Monday, November 15, 2021

Thank You for Everything, Coach B.

There are many reasons why a person decides to walk into a boxing gym. There are those that believe they are the next great champ. Others want to stop being bullied. Some are just looking for a place to be safe. But the one thing in common with everyone who trains at a boxing gym is that they are searching for a stronger version of themselves, and your coach is the one who helps you find it.

I started boxing when I was 20-years-old, which in boxing years is considerably late. At the time, I didn't know what I wanted in life and wouldn't have known how to get it if I did. I was lost and somewhat scared of the world, and this combination caused an overwhelming anxiety in my everyday life. One of the first times I remember that feeling calming away was when I watched boxing on television so I figured that there might be something there.

I started by calling up a few of the local gyms. Most of them would tell me about the location, the hours and the dues. All pretty straight forward and business-like. Then I called up Coach Bumblebee. The first thing he asked me was my last name.

"Wong? Oh, you Chinese?" he asked.

"Yeah..." I hesitated. Normally I'd say Taiwanese but I was nervous.

"Oh I got a bunch of kids that are Chinese!" Coach yelped. "And boy can they fight!"

"Really? You got Chinese fighters?"

"Yeah son. Boxing is for everyone. I got all kinds of people here."

I showed up at the Union Gospel Mission the very next day. Initially, I was bit confused. There were no signs indicating that any sort of boxing happened there, and not being from the neighborhood, I had to ask someone about it. I was then led to a black door with a square wood sign with "Bumblebee Boxing Club" engraved in yellow letters and words below reading: "This is a safe zone. All are welcome here."

To my novice eyes, the place didn't look like much when I stepped in. It was maybe 500-square feet of space and 95% of everything was held together by duct-tape. In the corner was a makeshift ring with garden hoses for ropes and a couple of creaky wood cabinets that held all the gear. But whatever the gym lacked in equipment was made up by Coach's presence. The moment I walked in he jumped up and said, "You the Chinese kid I talked to on the phone yesterday, ain't ya?"

Coach gave me a quick tour of the place, introduced me to a few of the fighters, and then broke down how training worked. He went through the workout list which consisted of push-ups, sit-ups, crunches, neckrolls, jumping jacks, lunges, a 5-mile run, ring circles, shadowboxing, heavy bag, double-end bag, speed bag, bob-and-weave rope, maize bag,  jump rope, and finished off with jumping buckets. Coach told me I could do the run before I came to the gym if I wanted to, but as long as I was training there, roadwork had to be done five, if not six, days a week. Then he showed me the push-up poster.

Forgetting your hand-wraps would cost you 200. Sitting down 150. Answering in a non "yes" or "no" answer was another 200 and half of that for not having your shirt tucked in. But the one that probably cost you the most - so much that it wasn't even written on the list but sure as hell existed - is if your mother came in and told Coach that you talked back to her. That was something you most definitely wanted to avoid.

I partook in my share of pushups.  At first, they were real infractions. I'd forget to ask permission before I went to the bathroom or forgot to call Coach when I missed a day at the gym, but after a while it felt a bit arbitrary. I remember during one sparring session Coach was threatening pushups if I dropped my hands so I intentionally pasted my hands against my chin for the rest of the round. I didn't even throw a punch so I knew there was no way in hell I dropped by hands, but Coach made me do the pushups anyways. I thought about speaking back, but thought better of it. I was a bit sour for the first twenty or so, but after that, I realized they were just pushups and got over it. That's when I learned that you listen to Coach, even if you think he's wrong, because in the big picture, Coach wasn't wrong. Everything that he did for us was in our benefit, regardless if we couldn't see it at the time. Like Coach might yell at you but he would never put you down. He was all about building up his fighters and he would never let you give up on yourself. "Champions in Life" was the motto.

In total, I trained there consistently for a little over two years, then I drifted in and out for another year or so after traveling abroad. I can't say that I was ever meant to be a serious contender, but the time I spent in the gym is probably the single best investment that I've ever made in my life. It's hard to fully describe the accumulated experience of training with Bumblebee, or as my teammate Robel simply puts it, "You had to be there". But it was one of the first things I did where I noticed tangible change in my character. There I learned how to wake up early, run when I didn't feel like it, and eat bananas and ice cubes for dinner to make weight. I learned about discipline and the beauty of sacrifice. Essentially, boxing introduced me to the concept of self-mastery - perhaps the single most important ideal one can strive for - and Coach was the one that showed me the path.

In 2008, I won a university scholarship to travel the world, and in my proposal I said that I would box in all the places I visited, which I did. I sparred with skills levels ranging from the complete novice to Olympic-level candidates, and for 3 months, I was the principle sparring partner to the #1 professional boxer in Peru where I held my own. The only reason I was able to pull any of that off was because of Coach B. I remember when I would train in different gyms, people would always ask me why I didn't sit down in between rounds. "Because then I'll have do pushups," I'd say to them.

That experience eventually led me to Rio de Janeiro where I volunteered with a non-profit boxing gym that used the sweet science to deter youth from joining drug factions in the favelas, and now, Brazil has more or less set the projection of my foreseeable future. Boxing was what lead me there.

Coach B passed away a few weeks ago and I'm still struggling to accept that he's no longer around. To be honest, I find it a bit strange to be feeling this way because I hadn't been keeping up with Coach in his final years, but I guess it was just comforting to know that there was always someone out there who had your back, because if Coach considered you one of his fighters, he had your back regardless. I look back on what Coach was trying to teach us and constantly question what he would think if he saw me in my lesser moments. Every time I speak back to my mom, for instance, I feel like I am letting Coach down. I guess that is one way that his words will live on with me forever.

These past two years have been difficult. I lost two good friends in 2019, my father a year later and now Coach B. I’m getting to that age where you start losing the people around you and the fear of being alone starts to creep in. I can’t even imagine what it is like for those who experience this kind of loss much earlier in life. But those were the exact sort of kids that showed up at Coach’s door because he provided a sense of presence. I remember how he used to buy a cake every month for the boxers that had their birthday because some of them never got one at home. One time, I met with a local photographer who had a project visiting all the boxing gyms in the area and he broke down what he found at each one.

"Gym are about different things. Most of the gyms are about running a business. Tacoma Boxing Club is about winning championships. Bumblebee is about serving the community."

You goddamn right he is.

Ever since my father passed away, I've been pressing up against a lot of fear. I fear making the wrong decisions in moving my life forward. I fear failing my father's legacy and squandering the opportunities he left through the sacrifices in his life. I fear not fulfilling my duty to his memory.

I try to imagine bringing this up to Coach. He might not understand the specifics, but he would most definitely understand the fear. Coach understood that everyone had the ability to overcome fear if they just dug deep enough within themselves, because if there's anything Coach believed in, it was in his fighters. He believed that if you were a Bumblebee, you could do anything, so he would tell me that no matter what it was, I could do it. That's what I think Coach would say to me now.

Then he would probably go make me do push-ups because I was doubting myself.