On a dead end street between train tracks and 880 near Fruitvale BART, is where King’s Boxing Gym has made its home for over 15 years. If you had never been to King’s, you probably wouldn’t notice the gym entrance, barely distinguishable from the car repair garages next door. After you step inside, however, you have no choice but to take notice. The first thing to hit is the smell of orange cleaning spray and sweat – one that you will take home with you in your clothes and skin. As members walk past, they give each other respectful nods of the head or slaps of the fist, then greet Mr. King. Next you catch sight of the gym walls where old boxing posters compete with inspirational statements coaching you, “THE HARDER YOU TRAIN, THE LUCKIER YOU GET” and “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” You weave through groups of fighters huddled around trainers as you head to the back of the gym, catching bits of mumbled instruction as they demonstrate bare fisted on the heavy bag. These aren’t chiseled, spandexed twenty-somethings with physical therapy degrees. These trainers are weathered men who spend most of their days in this gym with little compensation, who see value in passing on their training and discipline, and who see greatness in all their fighters, maybe even the makings of a champion.
Then you hear the bell, and the thudding and grunting that either begins or ends at its say so – two and a half minutes of green, thirty seconds of yellow, one minute of red. The bells not only control the action within the ring, but within the entire gym, and every part of a fighter’s workout. For two and a half minutes of green you can hear the dense thud of the heavy bag, the patterned pattering of the speed bag, mixed with the cold snapping of leather jump ropes. Once the yellow bell sounds, the noise grows and the thudding and snapping becomes quicker, deeper and more grunt-filled. Then all at once with the sounding of the red bell, the gym stands still – no action, no talking, just KMEL playing in the background. It feels as if the entire gym is one machine whose separate parts are only recognized during that one minute of rest when you catch your breath and notice the other fighters around you. And just like it all ended at the red bell, it comes back to life at the sounding of the green.
Finally you reach the ring, and the gym opens up before you. There it is occupying the whole of the gym, a full size raised boxing ring, with coaching platforms, spit buckets, and personalized ropes announcing “KING’S.” Dancing in and out of the spotlight that burns down in the center of the ring, you might see a couple of young neighborhood kids shadowbox in complete concentration. Or maybe two fighters prepare to spar. They fit damp pieces of headgear as their trainer straps them tight and spreads a layer of Vaseline over their faces to avoid skin breakage. They lean over towards the worn wooden coaching platform to empty out into the spit bucket. And then they go. They test until they find a gap, and that’s where they put their left hook. Down around the sides of the ring hang the heavy bags with barely enough room for fighters to avoid knocking into each other in the heat of a combination. To the right of the ring is a mirrored wall where fighters practice their form, a wooden floor to jump rope, and a line of speed bags with a full size of poster Muhammad Ali watching over. King’s is not the kind of place with freshly laundered towels, a juice bar and sauna. No Sports Center, 10-minute-abs, or Boxercise either. This is the place where the East Bay comes to learn the skill of boxing.
Charles King decided to open a gym in 1984 when the downtown Oakland gym where his son was training closed its doors. This first location, a tight storefront on 23rd & East 14th, was where King’s became King’s. In addition to being the site where Hammer shot his “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” video, its ring was also once graced by the likes of boxing greats George Foreman, Julio Cesar Chavez, and Joe & Morris Frazier. Not to mention King’s was the site of many years of local boxing bouts, which still regularly occur.
Charles King is trim, put together and originally from Boston which is why his snakeskin cowboy boots have always gotten attention. He’s happy to tell you that train engineers wear cowboy boots, and that he hasn’t been able to give them up since his career as one. Still, even after learning about King’s link to cowboy boots, it’s hard to take your eyes off those snakeskins, gliding across the cement gym floor, until he calls out a combination, “Drop a right hand to the belly, left hook.” In his career as a trainer, King has mentioned coaching fighters such as Brian Sneed, Hammer’s Hype man (the guy that yells “Go, go, go Hammer!”) who carried five knockouts, and “240,” a young 13 year old fighter named for his massive poundage.
There are many reasons people come out to King’s. Some come to learn self-defense or get in shape, while others come to train for a match. Some come just for Mr. King. Like most trainers, he’s someone who is there all day, everyday. He typically runs fighters through three rounds of jump rope, speed bag, and shadowboxing, then works them on the pads, heavy bag, and finishes with calisthenics. He makes sure they protect the face, snap punches, and rotate off the ball of the foot. It’s a thrill just being in an old-school gym like King’s. That is until you experience the real thrill of getting in the center of the ring all vaselined up, and trying out that uppercut Mr. King just showed you.
King’s Boxing Gym, owner Charles King, 843 35th Ave, Oakland, kingsboxinggym.com