Charles King believes it takes three years to make a fighter—to take someone who has never boxed before, is probably out of shape and low on confidence, and through hours of excruciating physical and mental training send them into the ring more disciplined, prepared to both inflict and receive punches.
When he was starting out as a trainer more than 30 years ago, and he was just opening a boxing gym, King used to think that three years was a long time—that it was a lot of time to invest in one boxer. But after seeing the lives that have changed after young people have walked off the East Oakland streets and into King’s Gym, those three years just fly by now.
“That’s the reward you get, to see somebody grow in that capacity, a kid who couldn’t do much before,” said King, 70, as he sat in an office with walls covered in boxing posters of Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. His desk is covered in photos of boxers he’s known over the years, like a smiling Evander Holyfield standing next to the rapper MC Hammer.
“Then you go out to a restaurant,” he said, “and see somebody you helped maybe six years ago, and someone walks up to your table and they say, ‘King, is that you? Remember me? You got me in the gym, you did me a favor. Look, here’s my family.’”
“It’s amazing, man,” King continued. “The reason we’re here is to save lives.”
King, soft-spoken and thin, is a Boston native and a retired Union Pacific Railroad worker who still works out at the gym and trains boxers as well. In the three decades he has operated a boxing gym, he’s traveled the country with boxers he’s trained, met some of the most famous fighters in the world (like Joe Frazier, who brought his son in to train at King’s gym in the 1980s) and became the owner of the leading boxing gym in the area, which opened in the 1980s in East Oakland. (MC Hammer’s video for “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” was filmed at the first incarnation of King’s, when it was 23rd and East 14th.)
What matters most for King, he said, is not the fame or travel, but to have helped a kids looking for answers find something worthwhile. “You take a troubled kid from the street and bring him here, and all of a sudden, he wakes up,” King said.
That’s a common sentiment among both trainers and boxers at King’s Gym, which now operates out of a square warehouse building where 35th Avenue dead ends, right off the 880 freeway in the Fruitvale district. The gym is a draw for professional boxers—former Olympian Andre Ward is one of eight current pro fighters who train there— and amateurs who want to give the sport a try.
Many come to the gym from all over the Bay Area to pummel the various-sized dark punching bags hanging from the ceiling, spar with an opponent in the bright blue ring that has a huge banner with Ward’s name behind it, or lift weights with the assistance of one of the gym’s 10 trainers. The gym is open on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the loud popping sound of gloves meeting the bags or other gloves echoes throughout the place all day.
Many of those who show up for hours every day are kids from the neighborhood who are looking for something to do, to find an outlet for their energy. They find it at King’s, a gym that functions as its own little universe, where nothing but hard work, full effort and a lot of sweat matters once someone walks in through the door. The outside world, and its problems and challenges, often feel far away. People of all ages walk in thinking they’re tough, only to find out just how un-tough they are, and then begin getting stronger.
“It makes me be a better person, not just in boxing but in my regular life,” said Isidora “Osito” Oseguera, a 17-year-old Encinal High senior who has been boxing at the gym for two years. “It makes me think twice before doing something and realize a lot of things, to consider everything.”
When Oseguera started boxing two years ago, he was a pudgy 210 pounds and “doing stuff [he] wasn’t supposed to be doing,” he said. After dedicating himself to boxing, and spending hours in the gym working with an experienced trainer, 78-year-old Joe “Spider” Burke, Oseguera has lost 45 pounds, found a passion and a place to belong.
Now, Burke said, he doesn’t have to tell Oseguera to do the work; he motivates himself. “That’s one of the key ingredients for anyone who wants to be a boxer, you have to be disciplined,” Burke said as he watched Oseguera work on a punching bag, his brow furrowed and eyes zeroed in on the bag as it swayed back and forth with each smack. “You have to be willing to do the work, and disciplined enough to stay with it.”
Burke said Oseguera’s story isn’t unique—another one of the boxers Burke trains also went from being soft and overweight to confident and chiseled, in a year-
and-a-half of work. The trainer said he can hardly recognize this boxer now. “He’s really taken to boxing, and I think one of the reasons is, it’s the first time he’s done something well and gotten the recognition for it,” Burke said. “It turns out he’s quite good at this.”
James Buggs, a trainer at the gym and an East Oakland native, knows exactly what Burke is talking about. Buggs retired from professional boxing nearly three years ago, but knew he couldn’t live without the sport, so he became a trainer. He said when he started boxing as a teenager, he was hanging around the neighborhood too much and getting in to trouble. Then he started coming into King’s, joined the Navy, and found a career.
“Boxing for me and a lot of people is like therapy,” Buggs said. “You’re angry about something, whatever you’re upset about—come in the gym, after you get out of here, it doesn’t even matter anymore. All that energy you use being upset or angry, goes into this bag, or goes into the ring when you’re sparring. It means nothing no more.”
While the training is arduous—hours of weight lifting, running, and punching, all with someone hovering nearby to make sure the technique is correct—actually getting in the ring and facing an opponent takes a different kind of courage. Oseguera, like a lot of novice boxers, hasn’t yet entered the ring yet for a fight. Burke had a bout recently set up with another 175-pound fighter, but Oseguera told him he didn’t want to fight at that weight, that he would be more comfortable fighting at a lesser weight where he’d be faster and fight someone a little smaller.
Adam Ross, an 18-year-old Fruitvale native who bikes to the gym from his house for a couple hours a few times a week, said he understands how Oseguera feels. Ross has been boxing for two years. He shook his head and said it’s “really intense” and a unique feeling to get in the ring with an opponent to spar.
“It’s that time when everything is moving so fast, so you have to slow down your mind and focus, while people are swinging at you,” Ross said.
Ross said the first time he sparred with an opponent, his body was sore for two or three days after. But instead of shying away, the pain motivated him, he said. He began eating better, and focusing more on the sport. He’s a student at Laney College now, studying architecture, and said now all he does is box and then “go home and pretty much read.” He’s also taking a French class because he said he wants to become fluent. He credits boxing with helping organize his life.
“Once you spar, you see your defects,” Ross said. “It makes you either run away from boxing or keep going.”
King said seeing kids’ lives change is what motivates him to spend 12 hours at the gym five days a week, save for the short breaks he takes to go get a cup of coffee. He looks forward to taking a kid who thinks no one believes in him and turning him into the next Andre Ward.
“Most of these people have never been under any kind of authority, and no one ever told them they were a nice kid and all that,” King said. “We do just the opposite. And you know what really gets them? When you tell them that they’re the future. They’re like, ‘I am?’ So that’s what we do.”