk space came open in a building that houses a Benjamin Moore paint store.
The reopening extends the life of a local institution that’s equal parts community centre, boxing academy and museum. And for Morrison, Sully’s is a workplace that gives structure to his days as a retired boxer, teaching lessons in boxing and patience.
“When you master the jab, I’ll show you the right hand,” said Morrison, who once knocked out former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks. “When you master the right hand, I’ll show you the hook. That’s how I learned.”
The surge of public support that followed last winter’s eviction led to $30,000 in donations, including $15,000 from the sport-streaming service DAZN.
“Sully’s has such a deep-rooted history in both the Canadian and North American boxing history that we wanted to help them and preserve that boxing heritage,” said Joseph Markowski, executive vice-president of DAZN North America, in an email to the Star in March.
It also prompted the landlord to give Sully’s an extension on its move-out date, bumping it from March to June. But where the extension bought time, location remained a dilemma.
For years, Sully’s occupied a spot on Ossington Ave. That’s where Muhammad Ali trained when he set up camp in Toronto before his 1966 title defence against George Chuvalo, and where a plaque commemorating their hard-fought 15-round bout stands. It also spent time on Wade Ave., near Bloor St. W. and Lansdowne Ave.
Other Sully’s veterans remember its 1990s stint on Fraser Ave. in Parkdale, where it kept neighbourhood kids entertained and occupied.
“There were some rough kids, including myself. (But) instead of being out on the street doing crime we were in the gym, and we wanted to be in the gym,” said Brian Wittwer, who trained at Sully’s as a teen and has now brought his niece there to train with Morrison. “It would be a shame if it (had) closed down.”
But members of the Sully’s community point out that every time the gym changes locations, it becomes part of the new neighbourhood’s distinct culture. That trick would have been difficult to achieve in the far-flung strip malls that emerged as early relocation option, and Morrison stressed the need to stay within walking and transit distance of the bulk of the gym’s membership.
So when a space opened up on Dundas St., just west of Dufferin St., Sully’s management moved fast. It’s just three kilometres south of their previous spot, and near several schools, which the gym’s board see as crucial to filling the club’s programs and growing roots in the community.
“(Competing) is not for everybody,” says Sully’s board member Jamie Facciolo. “There’s physical activity, and the mental health aspect. Some of it is just a place where people feel comfortable and welcome and supported.”
It starts with boxing.
Sully’s walls feature photos and old posters showcasing legendary fighters such as Ali, who simply passed through Sully’s, and former Canadian welterweight champ Clyde Gray, who made the gym his home.
The weathered punching bags look like they came from the Ali-Gray era. Some are covered in sweat-stained canvas; others are black leather and mummified in silver duct tape.
And then there’s Morrison, teaching the sweet science to students that range from raw beginners to pros such as Zsolt Daranyi.
Morrison’s last pro bout came in 1990, and he spent the next several years mulling a comeback. Then came a vacation to his native Jamaica, where a speeding car smashed into him, shattering a kneecap and cracking a vertebra in his back. He survived, but his plans to return to competition ended.
Get more of today's top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star's Morning Headlines newsletter for a briefing of the day's big news.Sign Up Now
Morrison returned to Toronto and poured himself into coaching, first at Atlas Boxing Club in North York, and then at Sully’s. He didn’t intend to take over as head coach. He says he was visiting a friend there one afternoon in the early 2000s, when gym owner Joe Manteiga handed him the key and told him to run the place.
“I like to see how people develop,” Morrison said. “I like seeing people accomplish their goals. Not everybody wants to fight.”
The move to Dundas St. W. has prompted gym management to revamp its branding. On the day it reopened, coaches and board members sported t-shirts and hats with a new logo, an attempt to market and monetize the gym’s rich history.
But the battered old equipment?
That’s staying — for a reason.
“You can go to 20 different gyms to have brand new punching bags, and the equipment is fancy and pretty,” said Sully’s board member Mike Pereira. “The goal here is to keep it old school.”