When a new owner bought an indistinct building off Front Avenue in St. Paul's North End, he had no clue what was in the basement.

When a new owner bought an indistinct building off Front Avenue in St. Paul's North End, he had no clue what was in the basement.

It didn't look like much: boxes, other clutter, a water hookup. He started a gym upstairs and thought nothing of it, the Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/2vxSjJm ) reported.

But when it came to gyms, he was squatting on a big piece of history.

Decades earlier, a small troop of boxers moved into the vacant space below. It didn't look like much then, either.

"It was all shut off and dark . a cluttered-up mess," said Gary "Rice Street Skinny" Struss, the light heavyweight.

The young men cleared out half of it — pushing all the junk to the rear. One, a plumber, installed a shower in the corner; another had relatives do a little ironwork.

In time they had a pair of heavy bags, a speed bag and a small "ring," about 10 feet by 10; a quarter of regulation size. Nothing more than two-by-fours with plywood on top.

"That's all we had. You know what boxers got for money: nothin'," Struss said.

And they practiced. The tight space trained them in ways their future, free-moving opponents weren't used to.

"We did a lot of fighting, because we didn't have a lot of room to run," Struss said. "I had a shiner every day. You had to work hard to move."

"It was like fighting in a phone booth," said Russ Newton, another fighter.

Overhead swings would occasionally hit a light hanging from the ceiling. Boxers learned to take punches. To stand and slip. To counterpunch.

And, in less than a year, become champions.

In 1974 — the year after the gym got going — a battalion of firefighters responded to a massive apartment fire in West St. Paul. After the building was mostly evacuated and the firemen were readying themselves to battle the blaze, a large propane storage tank exploded. The building, along with the one next door, was engulfed in flames, and the blast was heard as far away as Afton, 15 miles east.

Three firefighters and a resident were killed. Nine more people were injured.

And so a benefit bout — in the West St. Paul Armory — was organized to help the families.

Firefighters eventually had to stop people at the door, with the crowd growing hazardously large. Still, dozens loitered outside, trying to catch a glimpse of the match.

One of the young men from the Rice Street Gym — a now renowned basement space that was turning out the toughest fighters in town — was set to fight one of the best amateur boxers in the nation.

Floyd Mayweather Sr. — the runner-up in the previous year's national Golden Gloves championship whose son would go on to become a pro boxing legend — arrived from Michigan with an entourage.

The day before, he told the St. Paul Dispatch he thought he was fighting "some farm kid from Minnesota."

That "farm kid" was actually Gary Holmgren, who'd been tossed around foster homes in the city's Selby-Dale neighborhood, before moving to the notorious McDonough housing projects on the edge of the city's North End.

During weigh-in, Holmgren confronted Mayweather. "You're in trouble pal. I grew up in the projects," Holmgren said.

"You're going down," Mayweather told him.

"We'll see," Holmgren replied.

Holmgren stepped into the ring in his worn tennis shoes, frayed trunks and a bathrobe he stole from a nearby Holiday Inn. Mayweather wore a glamorous red, white and blue velvet robe, and had tassels on the laces of his boxing shoes.

As the bell rang, Mayweather advanced with a long left jab.

The match lasted a slip, and two punches — a pair of left hooks that would soon earn Holmgren the nickname "The Hammer."

"Holmgren needed less than a round to dispose of his opponent," the St. Paul Dispatch reported. Mayweather woke on a stretcher, halfway to the door.

"Did I just do that?" Holmgren said out loud.

Following the fight, local restaurateur Nick Mancini approached Holmgren.

"You look like a bum," Mancini said.

"I am a bum. I'm from the projects," Holmgren replied.

"We're going to clean you up," Mancini said. He promptly bought Holmgren a velvet robe of his own, along with some new trunks and boxing shoes.

Holmgren had earned the match in part because — along with Struss — he'd garnered the Golden Gloves Upper Midwest Championship title the year before. The year the basement gym started, the five fighters who used it won the privilege to represent St. Paul in the championship bouts.

Following the benefit bout, Holmgren and Struss won the 1974 championship titles as well.

Then the building with the basement got bought.

Certainly, things happened after the gym. Holmgren immediately went pro, earning a career tally of 109 wins and eight losses, with 79 KOs, before retiring at 34. He then became a St. Paul firefighter, serving 22 years and earning the rank of captain. He's now in the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame.

After a short run in the pros with a 4-3-1 record, Struss moved to Alaska and earned good money as a sheet metal worker, before returning to St. Paul to become a union organizer in the trade.

As for the gym, several years ago, Greg Brendemuehl — who lives next door to the two-story space at 263 Front Ave., a few blocks west of Rice Street — purchased it.

He wasn't sure what he wanted to put in: a day care, maybe? But one had just opened up down the street. Perhaps assisted living. There were already a few apartments upstairs.

Instead, he decided on a fitness center, calling it the "5 Minute Fitness Gym," and took on a few trainers. A wrestler himself, Brendemuehl wanted to expand, and thought — why not that basement?

The ceiling had been removed, so it wasn't as low. But otherwise it was just as dingy as before.

Ted Natus, who owns the nearby Hamernicks Furniture, heard about the effort and remembered what used to be there. He contacted a few of the old boxers, and Struss — who lives in Oakdale — popped in and told Brendemuehl about the basement's history.

"Reminds me of fight club," said Brendemuehl, who promptly took Struss on as a trainer.

The plan is to clean and remodel the basement into a boxing space, perhaps with old paraphernalia, or perhaps with an "underground, graffiti" feel, Bredemuehl said.

Natus, who's also a philanthropist of sorts, is backing the effort, trying to get some funding for it.

"It will get done — we'll make sure of it," he said. "Anything we can do to help these kids, we'll make sure of it." Just in case, Brendemuehl has put up a fundraising page, with a $12,000 goal, at gofundme.com/5minutefitnessboxing.

Holmgren attests to the ability of boxing gyms to get kids off the street. When he was a teen, he was in fights all the time — once even killing a man, which a judge ruled was in self defense.

Still, after Holmgren knocked out a kid at St. Paul's old Strand Theater for kicking the back of his seat during a show, the police officer who picked him up — his third run-in with Holmgren — dropped him off at a downtown boxing gym instead of jail.

"He said, 'You gotta quit fighting here on the street,' and just left me there. If not for that, who knows where I'd be? I'd probably be in Stillwater prison," Holmgren said.

Holmgren, 67, said he's thinking of being a trainer at the new gym, but he'll see which direction it goes.

But Struss, 68, says he's committed.

"I'm gonna give it everything I got," he said.