Tommy Gallagher's connection to the past is an easy process. The veteran trainer just needs to close his eyes, and he sees ghosts. He can hear the sonic boom of Rocky Marciano's fists slamming the elephant of a heavybag that used to shake the rafters of Stillman's Gym in New York City. He can feel the silk lapels of one of Rocky Graziano's suits, and smell the cigar smoke of all those Italian and Jewish wise guys that used to gather at Stillman's.
A time when the fighters ruled the boxing landscape.
It's that old-school feel that draws Gallagher to "The Contender." He's been associated with the successful boxing reality show as it concludes its second season, and the first on ESPN.
Gallagher defines his role as the head trainer, looking to pick out little things in each fighter that need correcting, probing areas that could take these fighters to another level.
"I actually like that role, helping these kids, working with them on improving," said Gallagher, who was first approached by Jeff Wald, one of show's producers, about being a trainer for the show. "That's the greatest thrill I have, is working with the kids. The part I love the most is the corner work, telling these guys what they need to do to win in the heat of battle."
The show that started this season with 16 competitors will finish with a live final (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET) between Steve Forbes and Grady Brewer at Staples Center in Los Angeles. But it's the stories of these young fighters and the hard-core, grandfatherly concern Gallagher dispenses that is also a special part of the series.
"'The Contender' gives a different look at boxing; it gives the human side of boxing that people rarely see," said Gallagher, a trainer and manager of fighters. "Boxing constantly gets negative, negative, negative publicity. All of the time. You read constantly about the bad things in the sport because no one ever wants to hear about the good guys. The fact is, the good far outweighs the bad in this sport. I've been in the ----hole of this business forever, and you make believe that promoters, managers and trainers really care, but what they really care about is the financial revenues.
"That's why 'The Contender' itself is world-class. It tells the real story of these fighters, real fighters trying to make it. Imagine a 25-year-old kid who never had a suit in his life, or can't tie a tie. I screw around a lot on the show, but I love these kids. Most of them come from bad backgrounds. But everyone has a bad story. It's what these guys do with the opportunity. The concept of the show is great. It's so reminiscent of what happened in the old days."
Gallagher was born in 1941 in Brooklyn. He jokes that he was raised to know every liar in the sometimes sordid business of boxing. By the age of 10, he was the constant shadow of Ed Wohl, his grandfather. That was when he had his first introduction to boxing, with a visit to the CYO Gym on 17th Street in Manhattan.
He entered the gym and heard this big booming sound. There in a corner was the legendary Marciano, swinging away at a heavybag made especially for him, enclosed by a semicircle of onlookers.
It was a time when boxing came to fans through their Philco radios. When larger-than-life fighters like Marciano were tangible.
"Marciano was hitting that bag, one vicious shot after another," Gallagher said. "There were all these men dressed in suits and ties. I just remember my eyes popping out. It was just amazing. I thought about how Marciano did that. I don't remember whether he was champ or not, but I can close my eyes and see it as if it were happening right in front of me now."
Around the same time, Gallagher was introduced to legendary training camps in the Catskill Mountains region, like Grossinger's and Kutcher's.
By the time Gallagher was 18, he was a Golden Gloves welterweight champion. The night of his championship fight, former heavyweight champions James Braddock and Marciano, heavyweight contender Roland LaStarza and former middleweight champion Mickey Walker all sat in Gallagher's locker room, before he entered the ring at Madison Square Garden before 15,000.
"I reminisce a lot about those times, life gets to you and things happen, but when you're young, you fight back," Gallagher said. "That was a wonderful time in my life. There was a major respect thing then. You knew your place. You learned your manners at home. For 23 years, I ate dinner at 5:45 p.m. every day of my life. We had a big dinner on Sundays. That was tradition. It's the way we did [it] back then."
Boxing is a very primitive business, Gallagher likes to say. It's a matter of one guy beating the hell out of the other. But boxing carries more pressure than other sports, another facet of "The Contender" that Gallagher finds so appealing about the show -- as well as a serious drawback.
"These poor kids don't have the luxury of football, basketball, baseball, where you lose and can come back the next day and try and win again," Gallagher said. "These are all beautiful kids. They don't want to lose, but I'll tell you why there won't be any legendary fighters anymore. A fighter loses today and he's done. But yesterday, great fighters, Hall of Fame fighters had 10, 15 losses on their record because they fought everyone.
"It's not the fighters, it's the people around them. The fighters want to fight everyone. To be the best, you have to fight the best. You only get better by fighting the best. Promoters today don't want to take that chance. These fighters don't really learn any skills, because they don't fight the best. That's the difference we bring to 'The Contender.' They have to fight everyone. 'The Contender' is helping boxing. After all of these years, I'm still fighting battles. I'll keep fighting for the fighters, because it's all about the fighters. It's about them, what they have to say. 'The Contender' provides all of that."
Just like the old days.
Joseph Santoliquito is the managing editor of The Ring magazine.