Hamilton Fish Wrestlers preserve a 19th Century NYC Tradition
By Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Madison Square Garden may attract hoards of dyed-in-the-wool WWF fans with Hulk Hogan-like rage, but the Lower East Side's Twin Towers Wrestling Club, an amateur wrestling club for adults, is for a different type of Big Apple enthusiast. No Zorro costumes please. All you need is a pair of clean sneakers, a close-fitting shirt and shorts, and a towel. Oh, and a Hamilton Fish Recreational Center membership is required, but that's almost free after filling out simple paperwork at the Center (128 Pitt Street, on the southeast corner of Houston and Pitt).
This club, with approximately 130 members, dates back over 100 years to when any meet in the first Madison Square Garden attracted scores of spectators in top hats and hoopskirts. Wrestling's citywide popularity as a spectator sport back then was second only to horseracing.
For most of the 20th Century, a downtown wrestling club was housed at the West Side YMCA. It was given its current name when air-conditioned facilities were found in the Hamilton Fish building in the 1990s. "The two towers were dominant visual landmarks when swimming in the Center's pool," says Ed Lindsay, the 55- year-old (and darn fit) volunteer director of the adult club during my recent visit. He's also the unofficial historian, as he's been a member of the group for over 15 years. "We considered changing the name after 9/11, but, like Giuliani, we thought it better to just keep going. In fact, as soon as below-Houston Street access was back we had a full room of wrestlers."
Roughly 1/3 of the members wrestled in high school or college, 1/3 have done martial arts, and another 1/3 started wrestling with the club. Beginners are welcome and are given free one-on-one coaching to get started. The club meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 to 9 PM, and is one of the few outlets in the country where adults can learn wrestling after high school and college.
Women can come too, but Lindsay admits that they don't come too often. "Although we once had a mother-daughter- grandmother trio that used to come and grapple." He smiles at the bizarre memory, and then excuses himself for a quick wrestle with a partnerless member of the club.
A recuperating wrestler sees me standing alone and offers a brief overview of what I'm seeing. "The barefoot guys are the martial arts enthusiasts, participating in submission wrestling, Brazilian jujitsu. The men with the sneakers are traditional wrestlers who end a match when an opponent is pinned."
Lindsay, a sneakers man, rejoins me with mussed-up hair. "Attendance swells in September," he says after catching his breath. "A lot of the guys who used to wrestle know the college and high school season is starting up and get the itch to get back on the mats." He nods to a very large man entering the mat area. The chap looks around forlornly, crouches on a mat, and rolls his huge neck around to stretch his muscles. "I'm worried he's not going to get a turn today," Lindsay confides. "There's no one his size here today, which is unusual. We always try to match people up sizewise so no one gets hurt."
More than one transformation of character occurs during the remainder of the night's meet-up. After I return from the water fountain, a very gentlemanly ink chemist named Carl Weissbacher is mid-match with Rich Dama, a talkative man who earlier told me that he works in broadcasting. Is that really the same Carl? Weissbacher's eyes are screwed up like a bull about to gore an amateur matador. "Oh, be sure to plug the kids' program that meets before the adults," Lindsay pleads before I leave. "It's free, and I know John Harrington, who runs it would love to have more kids from Grand Street join. Introducing youth to the sport is the best way to preserve it. Some of the adult members have even made financial contributions to the kids' program, for footwear and gym shorts."
Harrington returns my call the next day. He tells me his own 8-year-old son is a regular at the youth meets. "Wrestling is even a good sport for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder, as it's an individual sport. And bookish kids thrive too. Toughens them up without having them be bullied."
When asked why he loves wrestling so much, Harrington says without hesitation: "Wrestling gives you a complete workout in 45 minutes. It builds stamina, endurance, agility, flexibility and strength. You'd have to play softball all weekend to get that kind of exercise. And golf is so boring."