Eric Stinton: Troubled youth boxing club takes on new life in Kalihi
In 1977, 64-year-old Yonoichi Kitagawa was asked in an interview if he would have called himself a leader in his Kakaako community growing up. His response: “Well, I’d say I’ve had a lot of fights.”
This was more reflective of the situation in the 1920s, when Hawaii was just a US territory and Kakaako was primarily a fishing community and working class people. But it’s also an apt description of how Kitagawa became a true leader in his community whose legacy is still felt 37 years after his death.
Kitagawa’s penchant for fighting – as well as hooking – got him expelled from school, but when boxing was legalized in Hawaii in 1929, he saw an opportunity. “If there is going to be a fight, why not do it legally?”
With no formal training beyond what he learned on the streets, Kitagawa began teaching local fishermen how to box in 1932. Within four years, he named his club the Kakaako Young Men’s Association and joined the Amateur Athletic Union. Although the legendary Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn is often considered the nation’s oldest boxing club, the Kitagawa club had been in operation for five years before Gleason’s opened in 1937.
Kitagawa had an undeniable passion for soft science, but he also saw its potential beyond the boxing ring, especially for kids like him who got into trouble. Many of his students slept and ate at his house. When asked if any of the boys who came to him for training were “about to go astray,” Kitagawa said, “most of them were like that. But they change . All.”
The physical demands of boxing make it impossible to stay out late drinking or doing drugs, meaning those who stayed were those who developed proper sleep and healthy living regimes. “When they do that, there’s no chance of getting in trouble,” Kitagawa said.
Kitagawa explained this idea 45 years ago, but it is no less true today. Earlier this month, when the Kakaako YMA – called Kakaako Boxing Club since 1980 – reopened at its new Kalihi site, club president and boxing trainer Reno Abihai echoed a similar sentiment: “When I was a child, three hours here made me go out for the whole night, I couldn’t be on the streets after coming here.
Abihai grew up in Mayor Wright’s Houses, a tough neighborhood with a reputation that can become an expectation for children growing up there. “I was running around the streets doing crazy things,” Abihai said. “I heard about this gym that some kids used to go to. It happened to be KBC. Those trainers helped me learn how to box, get healthy, set goals for me. goals. I started to change my life.”
Abihai put himself through college and lived on the mainland for 10 years. He returned to Hawaii in 2010 and in 2017 decided to return to his old club. It was still functioning, but struggling, with about half a dozen members. Abihai started helping out at the club, which is how he met Sean Fitzsimmons, a local boy who took up boxing while in law school in Ohio.
“The gym owner I went to in Dayton owned a car dealership, so he had all that extra cash in a depressed area of the Midwest,” Fitzsimmons said. “He bought all the gloves he could find and kept them in the gym. Whenever neighborhood kids came, he gave them a pair of gloves, but the rule was that they had to stay in the gymnasium. In this way, the children came back.
“When I came to Kakaako Boxing Club,” Fitzsimmons said, “the feeling was the same as the gym I had in Ohio. The same community vibe, where the first thing you care about is giving the people a place to get off the streets and be productive.
Abihai exemplified this philosophy when he left a higher salary as a software engineer to work at the Institute of Human Services, a service provider for the homeless that was right next to the old site. from KBC. This has allowed him to spend more time in the gym and to be in more direct contact with the type of at-risk children the club has always focused on. After successfully raising awareness among the women and children of IHS, they decided to turn the boxing club into a non-profit organization in 2020.
Fitzsimmons calls Abihai the heart and soul of Kakaako Boxing Club, and credits his consistency for growing his membership from a handful of people a few years ago to over 50 now. But as Hawaii’s white-hot real estate market soared, the owners of the club’s former location decided to sell.
“We grew up in this family that we couldn’t part with,” Abihai said. “We couldn’t just let this whole story dissolve.”
They moved into the former Pau Hana Lounge in Kalihi and opened to the public on July 17. As well as continuing its community outreach efforts, KBC is partnering with other non-profit organizations that have complementary goals: Women Speaking Out, which aims to reduce domestic violence, and Keep It Flowing, which uses the art and graphic design to reach the same types of children who find advice at KBC.
“The purpose of the gym is to teach life lessons through boxing,” Fitzsimmons said. “The fight is the job interview, the exam, the great difficulty in front of you. It takes hard work, it takes diligence, it takes consistency. If you know how to succeed in one thing , you know how to succeed in all things.
It also echoes a sentiment that Yonoichi Kitagawa, the gymnasium’s founder, expressed decades ago: “Because they establish themselves well in sports or whatever, (they become) true citizens.” They respect the law. They go to school, they study hard. And each, each is a success. That’s what makes me feel good. I’m proud of them. Everybody. Not a single evil.
In a place like Hawaii where we are constantly yearning for the past, thinking back to the good old days and lamenting the loss of the Hawaii we knew growing up, it is encouraging and refreshing to see how some of the good things of the old days have remained the same.