Think boxing is just blindly throwing a punch? Think again. Over on the W37th Street where Title Boxing once reigned, a new contender has entered the ring — the Victory Boxing Club, where owner and operator John Snow trains everyone from busy executives to recovering stroke patients, with a focus on the psychology behind every swing and jab — and the motto “you don’t have to be in my ring for me to be in your corner.”
A Brooklyn native with a degree in history from Fordham University, Snow first began training fighters at his brother Martin’s gym, the Trinity Boxing Club on Duane Street in Tribeca, where he put his multidisciplinary education to work as a personalized, newfound boxing philosophy.
“As far as taking what I’ve learned in one field and applying it to another – I lifted my idea from Leonardo da Vinci,” said John. “If he was stuck on a mathematical problem, he would work on some art (or vice versa) and it would help him redirect and refocus. That’s why I use everything from Milton Erickson to Noam Chomsky to different learning and language patterns in my coaching. I use all different coaching modalities based on the person’s learning style.”
For John and his brother, getting into the sport was “the total opposite of my family [his mother was a school principal and his father a financial planner] – going to a boxing gym was a different kind of rebellion,” he said. While attending school near Union Square in the 1980s, 15-year old John stumbled upon Gramercy Gym originally run by Mike Tyson’s adoptive father Cus D’Amato, now closed.
“At the time Gramercy and Union Square were so bad, if you walked through the park you got suspended because it was assumed that you were only there to buy drugs,” recalled John. “It took me many, many attempts for me to get up the stairs to the gym — and when I finally got through the door, everything changed.”
Working with legendary trainers like Al Gavin, John was smitten with the art of boxing. He credits the coaches at Gramercy Gym with not only training him to box, but also with teaching him resilience. When, a year after joining the boxing gym, John’s father was diagnosed with ALS: “The gym was a place for me to process it all,” said John, adding, “As a boxer, you have a fierce sense of individuality, but you do have a team around you, and the trainer/fighter relationship is very important – my trainers were instrumental in helping me get through that time and building a fortitude and mental toughness that helped immensely.”
The key to success in the ring is to give trainees clear goals, structure and a sense of safety to push past their boundaries, he said. “I’m not a therapist or anything, but I do help guide people.” A sign inside the gym reminds boxers of John’s ethos: “I am a boxer, the future is in my hands. I set the course to my destiny. I fight every day to achieve it. I welcome fear as my teacher.”
“Boxing appeases the amygdala – the oldest reptilian part of the brain,” John explained. “And it’s really there so that we know we can defend ourselves and take chances. By boxing, we know that we can endure and we can push ourselves harder than other people push us.”
He added. “I tell people, ‘what scares us thrills us’ – that’s what I learned the first day that I finally made it up the stairs of Gramercy Gym.”
One of John’s fighters has had more than a few boundaries to push through. Before working with John, Jim McKeon was a New York City public school principal and half-marathoner, always on the go. The native New Yorker was training for an upcoming race when he suffered a major stroke in April 2017, losing significant parts of his mobility, sight and ability to speak.
“The first morning you wake up after a stroke, you have all these tests hooked up to you – you can’t see, and you can’t move,” said Jim, recalling the terrifying first few days after the episode. Nevertheless, he remained determined to get moving as soon as possible.
“I had to learn to chew again, swallow again,” said Jim. “I had to learn how to grab something. I was spilling everything – I would grab a glass and put it down and knock it over. I couldn’t do the things that you do naturally on an everyday basis. It’s such a strange feeling — you look at yourself and there’s not a mark on you, and you wonder why you are in such bad shape.”
Jim enrolled in a standard post-stroke rehab, but it didn’t seem to be a good fit for him: “I didn’t find the hospital rehab I was doing enjoyable — the environment is tough, not everyone there is trying to get better,” he added. “I didn’t see the plan forward and once I left rehab, there were still certain things that I couldn’t do.” Weeks after the stroke he faced significant speech and mobility restrictions.
Then one night he had something of an epiphany while watching boxing, “I was listening to the announcers describe what it takes,” said Jim. “I said, ‘Man, I think I need that,’ and shortly afterward I found Trinity Boxing on Duane Street.” Jim explained his situation to owner Martin – “I told him — very slowly, because my speech still wan’t great — that I was falling and tripping, and I wanted to learn how to box but couldn’t throw a right hand,” he added. “Martin told me, ‘If you want to be good again, I’m not your guy — but if you want to be great again, come back next week.’” He was soon connected to train with John. “John jumped right in,” said Jim. “I can’t tell you how much it helped me.”
“The key with Jim is that I had a great student,” said John. “He’s a determined student who is as tough as nails and also a great guy with a giant heart.” The two quickly connected over Jim’s educational background. “My mother was a principal, my cousins were all on the Board of Ed and all educators, so we had rapport on rapport,” John said. “I have been doing this long enough to know that these kind of synchronicities are no accident.”
In developing a specialized training program for Jim, John focused “on his neurology and what his perceived limitations were so we could work through them. I was able to fill in the gaps where he had brain damage, and take the pressure off by explaining that filling these in would take time and repetition. We took everything apart and we put it back together.”
“The biggest thing I did after the first session with John was go home and practice everything he taught me,” said Jim. “And even though I was afraid to throw my right hand because I thought that I would punch John, I was able to concentrate, focus and keep doing it through repetition, repetition, repetition,” he added. “I would go home and practice that footwork and that repetition in front of the mirror, picture it and make my brain start to rewire.” Jim started going to the gym to practice even on the days he wasn’t scheduled to work with John.
“The difference of working with John as opposed to my other therapy was that I got real-time corrections,” said Jim. John took his training as seriously as any professional boxer. “He trained me as if I was going to fight in a heavyweight championship. He’s focused and spot on, and his feedback is amazing,” said Jim.
“Getting corrections and being able to practice hour after hour helped me get better and stronger. I had the chance to stand in front of a mirror and do it a hundred times – it got my brain to rewire and regain that neuroplasticity – you’re a child again,” he added.
“We opened up the possibilities,” John commented. “A lot of things for him were just a matter of getting used to turning his hand a certain way, not letting his feet get too close together – making little changes and putting together all of the pieces. We were able to fill in the void, and even though he’s not going to be perfect at everything, now he can jump rope.”
Just six weeks after suffering his stroke, Jim ran the half-marathon he had been training for pre-epsiode. His medical team was floored at the progress he had made in so little time. “My neurologist said, ‘There’s no map to the brain – no one really knows how much it can do. Whatever you are doing, keep doing it,’” said Jim.
Years later, Jim followed John to his new home at Victory in Hell’s Kitchen, crediting the community among fellow boxers cultivated by John as motivating his continued recovery. “You’re standing next to people getting ready for a fight, and you’re fighting for your own life,” said Jim. “And that’s the thing with this gym – you feel as though you are just as important as the guy getting ready for the fight. Everybody in there is just trying to get better. Everybody stops to help you. I’m around a bunch of positive people – John being the biggest one.”
Reflecting on his journey, Jim said: “I’d always wondered what it’s like to put on a set of gloves and hit those bags. It took some time and maybe a stroke to make me do it – but the whole-body training has helped me get better not just from the stroke but in life. It’s a good place to be.”
It’s a feeling that John hopes everyone who steps through the doors at Victory will experience. “My mission statement for the gym is, ‘everyone has my first day.’ Everyone comes here for their own reasons,” said John. “I also tell people, ‘you don’t have to be in my ring for me to be in your corner’ — no fighter gets there alone.”
Once a curious kid climbing up the stairs of the Gramercy Gym, John is now New York’s foremost boxing philosopher. He has trained kids who are now adults, couples who met in his gym and generations of boxers, and considers it an honor to keep the work going at Victory: “It’s heaven on earth – I never work a day in my life. There’s no better place in the world to me than a boxing gym.”
Victory Boxing is located at 455 W 37th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue and is open 6:30am to 8:30pm Monday through Friday, and 8:30am-1pm on Saturday. They are also partnering with HYHK Business Improvement District this month (September 2022) to give FREE boxing classes on Wednesday evenings in Bella Abzug Park at 5:30pm. Register here…