The name that blinks in neon just above the front entrance to Charlie Wiseman's gym belies his personal history. Boxing Charlie's, it reads, but Wiseman is not a boxer and has never been one.
"I've taken a lot of boxing classes," he says. "But I never try and say something that I'm not-I've never boxed professionally."
Nonetheless, a handful of clients each day, some with their own boxing gloves, head into Wiseman's Fells Point gym to spend half an hour inside a six-sided mixed martial arts-style ring, punching Wiseman's gloved hands after each numerical command he shouts. One for a jab, two for a cross. Threes and fours are left and right hooks, respectively. Five is an uppercut with the left hand; six is one with the right. The one command that isn't prompted by a number is a body shot, which Wiseman just asks for. "Body shot," he'll say, sometimes barely audible over the Michael Jackson blaring from overhead speakers, and that's a boxer-for-a-day's cue to wind up their dominant hand, pivot with their hips, and sock Wiseman just in front of his kidney-where he has deftly positioned one of his gloved hands to cushion the blow.
Since 2010, the Pikesville native has guided quasi-boxers through the motions at the Fleet Street gym. Though not strictly a space for boxing-there are weight- and strength-training machines on the premises as well-fisticuffs is a big part of each workout, almost all of which are one-on-one with the 36-year-old personal trainer. The biggest difference between Boxing Charlie's and conventional boxing gyms: There's no sparring at Wiseman's gym, which means no one will ever fight a simulated boxing match.
"Most often, boxing gyms. . . they're very intimidating. People really don't get a chance to experience the boxing workout," he says. "I thought if I made a different kind of environment, something funky where it's not intimidating, it would attract people who would ordinarily not get to experience the boxing workout."
Murals, including one of an outdoor boxing scene that pays homage to U.S. and Baltimore landmarks, span several walls inside Boxing Charlie's. One of two weight rooms behind the 16-foot-long boxing ring features paintings from a local artist Wiseman knows as Ed, who lives around the corner. Wiseman's nearly 2-year-old cocker spaniel, Mr. Furley, is always there and stays in the gym if clients want him there. Those clients, who include dentists, doctors, and lawyers (and, for 10 months starting in August 2011, this writer), are predominantly people from the neighborhood. More often than not, Wiseman is dressed in jeans, a tight-fitting beater or T-shirt, and Chuck Taylor sneakers-not in a sweat-stained sweatshirt or a Mickey Goldmill getup.
Boxing Charlie's is, in other words, intentionally decorated to not mirror the gyms where professional boxers train, despite the presence of a heavy bag, a speed bag, and a teardrop bag. The environment is supposed to be comfortable, not competitive. For Wiseman, who felt uncomfortable in a certain setting for most of his life so far, that was the whole point.
Wiseman is Jewish-his late grandparents owned the well-known Edmart Deli in Pikesville, in business more than 50 years (his mother now runs it)-but he was kicked out of Hebrew school early. While he ultimately graduated from Pikesville High School, he was continually shipped off to boarding schools in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
"School, it was always very, very hard for me," Wiseman says. "I just never fit in, and they didn't know what to do with me."
That changed once he grew old enough to get his hands on weights-for him, lifting was the "only time" he ever felt good. "When I started to lift weights, that was the only time I saw results," he says. "It was one of the only things where, if you put something into it, you'll get something out of it."
After attending Towson University, Wiseman was helping people refinance their homes in the Baltimore area for a short time following 9/11. Then he went west, to San Diego, and worked for $10 an hour at a Powerhouse Gym, which was on the second floor above a boxing gym. From a young age he had "messed around" with boxing, but once he got to San Diego, Wiseman took lessons in earnest and began formulating the idea for his own part-boxing, part-weight-lifting gym.
"San Diego is, like, the fitness capital. Everything revolves around working out," says Wiseman. "It was the best time of my life."
At age 28, he was ready to pursue a degree in sports medicine to bolster his credentials some, but had to put that on hold suddenly when his 60-year-old father-the man wearing the blue suit in the boxing-match mural in Boxing Charlie's-died of a heart attack in 2003.
"I moved back to Baltimore; I came to be with my mother," he says. Once she was remarried and resettled, in 2005, Wiseman earned his sports-medicine degree at Keiser University in Florida, moved back to Baltimore, and in 2009 he started renting the space that would become Boxing Charlie's.
His ambitions for they gym are a bit outsized for now: He wants to franchise the name and place outposts across the U.S. But its spirit would stay unchanged.
"For half an hour, people get to feel like a boxer," he says. "I wrap their hands up, I put their gloves on, they get to step into the ring, and I hear: 'I've always wanted to box before, but I was always scared to go into a boxing gym.'"