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Models At Gleason’s Gym: “KO Colleen” Was Probably The First

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New York Magazine liked her look, liked the shots that were furnished to them of model Colleen Kaehr, and so the powers that be reached out to the woman who’d been discovered working at a restaurant that Greta Garbo frequented, in the middle of Manhattan.

NY Mag had a piece running that called for a pic of a woman who looked athletic, and preferably liked she knew how to box. “I was athletic and seemed to fit the bill when I went to Gleason’s Gym,” says Colleen, now going by Colleen Saidman Yee, and quite well known as a yoga guru inside NY and beyond. “It was the first time I had ever been to Brooklyn, let alone a boxing gym. Walking into the space I felt like I was walking into a whole new world. I immediately loved it and felt right at home.”

Colleen Saidman Yee in the NY Times, in 2013.

Colleen Saidman Yee in the NY Times, in 2013.

 

“She really fell in love with it,” gym owner Bruce Silverglade recalls. Bruce remembers that the agency didn’t want Colleen to fight, but she was head strong.

Gleasons opened in 1937 in the Bronx, moved to NY in 1974, and by 1987, was in Brooklyn. Now on Water St, in DUMBO, moving a few blocks over from Front St., where the model entered the gritty but homey magnet grounds for an array of pros, amateurs and seekers.

One must note that this was around 1989,  to Colleen’s recollection. Women had to fight harder outside the ring than within to gain the right to fight professionally only a decade before. Women like Jackie Tonawanda lobbied feverishly and enlisted the aid of lawyers to get the same rights afforded to men, that being to get a license to fight as a pro. In September of 1978, three women, “Cat” Davis, Jackie Tonawanda and Tyger Trimiar, were granted licenses to fight for payment in NY.

“I’m still against it,” said the then NY State Athletic Commission boss Floyd Patterson. “I hold women on a pedestal because they are feminine.”

In a 2013 NY Times piece, which focused on her status as a yoga champion, she mulled her modeling time. “Modeling proved a mixed bag,” the story read. Long before Elle Macpherson, ‘I was The Body,” Ms. Saidman Yee said, and then corrected herself. “The Athletic Body. I was very androgynous, even though I was very feminine. I was ripped.’

Colleen Kaehr on the cover of a 1982 NY Mag.

Kaehr got the cover of this July 1982 edition.

Saidman Yee continues her recollection of the experience which very much influenced the rest of her life and very much so her ribs. “The boxers didn’t feel like this should be my home as they stoped punching and turned to see why this woman had walked into their sanctuary,” she says. “Bruce Silverglade was kind and protective of me right off the bat. I was wearing a burgundy suede very short mini-skirt with silver buttons up the front with cowboy boots. He gently suggested that if I was going to be a regular, I may want to reconsider my wardrobe. He said it apologetically. I thanked him for his concern, but I was a kick-ass 25 year old feminist and wasn’t changing my wardrobe for Brooklyn or boxers. But Bruce and I developed a beautiful and understanding relationship.”

Silverglade has a pic in her office– really part of a museum of images and posters and such–which has Colleen throwing a strike on Roca, and both are in their element.

So, did the kick-ass model, who grew up as one of five kids, have any fighting experience, or did she come to the gym a total neophyte? “I have five brothers and sisters and have always been fighting to prove myself physically,” she explained. I wanted to box. I didn’t like to feel vulnerable. As a woman living in New York City alone, I really wanted to be able to protect myself or at least feel as though I had some tools with which to fend off a possible attacker. Plus, my dad loved boxing and I loved my dad and I spent my life trying to make him proud.”

Silverglade paired the model up with a sharp tutor in Hector Roca..

Roca instructs model Sarah Simmons at Gleason's Gym in DUMBO, in February 2019.

Roca instructs model Sarah Simmons at Gleason’s Gym in DUMBO, in February 2019.

..who’d go on to work with 24 world champions, including Arturo Gatti, 21 males and three females.

“The guys weren’t happy that Hector was giving me his time,” the ex model continues. “But I stuck around long enough that they stopped scrutinizing me and started to give me fist bumps and even gave me pointers when I was on the speed bag or the heavy bag. I never felt threatened by any of them.”

The gym boss recalled that his partner back in the day at the gym, Ira Becker, was old school, in his 60s and wasn’t so into this push. The gym was home to photo shoots and such, and some of the models told Bruce they’d like to work out. He met resistance, being that the sport is quite conservative, in some ways. Then a recession hit and Becker opened up his mind to it. They closed the gym, and they scheduled a class, Silverglade said, and it was a hit. The gym was then in Manhattan, and “we were letting them in, nobody else was letting them in. Then the journalists came in, wanting to do stories on it, papers covered it, magazines covered it. And then a woman training at the gym wanted to fight in the NY Golden Gloves and she sued for the right, and she won. So we were the gym then for that. We dominated for the first 5, 6, 7 years at the Golden Gloves. When women wanted to train, Gleason’s was the only place they could go!”

The Gleason’s website has solid material on the gym’s history, including this snippet on the entry of women’s into this men’s club:

Women have been a part of Gleason’s Gym since 1983. What started as a difficult project in trying to convince one of the gym’s original owners, Ira Becker, that he should consider allowing women to train in his gym, became somewhat easier when he was persuaded that a female’s money went into the Gleason’s bank account just as easily as a male’s. Ira allowed Bruce Silverglade to close the gym early two nights per week to allow the women to train. This was the only way to accommodate women in our Manhattan space; it had one shower and changing room. Upon the move to Brooklyn in 1987, the women’s program at Gleason’s Gym had proved so popular that they received their own locker rooms. We now train in excess of 400 ladies. These women have turned out to be just as good as the men. They train hard and are dedicated to the workout. When a woman comes into the gym, she has no preconditioned bad habits. She is open for training and instruction from the ground upwards. Men always think they know how to fight because they are men.

Does Silverglade have a theory on why so many models hit Gleason’s? Is it a function of, they are often so lauded for their beauty…but want to be acknowledged for more than that? “The reason is not different than any other woman or guy that comes in here. It’s the workout! They have this terrible problem, they have to be so skinny. It’s a great workout,” he states. “Colleen I would say was the first model in here. And she had as nice a personality as her looks!”

Usually, if people, models or otherwise, stick around the gym long enough, and progress past the bags and listen to the trainer and do the roadwork and sprint work, they are keen to seeing how they fare with actual fighting, against an animate object. The model/budding pugilist decided she wanted to have a go: “The only actual fight I remember was with a police officer, named “Sparkle” Lee.”

“The agency wasn’t happy with me,” says Colleen, who Silverglade remembers sported a black eye after battling Lee. “Sparkle was a power house, and ended up breaking three of my ribs. Thank God I was seven inches taller than her and she couldn’t reach my face,” Colleen tells us. “The match was filmed for a TV show like “48 Hours” or “60 Minutes.

“I can’t remember if a winner was declared. The piece in NY Magazine was a hit. There was talk about me going to Sweden to fight for a purse. But, I got paid to show up to modeling jobs without black eyes and broken noses, so I never considered it.”

Kaehr strikes a pose, a boxing pose, in NY Mag.

  Kaehr strikes a pose, a boxing pose, in NY Mag.

 

Roca is still a fixture at Gleason’s; does the tutor recall Colleen? “I remember Colleen, she was beautiful, a nice person, and she learned to fight, she was very good,” Roca says. “She was one of the top models in NY. She was the first to come to Gleason’s, probably. After that more models came in, they kept coming in. Why? They didn’t want do boxing, they did boxing for exercise, to keep them in shape. She sparred one time and these models, they are tough. They do it the right way, and they are tough!

I chatted with Lee before she officiated a professional match, between Eileen Olszewski, age 50, and Judit Hachbold, on International Women’s Day, at Club Amazura for Facebook Fightnight Live on March 8. Lee also remembers the session, though a bit dimly. She’d been training for maybe two years. Did she recall that she did a number on Colleen’s ribs? “I know I was in there with this beautiful model. It was fun, I didn’t believe that I hurt her, she didn’t seem like she was hurt…she was hangin’ in there with me! I’m glad she’s doing well,” said Lee, who started officiating not long after the Colleen spar sesh, and she joined the NYPD in 1987.

And, how does Colleen look back on this experience, this sliver in time?

“In retrospect, I can still conjure up the smell of sweat and leather and the sounds of fists hitting the bag as I opened the door each afternoon. It is a fond memory,” she says, with that NYTimes piece informing us that the rib injury led her to try yoga, now a life passion. “The gloves are proudly displayed on my mantle-piece.”

 

Gleason’s Gym is open to all–models, construction workers, hedge fund titans, all can come in and learn the sweet science. It is cheaper than therapy and better for your body.

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About Michael Woods

Editor/publisher Michael Woods became addicted to boxing in 1990, when Buster Douglas shocked the world with his demolition of the fearsome Mike Tyson. The Brooklyn-based journalist Woods has covered the sport since then, for ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com, ESPN New York, RING, and he was editor of TheSweetScience.com from 2007-2015. Woods is also an accomplished blow by blow and color man, having done work for Top Rank, DiBella Entertainment, EPIX, and numerous other organizations.

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