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Since 1943, Sully’s Boxing Gym has trained some of the toughest fighters in the sport. Its latest opponents are real estate and economics – but it will live to fight another day

Boxers Trevis and Melissa train at Sully's Boxing Gym in Toronto. Sully's, founded in 1943, has helped generations of young people to realize their potential by teaching self-reliance, courage and discipline.Photography by Paul Salvatori

Paul Salvatori is a Toronto-based photojournalist and writer.

Gentrification is like a bully. It beats up on the familiar and beloved places of a neighbourhood, demanding they pay more than they can afford. If they don’t, it pushes them out.

But not all bullies win. Sometimes the bullied fight back. And it’s only fitting that a place that has trained generations of boxers is doing just that.

Established in 1943, Sully’s is Canada’s oldest boxing gym. Legends such as George Chuvalo, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard have trained there. In January, owner Joe Manteiga and his staff were informed that their lease would not be renewed, and they would soon be forced to vacate the building, in Toronto’s west end at 1024 Dupont St., that has been their home for a dozen years. Since then, the gym has faced an uncertain future. First they were told to move out by February 15, then March 15. Now, June 30 marks the date boxers will hear the final bell.

A photo on the gym's wall shows Earl (Sully) Sullivan with Eddie Melo and Nicky Furlano at Sully's old location on Ossington Avenue. The gym started out on Queen Street West and moved several times within the Parkdale neighbourhood before reaching its current location on Dupont Street.

After news broke that the gym was facing eviction, the community rallied to its side like a loyal corner man. In February, it launched a crowdfunding campaign, which raised $31,000 to help it with moving costs and paying rent (which will increase) for a new space. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people reacted this way: Sully’s is a place where young people go to realize their best selves. The gym teaches self-reliance, courage and discipline. It has even prevented some from falling into trouble.

“Sully’s has kept me off the streets for a long time," says Caio Ito, 30. “And it gives me something to do. Idle hands is really bad because you get into things you normally wouldn’t be doing.”

Mr. Ito’s words parallel the motto of the gym’s late founder himself, Earl Sully Sullivan: “It’s better to build boys than mend men.” That motto is on an old sign, situated high on one of the gym’s walls. It reminds the many young people there – today not only men but women, too – that it is more advantageous to grow into a responsible person, inclined to do right, rather than make poor choices and live with those consequences.

Earl (Sully) Sullivan's motto: 'It's better to build boys than mend men.'

Daysia Walker, 17, believes Sully’s has helped her in this way. “Before coming to Sully’s, I was a good kid but I feel it helped me gain focus,” she says. “I was decent at school but Sully’s helped me become better."

Wherever one looks – whether it’s spotting trainer and former heavyweight champion of Canada Tony Morrison, putting students through drills, or its inspiring collection of memorabilia – it’s clear that Sully’s is dedicated to awakening the potential of young people. It is a school where untapped power is not only recognized, but harnessed.

Most of the young people live in the same area as Sully’s current location. It means they can train before school, or drop by after classes are done for the day. “It’s like our family,” 10-year-old Arihana Mia says.

And that’s just the kind of sense young people need today, when so many feel socially disconnected and unable to turn to others for support.

“Aside from developing me as a fighter, Sully’s has provided me with a great sense of community,” says Ethan Koszelweski, 17.

It might not be as polished as the high-tech gyms you find in gentrified neighbourhoods, but Sully’s offers what money can never buy: love. It’s a place where coaches and trainers refuse to give up on any one young person and, by their own efforts, helps them to see that each of them can have a positive impact on the world. Those such as Mr. Koszelewski recognize and value this, too. “Sully’s will always have an extremely significant place in my heart. There’s really nothing else like it.”

And that’s why it’s such a shame that the current location is closing. Gentrification might spruce up a neighbourhood, but there’s more to a community than aesthetics.

“If we had to relocate in the more affordable, north end of the city, like, say, Yorkdale, we’d lose most of our young people,” says Sully’s gym manager, Danielle Manteiga.

Fortunately, they’ve found a new home, a few kilometres away, at 1554 Dundas St. W. It’s a family-friendly area with a lot of schools, as Ms. Manteiga described it to me earlier this week, that is more accessible and accommodating than the current location. Perhaps the move will prove to be a blessing in disguise. In any case, just when it looked liked Sully’s was down for the count, they rose from the mat and showed they are still willing to fight.

Tony Morrison, a former Canadian lightweight champion turned trainer at Sully's, helps gym member Catherine do sit-ups as Dani and Philip look on. The gym has helped keep generations of young people focused and off the streets, and its current difficulties have prompted many in the community to return the favour through crowdfunding.

The building at 1024 Dupont St., left, is surrounded by creeping signs of gentrification. At right, a luxury housing development is under construction across the street.

The founder's philosophy of self-improvement is everywhere at the gym. 'To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by HIMSELF is a tragedy,' reads one sign on the walls.

Jonathan, left, practices at the gym. Sully's will be moving into a new space on Dundas Street West.

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