Thirteen-year-old Romeo Jamal Cane is a wiry kid with big, searching brown eyes that belie his otherwise-combat-ready expression. His typical uniform includes gray sweatpants, black Nike sneakers, a white T-shirt long enough to be a nightgown, and a pair of black Title boxing gloves. Every day when classes let out at San Lorenzo's Bohannon Middle School, Cane sprints two miles to the house of his boxing trainer, Jim Dill. Usually three or four other kids accompany him, but Cane always gets there first, Dill said. He's the venom.
Dill drives the group over to King's Gym, a large, warehouse-y building on a narrow residential street in Fruitvale, next to the I-880 freeway. There, Cane stretches for ten minutes, then shadowboxes, then hits the bags for two or three rounds, then gets "mitted" — meaning he has Dill hold up a pair of mitts so he can punch them, as though he were slugging an imaginary opponent. Finally, he gets in the ring and spars with someone. The young boxer's practices usually run about four hours, until his uncle swings by at 8 p.m. to pick him up. What began as a hobby three years ago quickly became an all-consuming obsession.
Now Cane is a favored contender for this year's junior Olympic tournament, a regional competition held this weekend at King's Gym. Last year he fought in the junior Olympics as a fill-in, but didn't get very far after losing his first fight. Since then, he's trained rigorously and fought in a number of practice bouts called smoker tournaments. In February he had a grudge match against the kid who beat him in the 2007 Olympics. This time, Cane won. Dill said he wouldn't be surprised if Cane creams everyone in his weight class this year, and goes on to fight in the nationals.
Cane's story resembles that of many kids who wind up in the sepia-toned newspaper clippings tacked to the walls of King's Gym. He started boxing in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina forced him to evacuate his home in Beaumont, Texas and move to his aunt's house in Hayward. When Cane talks about the move it looks like he's fighting back tears. Most of his family still lives in Texas, he said, so he only sees his mom and siblings during summer vacations. He uses boxing as a way of taking out stress, but also as a social vehicle. A lot of the kids who come and train at King's Gym are around Cane's age. His seventeen-year-old cousin John comes regularly to work out, too, and helps Cane improve his left and right hook, or his uppercut jabs. Dill, who learned to box at the East Oakland Boys' Club back in the 1970s, taught Cane how to put up a stout defense in the ring. Dill seems like a surrogate dad.
The gym smells of stale sweat and synthetic leather. The sound of gloves pummeling the giant punching bags wafts over a bubbly pop R&B soundtrack. All the barbells, bench presses, and exercise bikes lie in one section, where some guys warm up and lift, while other chill out and talk. Autographed posters of world champion wrestlers and famous pugilists — including 2004 Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward, who's trained at King's since he was ten years old — decorate the walls, alongside faded newspaper clippings and fliers advertising matches that happened years ago. International flags hang from the ceiling.
Charles King presides over everything, tall and lanky, clad in jeans and a baseball cap. King grew up in Boston and moved to the Bay Area in the 1960s, after a stint in the Navy. Around that time he started training at the now-defunct New Oakland Boxing Gym on 12th and Franklin streets, and quickly fell in love with the sport. His son Tyrone, who also served in the Navy, was San Francisco's reigning Golden Glove champion in '78 and '79. Tyrone retired his gloves after a few years, but still talks about his days as a fighter. King, on the other hand, treats boxing as a lifelong passion. He opened the first King's Gym back in 1984, roughly a mile from its current location. Back then, the rent was only $500 a month, the equipment was limited to punching bags and a ring, and the clientele was a lot more specific. "At one time it was just fighters and a few pros," he said. "You wouldn't fight, they wouldn't talk to you."
But times have changed. King bought his new gym in 1990, and now gets a mixed clientele. "Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, they all come in," he said. "Blue collars, white-collar workers, the gym can't survive off just fighters." The gym also has a few women mixed into its majority-male clientele — some of whom come in just to ride the exercise bikes, and others who hit the bags. Some people treat Mr. King as a life coach as well as a trainer.
"In this game you have to know how to listen, how to look at people, how to stand," King explained. "And the main thing is be humble." King currently trains about ten fighters, ranging from eight to 22 years old. A lot of kids start young and come every day once they get in the zone. "First thing you have to form them up — put their hands, feet, and head in proper position," King said. "Then you go from there." The true fighters stick around after eighth grade, which is about the time that other temptations arrive: drugs, girls, gangs, and alcohol. "That's a true test," King said. "You can't really fall in love with 'em."
People like Ward and, perhaps, Romeo Cane, are the ones who keep soldiering on. Some are in it for life. Long since retiring from the ring, King still comes to the gym at noon every day and leaves after closing time at 10 p.m. For him, it's a labor of love. "I wanted to keep boxing going," he said on a recent Friday morning, when he'd arrived early to do maintenance work at the gym. "You can't walk away from it."
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