Every afternoon at the El Ferroviario gym in Buenos Aires, boxers spar in a ring surrounded by punchbags being struck roughly by gloved fists as other fighters train. A soundtrack of muffled blows over a crackly radio is punctuated by whoops, gruff instructions and a bell that rings to signal break time.
You would find similar scenes at boxing clubs around the world, but this one has no windows or air conditioning. Its walls are painted with peeling murals and motivational messages, illuminated by the gloomy glow of neon tubes.
El Ferroviario is both under ground and underground. On the street, you’d never know it existed: The club occupies a basement below the central train station in Constitucion, a rough and ready neighborhood which serves as a transport hub for the Argentine capital’s southern suburbs.
Although the basement is close to platform 14, to find it you need to leave the station through the front entrance onto a gritty main road, passing street sleepers and idling police, before turning right and walking through a gate with red signs forbidding cars to park.
The boss is Alberto Santoro, an irascible septuagenarian who wastes no time on formalities. The veteran coach founded El Ferroviario in 1994 and has trained everyone from street kids to international champions, such as Jorge “The Locomotive” Castro and Juan Coggi, also known as “The Whip.”
“This place is unique because it breathes boxing. They say that in all gymnasiums, but here it really happens,” Santoro explained to the Clarín newspaper. “The vast majority of kids come here to fight, with four or five who do recreational boxing. In other clubs, it’s the opposite,” he continued. “I tell people who come here to lose weight that I don’t know how to teach recreational boxing, and people who train to fight always take priority.”
One of them is Julio, 30, a welder from northern Argentina who won local titles as a teenager. He lives in a derelict building above a nearby basement which housed the club for several years, and is full of tales about the shadowy underworld of the railway system.
He describes rival mafias controlled by dons with sinister nicknames, one of whom employed Julio for a construction project – which brought extra responsibilities he had not been expecting.
“I used to sleep in the boxing club, and they gave me 15 machine guns to hide under my bed,” he recalls. “Another group was trying to take over the railroads – it was crazy.” A flashpoint came in October 2010, when the left-wing activist Mariano Ferreyra was assassinated at a protest over workers’ rights by a gunmen affiliated with a prominent rail union, whose leader was convicted as an accomplice to the killing in 2013.
The flaring tension prompted Julio to leave Buenos Aires for several months. Although the situation is much calmer now, he no longer works on the railroads, and says that numerous mafia heavies also trained at El Ferroviario. “It’s a shame that so much politics got involved with the boxing,” he lamented. “The gym was a relief for everyone – a way to forget about all that messed up stuff.”