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Head Like a Snake... Feel Like a Duck

By Jose Corpas

September 28, 2008 

This summer's Olympic Games might have been taking place somewhere other than China if not for a boxing gym in Brooklyn.  Back in 1989, the Chinese government was preparing to make a bid to host an Olympics.  But first they wanted to showcase their talents at the 1990 Asian Games, which they were hosting.  A strong showing at the Asian Games would go a long way towards helping them secure an Olympic bid.  Although strong in many sports, China had no boxing team.  In fact, they had no boxers.  So they sent four athletes with no boxing experience to Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn for the purpose of becoming boxers. 

There’s a reason Gleason’s is the oldest active gym in America.  They are willing to accept change and take on assignments others gyms won’t dare touch.  They were among the first boxing gyms to accommodate women boxers.  White collar boxing, a sport where lawyers, doctors, CEO’s and PhD’s get to punch each other in the face in a real life version of Fight Club, got its start at Gleason’s Gym.  Robert De Niro and Hillary Swank won Academy Awards for their portrayal of boxers in the films Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby.  They both prepared for their roles at Gleason’s.  Before, after, and in between all that, the gym produced 131 world champions-and counting.  So it was no surprise that, when presented with the challenge of turning four athletes into boxers, the staff at Gleason’s readily accepted. 

The arrival of the four athletes was met with great fanfare with much of the attention centering on heavily tattooed heavyweight Wang Wei Xiong.  The New York Times covered their July 8th, 1989 arrival at Kennedy Airport.  Air China paid their fare and Lena Hsu, through her company Le and Le Associates, sponsored what was to be a 15 month stay.  The task of turning the four athletes into boxers was in the capable hands of Al Gavin.  Gavin was one of the most knowledgeable corner men in boxing but imparting that wisdom wasn’t easy.

“None of the boxers spoke English and none of the trainers spoke Chinese” recalled Ms. Hsu. “But they communicated with their own language” she told me over the phone.  In what must have looked like a game of charades to onlookers, Al would physically demonstrate each move and then the four boxers would follow.  “Al would tell them ‘Head like a snake-feet like a duck’” she laughed.  “It was so funny to watch!” 

While those instructions conjure up images of a mutant platypus, it worked.  They slithered their way through months of training and three of the four won their first exhibition bouts including Wang Wei Xiong.  Peter Depasquale served as their conditioning coach and recalls how quick they learned.  “They were already in shape.  They ran in several New York Road Runners meets.  But in the gym, they were a trainer’s dream.”  And just like a dream, they were gone.   

Little was heard of them after they returned to China.  They continued to train in China and shared what they learned in Brooklyn with the rest of the Chinese boxing team.  Wang Wei Xiong won a silver medal at the Asian Games and enjoyed celebrity status for some time.  His teammate, Bai Chong Guang, won a gold medal and went on to compete at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.  As a whole, China did well at the 1990 Asian Games.  They won more medals than any other country and showed the world that they could successfully host an international sporting event.  They entered a bid with the International Olympic Committee and eventually were awarded the 2008 Games.  Though they are largely forgotten now, the success of the four athletes turned boxers opened the doors for a thriving boxing program in China.  With stars like woman boxer Zhang Xi Yan, China’s first professional champion, and Olympic hopeful Zuo Shiming, and with cities like Macau looking to host major fights, many boxing insiders are hailing China as the next boxing super power.   

China promises that this year’s Olympics are a must see.  If you do tune in to watch, remember the four athletes turned boxers.  The ones who moved their heads like a snake and their feet like a duck.  And keep in mind that it all might have been taking place somewhere else if not for a musky old gym in Brooklyn.  The one nestled neatly between the shadows of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.     

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