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Oakland’s King’s Gym: A Temple to Boxing

Boxers sparring at King's gym

King’s Gym is a temple to the sport of boxing. It can be tough to find, nestled away on a dead-end street next to Highway 880 in Oakland. But for people who love boxing, it’s worth it. The no-nonsense King’s evokes the era when boxing was huge.

Charles King has owned and operated the gym for nearly 30 years. It’s in a gray building, a former printer’s, in the Fruitvale neighborhood. “We’re just the last old-school gym,” King says.

When he calls his gym old school, he means it. There are posters from fights that happened 20 years ago, and the only TV at King’s is always switched off. There’s no juice bar at Charles King’s gym.

King is 71 years old, and rail thin. He sometimes wears sunglasses in his office. As a young man, King served in the navy, and he later worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He’s retired from the railroad, but still comes to his gym every day.

“The average working stiff who retires from his job is dead within two years,” King says in his office. “When I was working, I’ve seen guys retire and they die! Reason why, nothing to do,” he says, explaining why he comes to the gym five days a week.

There was plenty of activity at the gym on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A couple dozen people packed the small space. James Buggs boxed for years, and now works as a trainer at the gym. Fit, and with a shaved head, Buggs shouts at his pupil “C’mon, c’mon, turn them shoulders!”

Buggs describes the gym as “full of energy. People are hungry fighters. The smell is a smell you can’t describe.”

At King’s, everything is organized into three-minute rounds, which are marked by five, rapid-fire tones. Fighters punch speed bags, shadowbox and jump rope. After three minutes, the bell goes off again and everyone takes a break, wipes off the sweat, and starts chatting.

Emily Esner comes to King’s to train three days a week. These days, about a fifth of the boxers here are women. “What you see is what you get,” is how Esner describes the gym’s atmosphere.

She says it brings people together: “Everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. This rhythm of it, the bells going off, the sound of people jump[ing] rope, it’s like nature to me, except it’s a boxing gym.”

And when the bell goes off again after a minute of rest, the gym gets back to work.
King’s draws people from all over the Bay Area. There’s a trainer who commutes here from San Francisco, after he had to close his own gym. There’s an Oakland woman who hits the bag to relieve stress from her hospital job.

Gilbert Alvarez, a high school senior from Oakland, trains at the gym. He says he’s seen friends joining gangs and doing drugs. But for Alvarez,
“boxing keeps me in shape, keeps me out the gangs.”

The fighters at King’s train here for different reasons. But for many of them, it’s a place where boxing still matters. Boxing posters cram the walls, floor to ceiling: Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather and George Foreman adorn the walls.

Famous fighters have trained here, including Andre Ward, the current Super Middleweight champion of the world and an Olympic gold medalist. Ward, an Oaklander, grew up training at King’s.

And musicians love this gym, too. On the wall of Charles King’s office is a picture of him with his arm around Bob Dylan, who has trained here while on tour. MC Hammer filmed part of his movie “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em” at the gym, back when he was the most famous rapper in the world.

This afternoon, Gilbert Jackson leans against the ring. He’s from London, but moved to West Oakland years ago. For Jackson, King’s Gym is a school. “Everyone needs to learn how to box,” he says. “Even if you don’t want to compete, you still got to learn how to box, because it teaches you about life.’Cause everything you do in life is a fight.”

Source: Aaron Mendelson, California Report

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