Monday, February 3, 2014

A visit to the Bumblebee Boxing Club

I drive down on MLK Way to pay homage to my home gym, the Bumblebee Boxing Club, the place where it all started 9 years ago. The gym has changed over the years. The entrance is now through the backside of the building, a crack usually left open for the fighters that show up late. I approach the door but it’s shut completely, so I make my way to the side and try to go through the main entrance, but that’s closed as well. The gym, after all, is just one small room inside the Union Gospel Mission, the organization that owns the building and held after school programs, or something where kids were running around all the time back when I was training. I never really knew what the Mission was officially. I didn’t know if it was a church, a social services program, or a community center. I just knew they took care of people. 

I try knocking on the door to grab the attention of the janitor, but he must be listening to music or just ignoring me. The backdoor bursts open and I run to try and catch it. A big, lumbering fighter is strolling out. I ask him if the gym is open. He tells me it is.

“Nasty! You back baby?” he says after getting a better look at me.

“Yeah, for the moment,” I say. I think I vaguely remember him, actually, I don’t. He must of been one of the fighters when I was just popping in and out doing photo projects, no longer seriously training. We give each other an embrace and he walks me in, telling me that he hopes to see me come back to the gym. 

I walk down the hall and hear the sounds, the rustling chains above a swaying heavy bag, the repetitious whip of a rope skipping against a matted floor. The bells: three rings for the start, one for the thirty-second warning, and three more for the end. There’s a sound of sweat behind those walls - people panting, shoes shuffling, fighters training. I take a look on the sign posted on the door before I open it: “This is a safe zone. All are welcome here.” I smile at its continued presence and turn the doorknob. The heat of the room fogs my glasses as I step in.

“Nasty Nick Wong!!!” Coach yells the second I set foot inside. He limps across the room to give me a hug. He wasn’t on a cane this time around. Coach had been going on and off the cane ever since I knew him, but the fact that he was legally paralyzed twice, I’d say he was doing pretty damn well for himself with only a limp, cane or no cane. We do the traditional Bumblebee Handshake: palm slap up, palm slap down, fist bump up, fist bump down, hold out the index finger, cross them twice, then touch elbows. A simultaneous “Bumblebee!” is said by both parties at the end. 

We sit down and catch up about life. I tell him about Brazil, tell him about Fight for Peace and all the boxing I was doing out there. He’s sitting there nodding while at the same time paying close attention to the going-ons of the gym and yells out instructions and reprimands to the boxers when needed.

“You! Over there! Are you fighting a midget?” Coach yells at one fighter on the heavy bag. The boxer keeps punching away. 

“Young man over there punching, I asked you a question!” Coach yells louder. The fighter stops and looks both ways, then gives Coach this look that kinda says, ‘Me?’ 

“Are you fighting a midget?” Coach asks again once he gets his attention.

“No…” the fighter said, a bit confused.

“Then get them hands up!” 

“Yes sir!” yells the fighter, and gets back to work. I smile at the memory of being yelled at by Coach. It was never anything personal, rather more like a rite of passage. I distinctly remember times where Coach would yell at me about things I knew I didn’t do wrong, in fact I had purposely focused on doing them right just to see if he’d yell at me. When he still did, inside I’d get angry, but just do whatever he told me anyway. After the anger subsided, I got what Coach was trying to teach me: Listen to your elders, to those who came before you, because they know things that your experience can’t yet imagine. And who knows, maybe I was doing something wrong the whole time.

A little tubby kid nervously waddles by with a scale in his arms. He’s maybe ten years old. Something about his demeanor tells me he’s a well-behaved kid, the way that he smiles and strolls across the room. There isn’t much aggression to his character. Something kind, something gentle, something that kids his age might view as a weakness rather than what it really is. He just returned from weighing himself in the changing room.

“How much you weigh?” Coach asks.

“97 pounds,” he answers. Coach nods his head.

“How much you weigh when you first got in here?” 

“117 pounds.” 

“Well see, you done lost 20 pounds now. You lookin’ good son.” 

The kid smiles a shy smile. He opens up a bit after that, starts talking about his day at school and things of a conversational nature. At one point he’s showing Coach a loose tooth, pressing it back and forth with his tongue. Coach sort of scrunches his face and says something to him about it being a sign of him growing up and becoming a man. I leave them to their conversation and start walking around.

I look to see if my picture is still on the wall. It is. A large 24x36 black and white photo taken before my first fight. The photo is near one of the legendary “Smokin’” Joe Frazier doing roadwork with some teammates. Coach was trained by Eddie Futch, the trainer of the former heavyweight champ and world class trainer Freddie Roach. Futch also trained four of the five men that beat Muhammad Ali. That kind of lineage says something about this place.

The photo next to it is of one of my old stablemates, Mohammad, who went to the same tournament where my first fight took place. I remember after I lost the fight (one in which most observers thought I won), Mohammad came up to me and said with a tinge of vengeance, “I’m gonna win this tournament for you, Nasty.” 

Mohammad won his first fight, was robbed in the next. We both went home losers at the end, but became better friends through the experience. Mohammad stuck around the gym for a couple more years then disappeared somewhere. I saw his cousin at a bus stop one time a few years back and asked about him. 

“Man, he out all the time, doing drugs, robbing people. His mom kicked him out the house,” his cousin Yusef told me. None of that fit the memory I had of Mohammad, but I guess time changes people. Sometimes life catches you. 

“Nasty!” I hear a voice from the corner yell out. It’s Luis, but around the gym we called him 'Gato'. Gato was around before my time. I think he was one of the first guys around when the gym opened up back in ’94. That’s the way gyms work. All of the boxers come from different generations, different teams. Our conception of the place is based on different people. Coach comes by and we all start reminiscing about the past. 

“How many people you start with Gato? Like 12?” Coach says. The words stand more like a statement then a question. “Out of all them guys, you the only one that stayed.” There’s a beaming grin of pride smeared across Gato’s face. “See, that’s all the boxing is. Staying around, sticking through it.” 

I nod in accordance to the words. I remember always seeing hoards of people sign up after a big fight had passed only for them to quit after a couple weeks. Training to be a boxer, after all, is incredibly boring. Most people think they’ll start out going toe-to-toe in a ring, but will be in shock when they’re told to throw a left jab for a month. In some ways, it’s to protect them, because you sure as hell can’t last inside a ring if you can’t last a month throwing your left arm into the air. It's just like Coach said, "Everyone want to call themselves a fighter, but nobody want to put in the work.

“Who’d you start with, Nasty?” Coach asks me.  

“Mohammad, Jumani, Omar, Minkas, and Chris,” I reply. Saying those names aloud was like reviving old spirits. I remember how all of them would help me through my first months as a boxer. There was always this sense of support with those guys, nothing discouraging, nothing judgmental, and everyone understood why someone would show up to do this day after day. But now I hardly recognize anyone in the gym. Most of them I’ve never seen before, but that same sense of wanting to make something better of yourself is still alive and well. A big guy walks by and Coach asks him how he feels.

“Tired, but good,” he grins.

“You losing some of that gut,” Coach tells him. The big guy looks down and smiles while smoothing his belly with both hands. 

“How much you weigh?” Coach asks. 

“'Bout 260,” he says.

“Yeah, you got at least 50lbs down there. You’ll get rid of it, just keep showin’ up,” Coach tells him. The boxer smiles at the prospect of the future.

“Yeah cuz you gonna be in the ring with me!” yells someone from the corner. A tall, muscular fighter with a huge head of braided hair pushes aside the heavy bag and joins the conversation. He’s young with plenty of bravado, but something about the way he moves tells me the slight hint of cockiness is harmless. 

“Boy, you better get in shape cuz I’m gonna be workin’ you!” he says while throwing some hooks into the air. 

“Just go for the face, not the stomach,” the big guy laughs.

“Man, if you gonna have that belly, you know I’m going for it!” the braided fighter shoots back.

“That’s right,” Coach chimes in. “You better give him less to hit.”

“Right, right,” the big guy grins, seemingly up for the challenge.

“What you be doing when you go out?" Coach asks. He's probing for lifestyle habits. "You be drinkin’? Smokin’?” 

The fighter scrunches his face. “Never smoked a day in my life,” he says.

“Are there any boxers that smoke?” the braided boxer asks.

“I think so,” says the big guy.

“Yeah, but they ain’t worth a shit,” Coach says. His words are the final ax to the conversation and their weight press onto these guys’ faces harder than any anti-smoking campaign ever could. 

Coach directs his attention at a new recruit, a small mixed kid, probably around the age of nine, doing some repetitions on an ab roller. His mother is sitting patiently in a chair across from Coach, legs crossed, hands placed on her lap. She has two stud piercings underneath her right eye. One black, one violet. She’s watching attentively as her son works out. 

“Why you wanna box?” Coach asks the kid.

“I wanna stay out of trouble,” he says. There’s a way he says it that makes it sound like he understands the words beyond his years.

“Like what? You be fightin’ a lot?” 

“No. I just talk a lot,” the kid says. Coach pauses for a moment and turns to the mother. 

“He be talkin’ back?” Coach asks.

“Yeah. He got anger issues, you know, his father not being around 'n all. So he’s angry about that,” the mother replies. Coach nods his head and goes back to the kid.

“You nice to your Mom?” Coach asks him.


“Cuz if you ain’t, Coach gon’ hear about it and you gon’ owe me pushups.” The kid nods his head and diligently continues on his workout. Gato comes by and reaffirms what Coach had just said. 

“Yeah man, cuz if Coach find out you be bad in school or talkin’ back to your mom, you gon’ be doing push ups, and I mean like this!” Gato gets down and starts doing some real military style pushups while yelling out, "One thank you Coach! Two thank you Coach!" The kid pauses and watches Gato push down the floor. “Not like this,” Gato continues. He starts mumbling indecipherable sounds, and doing some slumpy reps. “Cuz if you like this, Coach gon’ make you start all over!” The kid nods his head again, this time with a slight tinge of fear in his eye. 

“That’s right,” Coach chimes in. He looks over to the mother whose sitting on the chair, impressed, happy to see something catch her child’s attention. 

“Whatever happened to Evan?” I ask both Gato and Coach. Evan was my sparring partner at one point. We once traded left hooks in the ring and had respect for each other ever since. He used to always ride a bicycle and strolled it into the gym in such a manner that you could tell he was a responsible person. We called him 'The Natural' because he was just a overall gifted athlete. He had all the physical tools to be a good fighter, but the one thing that held him back was that he didn’t like to get hit. It’s not that in boxing you have to like getting hit, no one ever should, but it’s more like you accept that it’s part of the game and take it when it comes. Evan never really accepted that part. 

“Oh man, Evan ain’t there no more,” Gato says. He points to his temple and starts making clockwise circles with his index finger. “He got hit in the head with a baton by some security guard. Thirty-six stitches.”

Gato retells the story about how it was just him and Evan in the middle of a crowd of fallen cowboys hats after they had finished brawling at one of his cousins’ weddings. He told me how the whole thing started because his uncle was running around drunk, challenging people.

“I mean he fucked up, you know? He was acting drunk 'n stupid, pressin’ up on someone else’s woman, but he family, so we not gonna let him get his ass beat, you know?” Gato says. 

The brawl of course called the attention of the security and Evan, thinking it was yet another cowboy hatted foe, struck one of the guards with a punch. Hard. Within a matter of seconds the guard was bashing Evan in the head with a baton, to the point where people needed to pull him off for him to stop. Evan was a bloody mess and laid unconscious in a ER bed for three days. He got right back into trouble the week after he was released.

“He pulled the gun out of a cop’s holster and told them, ‘You better kill me! You better kill me! If you don’t kill me, I’ma kill myself,’” Gato recounts. “He woke up in the madhouse the next day in Tacoma. Hasn’t been right ever since.” 

I look over in the corner and Coach is shaking his head with a displeased look on his face. Maybe upset at the news, or because he was too used to hearing stories like this. Probably both. 

“Yeah, me and Evan are like brothers. I’ve known that guy since I was in 7th grade,” Gato continues. He smiles with a bit of pride of still having known someone for so long. It quickly fades after the memories of the story catch up. “Yeah I try to get him out the house now. Like I tell him, ‘Yeah man, there’s a BBQ today at my uncle’s house. Everyone’s gonna be there.’ But he never comes. He’s like uhh…what you call it? A recluse. Yeah. He don’t want to see nobody no more.”

I’m sad at the news. Evan was never really a friend or anything, but he was someone I once knew and liked, and now wasn’t doing well. We talk about other fighters of the past. Some of them bring tales of tragedy like Evan’s, others we kind of laugh at their slight misfortune, the ones that betrayed the gym. But it was always a mishap related to their life in the ring, never anything outside of it. For the most part, guys in the gym want each other to be doing well. Talk inside the fight game is one matter, but in life, that’s another. None of us ever wanted to hear a fighter doing poorly in their life. That is, after all, the real fight. 

I tell Coach about Omar, my first sparring partner. A stocky Somalian kid who was strong as a bull. I remember he knocked the wind out of me the first time I ever sparred. The profuse apology he gave as I was gasping for air on my knees told me he was a good guy. Omar would have been a great boxer, he just liked to eat. His ideal weight was in the 152lb weight class, but he could never make it there. He always fought at 165lb, even one time at 178lbs, and those extra pounds cost him. He quit boxing because of the losses, but it never really seemed to bother him. Now he has a stable factory job, a wife and two children, and from what I’m told, he’s happy working everyday. If it’s the same Omar I remember, I can see the smile on his face as he does it. 

“Man, that makes me happy,” Coach says. “To hear my fighters doing good outside. That’s important.” 

I give a look around the gym before I leave. The same motivational posters are still plastered on the walls, ones that say things like, “Fatigue makes cowards of men” or “If you’re good at making excuses, you’re seldom good at anything else”. I think about all the time I spent in this place, how I’d show up after work, after school, sit in traffic for two hours just to make it here. Nothing else mattered when it came to the gym, just as long as it didn't stop me from showing up. I think about all the other things I could have gotten myself into in exchange for the time I spent training. I probably would have killed someone, or gotten myself killed in that process, and I say this without arrogance or exaggeration. I was, and in many ways still am, an angry kid, but something about the gym made you feel less empty. It was a refuge, for those seeking shelter, and it taught me a lot about becoming a person I could believe in. But I think the most important thing that it taught me, was to care about other people, and when I think about all that I've done since I first started, I owe this place my life. 

I move towards the door, nearly on the brink of tears after all the thoughts and memories pass through my mind. I take a final glance at the fighters training on the floor, think about how all of this is a process of change, even if those involved are not yet aware of it. I can't seem to find the right words to express my gratitude as I leave, but I have to say something.

“I remember I used to come here everyday, Coach,” I finally say. “It was like my second home.”

“Man, we family here, Nasty,” Coach says. “You know you always got a place.” 

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