On the shelf in front of me burned two prayer candles. The pre-fight ritual. One read: 'Calm and Professional, Box-Box-Box'. The other candle read: 'Clean and Sober'.
Yeah fucking right. Three days into detox, even my tears tasted like a pharmaceutical.
My eyes glazed over as I watched the flames slowly flicker and melt into the floor. In them I saw a highlight reel of all the mistakes that led me here.
I was sitting in the dusty coffin-sized back room of what must have been an old military bunker, now corroding on the outskirts of Tijuana, waiting for my 13th professional boxing bout, just days after my latest attempt to quit OxyContin.
Trembling, I pulled myself up and started to shadowbox in tiny circles, trying to a get a decent sweat going. In reality, I had been profusely sweating all day. According to WebMD, it's at the 72-hour mark when the body goes into full opiate withdrawal. Seeing that I had flushed the last of my dope three days earlier, I was right on the money.
+ + +
Coach grabbed the Vaseline out of his bag and walked up to apply the pre coat. He smeared the grease across my eyebrows as I clenched my mouth shut, gritting my teeth to hide the stench of three-day-old tequila, still decaying on my breath.
In the past, this moment had been everything. A crucial point of contact between my coach and I, not to mention the reason I started fighting to begin with – human affection. The bond between a fighter and his trainer is deeper than anything most people will ever experience. I trusted him with my life. I closed my eyes and tried to gather what was left of my spirit, but I couldn't form a single thought.
Outside the window I could hear wild dogs howling at the moon, scavenging through the streets of Tijuana for a fix to quiet their hunger. My eyes opened to a fogged mirror that scaled the locker room wall. I looked like a shell of the boxer I used to be.
+ + +
I wasn't your run-of-the-mill California beach kid. My early life consisted of acting out in Special Ed so I could spend the afternoon in detention. Detention kept me hidden from my abusive stepfather. At 13, I was shipped off to military school in South Texas. This was where I first learned how to box.
Being so unsure, unsettled and unsatisfied, three-minute intervals of requited brutality became a state of grace – free from sin. Boxing became my first safe space. A space where all the shitty cards I'd been dealt in life could be put on the table.
Poker face in full effect, evading you with a shit-eating grin, I'd circle the square. Sly as a fox, I became sugar coated in the sweet science – pickpocketing you with jabs, disappearing before you ever knew what happened. Besides, sleight of hand was my second nature, to box was to lie and for me growing up, lying meant surviving.
I returned to LA with a new skill set and refused to let my stepfather put his hands on me again. But as much as boxing had given me confidence, my problems continued. I dropped out of high school at 16, not long after reconnecting and moving in with my biological father. He was in between prison sentences when we rekindled our relationship. Less than a year later, my dad and I were arrested together for going full Bonnie and Clyde on a meth-induced crime spree.
I remember the detective peering over his shoulder taking a mental note of the father-son duo in handcuffs. Cruising down Sherman Way, hog-tied in the back of a patrol car, another sad song of growing up in the Valley. The officer looked me in the face and said, "Son your father's been in and out of prison his entire life. After you get outta juvie, you may want to consider a different line of work."
When I got out of juvie about a month later, I didn't even have enough quarters to take a bus across the valley from Sylmar to Woodland Hills. But the driver let me slide, and I arrived at my father's abandoned apartment and peeled the eviction notice off the door as I picked the lock. I walked past the chaos the cops left behind and went straight for the bathroom. Lifting the top lid off the toilet, I desperately peeled away little pieces of tape that were glued to the bindle hiding the oxy and the eight ball. Using my fathers declined credit card, I swirled together beautiful blue and white lines.
+ + +
What I had realised, finally, was that I could no longer hide behind the masks I wore to survive my childhood. Three days earlier, I kicked oxy. The drug addict had to go, even if the boxer in me had to leave with him. But I still had to box.
I took my trunks out of my bag, white and speckled with the blood of my last five opponents. Never washed, I used to wear them like a badge of honour. That night, in that dark back room, I didn't feel that same confidence.
I pulled up my trunks and immediately threw my shirt back on – it wasn't the night for pre fight-flexing. I was fighting at Junior Middleweight that night. That's a full weight class higher than I'd ever been. And there was no training camp – remember, I was just three days off the shit. I literally puked my way through a weight cut.
Wrapped up, gloved up, I started warming up on the mitts. Combinations that used to silence the room, echoing like a thunderstorm, were now drizzle, dissolving into my coaches hands.
"Come on kid, come on son, you got this," he said to me. But his words were hollow. He knew why my hands were shaking, and neither of us wanting talk about it. Not tonight. Not again.
+ + +
A man from the commission banged on the door. "Gringo, you're up."
If ever boxing had a grim reaper, it was that guy. Coach tied a knot in my robe and I pulled the hood over my head. My body ached so badly, I could feel the silk sinking down the back of my skull. One foot in front of the other, in little pigeon-toed steps, I stuttered down the hallway, feeling uncontrollably sorry for myself.
"Fuck this sob story I tell about my father," I said to myself as I walked in slow motion, the fans on each side of me cheering my opponent into the ring.
"Fuck my probation officer for introducing me to Freddie Roach.
"Fuck my coaches for loving me unconditionally, there's nothing worth saving here.
"Fuck bottle service girls, fake tits and bumps of cocaine.
"Fuck my fans for believing in this 'All-Class' bullshit. I'm a junkie.
"Last but not least, fuck whatever cheese-dick DJ thought it'd be a good idea for my walk out song to be 'Eye of the Tiger.'"
Through a silver curtain, I entered the arena. Still hiding underneath the hood of my robe, I wasn't quite ready to be unveiled.
+ + +
I climbed through the ropes, coach following behind me. He pulled the silk knot from my waist, undressing my robe. I felt vulnerable, naked, and soft but there were no more drugs to hide behind. For the first time in long time, I was truly exposed.
Pulling the Vaseline out of his pocket he applied the final coat over my eyebrows. One final moment to just shut my eyes and feel loved. His arms wrapped around me as he gave me a kiss on the cheek. "This is it son, go get what your worth."
"Seconds out!" the ref yelled.
Coach slid between the ropes, waiting for the time-keeper to buzz the opening bell. Looking down at the floor, I could feel my opponents' eyes burning a hole through me from across the ring. I was too heartbroken to look him back in the eye.
I'm not a big puncher so I usually box gracefully, working off the jab, setting things up, picking my spots, but there was no way I could have pulled it off mid-withdrawal. I was going to have to hit that motherfucker with bad intentions if I wanted to make it out of the ring.
Ding! Ding! My opponent slid up to me, hands high in a poised stance. Fingernails digging into the leather, fists clenched, with every ounce of self-hate in my entire being, I started punching.
Punching for every time the dealer texted me at 2AM saying, "I got blues."
His nose splattered blood as his body crashes against the canvas. He gets up.
"Box!" yelled the ref!
I sent off another barrage of punches.
Punching for every time I put my hands in my own vomit, searching for a chunk of OxyContin that hadn't fully dissolved yet.
He dropped to his knees and the ref began the count. "Don't get up!" I thought to myself. I didn't have enough gas in the tank to get through another round.
His nose poured out a violent red waterfall, and he got up again. The official ordered for the fight to continue and I threw one last combination.
Punching for my coaches that loved me though all this, even when I put them through hell.
Punching for the years I lost, nodded out, and cried behind the curtain in my bathtub.
Punching for the countless overdose attempts, each time coming-to in front of friends and family, fucking humiliated.
Punching for every time I gave up on myself.
+ + +
And suddenly it was over.
Smearing blood from my gloves onto my trunks, I looked back at my coach, I said, "It's okay, I'm okay."
I had three days sober and if I made it to midnight, then that would make four. I made a promise to myself that I meant to keep. Even if it meant this had to be my last fight.
The ref grabbed my wrist, walking me to centre ring. The microphone rapelled down from the rafters and he leaned in to shout: "Winner by first round knockout... Fighting out of Hollywood California… Representing Wildcard Boxing Club…. ZACHARY 'KID YAMAKA' WOHLMAN."
+ + +
Today is my 120th day clean and sober. The kick is long gone but the memories of my drug use vividly remain. I wish I could sit here and tell you that was my first crack at the whole sobriety thing but that wouldn't be true. What I am hoping is that this is the last crack.
The fight in Tijuana changed me. Sick and miserable, punching through my addiction, I was able to leave the drug addict behind. And for now, I have been able to keep the boxer in me alive.