D.C. boxing gym owner Jim Finley dies

Pictured here in 2001, Jim Finely, the owner Pictured here in 2001, Jim Finely, the owner of Finley's Gym, a long-time boxing landmark in Washington, DC, died Jan. 28, 2014 at Fort Washington Medical Center in Prince George's County, MD. He was 84. Photo Credit: The Washington Post / Joel Richardson

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It wasn't an easy place to find, but then it was never supposed to be. Finley's Gym was above an auto-repair shop, down an alley in Northeast Washington, behind a battered door, then up a flight of creaking stairs.

There it was, in all its shabby simplicity, a cramped space with a makeshift ring, a few jump-ropes and punching bags where boxers practiced their sweaty trade. The walls and ceiling were layered with fight posters dating back decades. Hand-lettered signs from the proprietor, Jim Finley, made it clear that this was a place for work, not for play.

"If you find a better gym," a sign on the front door read, "I suggest you join it." For 41 years, Finley's Boxing Club, as it was also called, was a landmark of Washington boxing. As soon as Mr. Finley -- and he was always called "Mr. Finley," out of hard-earned respect -- opened his gym in 1960, boxers and trainers began to find it, as if by instinct.

It was the home of Bob Foster, a light-heavyweight who was world champion from 1968 to 1974. Sugar Ray Leonard trained there before he opened his own boxing club. Young amateur fighters, rising Olympians and reigning professional champions all climbed the steps and entered Finley's world.

He was 84 when he died Tuesday at Fort Washington Medical Center in Prince George's County, Md. He had congestive heart failure, according to a nephew, Kenneth Walker.

Finley was an amateur boxer in his youth, but he never turned professional or worked as a trainer or manager. Nonetheless, he became a central figure in the D.C. fight scene by creating a spot where the focus was on boxing and nothing else.

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"You'd be hard-pressed to find a place anywhere like Finley's," ring announcer Henry "Discombobulating" Jones said in an interview. "It wasn't a great facility, but it was meant for work. He had a sign that said, 'Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.' "

The example was set by Finley himself. He made his living as the owner of the auto garage on the ground floor, below the gym. But his heart was always upstairs, where the whappita-whappita-whap of boxers hitting the speed bag filled the hours of the day.

"This was never set up as a commercial venue, primarily because I didn't have to depend on it," Finley said in 2001. "I backed into this by setting up something for my friends and myself. It just gave me great pleasure to see the kids come in. Some didn't even know how to hold their hands. But in the next two or three weeks, you'd see them shifting and dodging. They'd gotten it."

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In August 2001, he locked the door one last time and put up a new sign.

"Sorry! Closed! For Good! Thank you. Jim Finley."

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