One person's thoughts may change the world
You’re looking at a rare t-shirt, which has never been worn by me. I’ve owned it since the mid-80’s, but have never worn it. Why? I don’t know. It’s in very good shape, and I guess I wanted something to remember the place by, that place is Armento’s Gym. Tony Armento’s gym, or health studio was before its time. It sat on east 7 mile road, just west of the i-75 freeway. His gym was at the forefront of workout and being healthy before it became vogue. Tony Armento participated in Mr. Universe in the 40’s, long before Arnold Schwarzenegger came on the seen. He was a powerfully built, stocky Italian, handsome and proud of his gym.
Armento’s gym had all kinds of contraptions in it, most made by Tony himself. There was this one machine that no one ever used, I imagine Tony may have used it at one time but it just sat there, in the way, collecting dust. Another standard in the gym was the one bench that had a permanent set of 45lb plates welded to it. That’s right, WELDED. It was assumed 135lbs was a warm up set for you. If you were new and worked out on that bench, people would be working out and doing there thing but a silent eye was cast upon you to see if you could do the standard 225lb press, minimum 5 times. Once you did that, you joined the silent club of being a real patron of the gym, and not just a summer 3 month special chump. Otherwise, you were relegated to the bench no one wanted to use, which sucked big time. The gym brought in a cast of characters, people used that gym like a champ, regular long time patrons, especially in the summer. College football players, police, students, former bodybuilders, bodybuilder wanna bees, and…. drug dealers. I’ll get to that in a moment.
“Hey Jabone”, Tony would say to you when you walked into the gym. Everyone assumed it was some Italian lingo that no one ever questioned. The thing is, he called everyone Jabone, but, you knew when he was talking to you. “Hey Jabone, rack those weight back”, he would say. “Bring a lock jabone, it only takes one bad apple”. “Try some icy hot jabone on those joints after a workout”. Those kinds of comments and many more. “Hey, here comes Bumpa and the boys”, he would say when Bumpa showed up to the gym. “Hey, Buck, where are your boys at?”. Tony’s gym was located in an area that was one time mostly the white labor class of Detroit. Tony was one of those hard working guy types who worked hard, enjoyed the gym, provided a service to the community and got along with everyone. The area the gym was in evolved and changed. By the time I started working out there with some of my football friends from high school, like anything else in Detroit south of 8 mile, the demographics changed. He clientele, which was probably mostly white, was now a mix of white and black, some white college and regular students, but a haven for police officers, a certain type of police officer, or police officer wanna be. Another interesting thing was, steroid use was ramped amongst certain groups within the gym. The police officers, police offer wanna bees, some body builders, including Buck.
Bumpa was a white police officer, a bodacious white officer whom in my opinion, had a stereotype of black people. I believed he was on the force when “STRESS” officers ( Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets ). They killed 17 people in 4 years and were eventually disbanded. He was big, 6′,4″ and if he was on steroids, I would not have been surprised. His warm up was with 225lbs, which was the standard in the gym. He was a pain in the ass, as well, typically standing behind you while you did your squats, pretending to admire you, saying, “Those are some mighty strong gluts you have there jabone”. The problem was, you didn’t know if he was kidding, and you weren’t big enough to deal with the guy.
Buck was “A riddle wrapped up within an enigma”, if Winston Churchill had analyzed him. I didn’t know much about his personal life, but he did win Mr. Michigan, a coveted title for those wanting to go on to the professional level of body building. Ron Love, who was a former Detroit police officer who used bodybuilding as a rehab tool to get back in shape after being shot in the leg had major success at the pro level, even competing against Arnold Schwarzenegger, placing as high as 8th at the Mr. Olympia competition and winning many regional and European titles. Ron was the Detroit model to follow. Buck wasn’t a police officer, but worked at the original Powerhouse Gym that Ron had an affiliation with, which was a few miles down the street and one block away from 6 mile road on Woodward ave in Highland Park. That’s where the big boys rolled, pro football players, bodybuilders, boxers, and those who were taking advantage of what was then, the first of the big box weight gyms in the area serving the general public, catching the wave of Gold’s gym of that period. People came from everywhere to workout there. It was big, set up in a former grocery store, with Buck working his shift there ( strangely, I had a membership at both places, Armento’s and Powerhouse). So I would see Buck working at Powerhouse, then see him working out at Armento’s, sometimes in the same day. The body building world back then was stealthy and secretive, guys didn’t even want you to see them working out, let alone showing off any parts of their body. Buck never worked out at Powerhouse and would have on sweats from head to toe in 95 degree heat. Oh, by the way, Armento’s had no air conditioning, just that big fan in the front of the gym.
Buck’s sweatshirt and pants couldn’t hide his strength though. He was a very powerful individual, able to do “good mornings” ( a workout routine you will have to look up for yourself ), with 225lbs as a warmup. Curls with 100lb dumbbells. I had seen him bench 365lbs with no spot, multiple reps. He also wore an earring in his ear in the early 80’s which wasn’t that much of a fashion statement back then in the Midwest, but, who was going to challenge Buck on his manhood? So Buck, riding the wave of winning Mr. Michigan more than once, worked himself up to going out to California, to Arnold-land, to compete with the big boys, and get the big money that came with it. He was huge, looked the part, and had the world in front of him. He was ripped. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out that way.
With Buck gone, Bumpa was even more obnoxious. Bad and racist jokes, arrogance, and being a bad influence on others was getting to be too much. After complaints from other gym members, many from long time patrons was enough that Tony banned Bumpa from the gym. The steroid use had spread around as well, to a gym rat police wanna be, Flex. Flex went from a above average weight lifter to a steroid lifting police academy graduate beast. He was the wrong guy walking around with a .357 Magnum, just like his hero Bumpa. And like his hero, Flex was banned from Armento’s, for even more rambunctious behavior than his predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, Armento’s gym had many upstanding and long time members, but, with any place, normal people don’t make good story to write about, it’s the abnormal ones that draw us in.
Soon after that, Buck was back from California. But this time, it was a different Buck. Buck’s dreams of competing in the big time were crushed by the cesspool of ramped steroid use in California. He lacked height as well, which was the same issue Franko Columbu dealt with in his era. But Franko had something Buck didn’t, a point in time. Franko won the Mr. Universe title before Arnold did, and was also a good friend to Arnold. They trained together, did steroids together, and eventually finishing second to Arnold, the greatest ever wasn’t half bad. Frank also had Gold’s gym as a sponsor, a big boost. Buck, on the other hand, was in dire need of a sponsor, and was relegated to working, trying to workout and compete, and coming up short in expensive California. Buck had to come back home, to which was now crack city, Detroit. The drug wave hit Detroit hard. Crack was taking over neighborhoods, and making large sums of money for those who did it. Users, Drug runners, “mid-level drug dealers” as they called themselves were everywhere. Buck got caught up in it as well, but, as something he was cut out for, an enforcer.
Buck was now driving up to the gym in a brand new tricked out car of that era, and he and his crew made no bones about what they did. To the police who were still working out at the gym, they knew who he was. They knew him before when he was just a bodybuilder. But somehow, Armento’s was their neutral territory, a place where they could have mutual respect for each other, but as one policeman put it, “I know who he is, and he knows who I am, and if I catch him out on the street, his ass is mine, I’ll have no compunction to arrest him or take him out”.
To make a long story short, Flex got hold of some bad steroids, slipped into kidney failure and eventually died. Buck on an attempted hit on an individual who owed drug money, killed a guy and attempted to behead him to send a message that he was the real deal. After not completing the job, he tried to burn the house down only for the police to find prints on the tool he used to behead the person. He was arrested, convicted and eventually died in prison in late 90’s. TonyArmento, eventually retired, and passed away in 2011 after being in business for over 40 years, working at Chrysler, and placing 6th in Mr. America contest in 1942.
All that from the memory of a T-shirt, and a great gym before its time, and from the greatest jabone in the world, Tony Armento….