by Derek Kalaaukahi
It was a warm December day turned cold because I found myself on the losing end of a sparring match with a dangerous foe…myself. Sad stories about life’s ups and downs are best saved for a Hallmark movie, so let’s just say that I was looking for a lighthouse to help me find my way through the storm which had become my life. Fate and destiny can be the biggest bitches in the world, but guiding lights they would become on that day, a day in which I would find sanctuary, as well as a savior.
Drifting in a barrio section of the city which was once Park Avenue some fifty years ago, I came across a row of broken down business warehouses. These warehouse looked palatial in the memory of a hundred year old city resident, but they looked like slums in my eyes on that day. One of those little warehouses stood out like a tombstone in a cemetery full of wooden crosses. Engraved on the tombstone read “Boxing Gym.” It would seem as if the little house of dreams could see the despair in my eyes as it actually called for me to go inside. It was like Mama calling for me the first time I fell off my bike.
The smell of the place almost turned me away; it reeked so bad that you could almost see the air itself. The musty smell of sweat and blood tested those strong enough to take a few more steps into the light. A quick leap of faith showed a litany of saints such as Ali, Frazier and Sugar Ray forever immortalized on boxing posters that covered the shrine walls. Tyson and Duran glared from the entrance as they dared the weak to take just a few more steps to glory.
High noon was the time as I walked inside the place feeling like Doc Holliday. If you had eyes from the heart, you could almost see all the ghosts of the combatants that had come before, still throwing punches. Jump ropes hung from the walls like sleeping snakes that only woke up for the champions at heart. Heavy bags pieced together with gray duct tape hung from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. The ring where the gladiators fought their demons laid in the middle of the gym on a raised platform. Those with courage needed only three steps to find their way out of hell, but the timid saw those same steps as a stairway to heaven. It’s inside the ring where you sometimes stand alone with your arms raised. Sometimes though you find yourself kneeling before an adversary like a sinner seeking redemption from a saint. A boxing gym, as I would soon learn, is a church for those with no religion but self-preservation. I felt at ease, I felt at home.
“How you doin’?”
I was startled by strong yet soothing sound of a man’s voice coming from behind me as if God were speaking to Moses. I turned around expecting a burning bush, but black Jesus stood before me instead. I was face to face with a tall stout black man with arms and legs that would make a tree green with envy. Gray woolen hair and a lumbering walk hinted that at this man’s six decades on Earth.
Rank air turned rose scented, and the boxers inside the posters came to life as Don introduced himself. Don was a former boxer who trained the incorrigible of society, like myself. I felt comfortable telling this stranger about my plight, looking for something to believe in, something to shoot for…a purpose in life. Don had gone through his own rollercoasters in life, and he gave a sermon about how boxing had saved his soul…by giving him purpose as well. He preached that boxing is discipline mixed with pain and sweat, a template that I would take with me the rest of my life.
“Make this place your home,” said the minister.
Don would become my coach and mentor, but more importantly he would become my friend who taught me many things inside and outside the ring which would help me become someone better than the loser who first walked in that gym. Don harped that boxing is not about sport, it’s about finding courage to step through the ropes and face the challenges of life.
Five years have passed since I crossed that threshold of hooks and uppercuts. I’ve held no title belt, but a champion I’ve become. I am now the greatest, the greatest me that I can be. My church is there for those seeking salvation from the past. My church welcomes sinners and saints alike, and sacrifice pays the tithe.