Remembering Kid Yamaka, the telegenic star and proudly Jewish boxer

One boxer is seen aiming a swing at another boxer, who is seen blocking his face.
Zachary Wohlman punches Alonso Loeza during a Welterweights fight at Staples Center on November 10, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Loeza would win the fight.

  • Zachary Wohlman, a boxer known as Kid Yamaka, died in February at 32.
  • Wohlman survived a nightmarish childhood in Los Angeles to become a promising welterweight and telegenic media star.
  • The writer Alex Halperin explores Wohlman’s legacy as a celebrated Jewish athlete, and what Wohlman meant to some of those who knew him best.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Late in February, mourners gathered at Zuma Beach in Malibu to remember Zachary Wohlman, a boxer who had recently died at 32. In the billion dollar sunshine, they stood around a wreath of white orchids, the flowers Wohlman tended when he wasn’t bloodying his opponents.

Wohlman’s movie star good looks had survived a broken jaw, a textbook pugilist’s nose, and multiple other facial traumas. One eulogist, a longtime sparring partner, boasted about kicking Kid Yamaka’s ass.

Some of the bereaved wore jackets embroidered with Wohlman’s tag line, “All class.” His young widow gave out t-shirts for Kid Yamaka’s “retirement party.” Some grievers wore wetsuits. Others went shirtless. They embraced and stood close, mostly wearing masks.

Wohlman had survived a nightmarish childhood in the Valley to become a promising welterweight and telegenic media star. He had hoped to fight for a world championship.

However realistic the dream, his ongoing struggles with addiction, made it less so. “I’ll just be honest,” he said in the Emmy-nominated docu-series, “Why We Fight.” “I have a problem with opiates.” Yet for a time he was able to overcome his illness to express himself as a fighter and as a man with an enviable capacity for love and empathy. “There’s nothing more therapeutic than being of service to somebody,” Wohlman had said.

As one mourner said: “He often helped me when I should have been helping him.”

“If you make a living getting hit in the face, something went wrong,” Wohlman said in a short film directed by Matt Ogens. But keep listening and unarmed combat sounds less like a job and more like a calling, the purest distillation of the human condition. Boxers say you don’t know someone until you fight them, and maybe they’re right.

Jews have a special reverence for our tribe’s great athletes, perhaps because there are so few of them. Wohlman wasn’t observant, but he cared about his heritage. He got Bar Mitzvahed at 20 and had an attachment to Jewish stars, whether diamond encrusted or massive and tattooed across his belly – “FAITH”.

A magazine cover has an illustration of a soldier in boxing gloves under the title "The Ring"
The March 1943 cover of Ring Magazine with an illustration of boxer Barney Ross.

He was conscious of himself as heir to an endangered tradition of Jewish boxers. In the first half of the 20th century, when big bouts resonated far beyond the ring and Jews had a much more tenuous position in American life, quite a few found glory in the ring. In 1933, Max Baer wore Star of David trunks when he defeated Hitler’s favorite fighter and former heavyweight champion, Max Schmelling, at Yankee Stadium. (Baer’s victory led to an affair with Greta Garbo. Schmelling later defeated Joe Louis and then lost to him in a 1938 title fight dubbed the “battle of the century.”)

One of the most celebrated Jewish fighters was Barney Ross, a tough Chicago kid, the son of a murdered rabbi, who held world championships in three weight classes, including welterweight. Later, Ross enlisted in the Marines and earned a Silver Star for valor fighting Japanese soldiers at Guadalcanal. While recovering from his wounds, Ross became addicted to morphine. There’s a 1957 movie about him called “Monkey on My Back.”

Ogens’ film juxtaposes Wohlman wrapping his hands for the ring with wrapping tefillin. With the phylacteries, a rabbi tells him, “Your arms become instruments not of destruction but of God.” Wohlman shadow boxes across the old city of Jerusalem, a Rocky sequel that never got made.

A more memorable sequence, to my mind a more Jewish one, comes in the first episode of the docu-series “Why We Fight.” Wohlman travels to Tijuana, for an easy fight to juice his won/loss record and with that his prospects for a higher profile bout back home.

Wohlman scores a first round TKO against a tomato can named Roman Mendez. After the fight, he visits Mendez’ barrio to meet the boxer’s family and see the pig Mendez buys with his prize money. Wohlman meets another fighter, a candy hawker by day, and encourages him to train harder, and to be faithful to his wife.

Two men wearing grey suits stand side by side, as one pumps his fist
Zachary Wohlman (left) and Freddie Roach, the legendary Hall of Fame trainer, attend Smash Global II in 2016 in Los Angeles.

A later episode distills the grim economics of bloodsport even more starkly. In Cambodia, Wohlman meets a 10-year old prize-fighter and his trainer/promoter, the self-described “Don King of Cambodia,” who both cares for and profits from pre-pubescent fighters. “I want [the 10-year old] to be wealthy and whatever his version of successful is,” Wohlman said. “But I don’t think what I hope he’ll become and the reality will meet.”

Wohlman didn’t just perform concern on camera. For the last two years of his life, he directed Ring of Hope, a boxing program for at-risk kids in Dallas. He’d hoped to open a branch in L.A., hinting at a life he could have led once his dreams of glory subsided.

Instead the people who loved him gathered on the beach to say goodbye. After the tributes, the singing and the crying, two guys in wetsuits bore the wreath out to sea. As the waves enveloped it, the crowd applauded.

“High-speed miserable chess”

I first heard of Wohlmann a few years ago from my friend Vanessa Adriance, a corporate litigator who became one of his closest friends. A serious amateur jock, Adriance had been cardio boxing for a couple years at an L.A. gym when he showed up.

Wohlman introduced himself as an acolyte of Freddie Roach, a legendary Hall of Fame trainer whose gym, Wild Card Boxing, is on the second floor of a Hollywood strip mall. Wohlman began to teach real boxing, how to throw a punch, how to dodge one, not anything Adriance had to worry about when she was just getting sweaty whaling on a bag.

Adriance found Wohlman “magnetic” and, with her marriage falling apart, she was open to new experiences. She and another woman decided they wanted to box each other. Wohlman wasn’t interested in supervising them, but he offered to spar with Adriance. He wouldn’t knock her out, but he’d punch her and she could punch back.

Adriance started going to every class he taught, pestering him for months until he told her to get a mouth guard at the Sports Authority. He found some dusty headgear lying around the gym and rubbed her face with vaseline – “greased” her – to reduce the damage from his punches.

Two people wearing casual exercise clothing are seen sparring in a boxing ring.
Vanessa Adriance (left) sparring with Zachary Wohlman.

“It doesn’t feel good to get punched of course,” Adriance said of that first day of sparring but the pain didn’t overwhelm her. “What I remember is being disoriented.” It felt like she was underwater and didn’t know which way was up. For some people, Wohlman said, throwing the first punch is harder. Not for my friend. “I don’t know what that says about me,” she said. She thinks she landed a sloppy jab or two.

She also found it intellectually engaging, like “high-speed miserable chess,” litigation in the raw. As she describes it, Wohlman indulged her, like a father driving with a toddler on his lap. But she refused to let go of the wheel. After three rounds she felt overwhelmed by the adrenaline rush, “Something about hard sparring cleanses your brain,” she said “It will rinse you clean or it will break you emotionally, whatever dam is holding it together.”

As she got to know Wohlman, she learned his story. (Wohlman’s widow didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.) His mother, he has said in interviews, changed the locks on him when he was 15 and he went to live with his father. They committed crimes and did meth together, he has said, until a police raid one morning. Wohlmann flushed money and drugs down the toilet and the cops told him his father was going to prison.

When Wohlman got fired from the gym, she followed him to the hallowed and intimidating confines of Wild Card. She felt the pull of the gym’s “weird, fast intimacy.” People whose names she didn’t know would wipe up her blood or reach into her mouth to pull out her guard. It seems she’s spoken about little else since.

Wohlman won the Los Angeles Golden Gloves in 2010 and then went pro, stringing together a professional record of 10-3-2 according to the site BoxRec. No brawler, he had an old-school fighting style and cared about technique. “He was a lot tougher and meaner and angrier than his boxing style almost allowed him to be,” Javier Calderon, a longtime sparring partner said. “He was willing to take a shot to give a shot.”

Calderon, who describes himself as “a gainfully unemployed artist,” sparred with and mentored Wohlman for about 12 years. “I beat his ass until he got better.” Wohlman lacked a “concussive” punch but he was accurate. Calderon thinks Wohlman may have been responsible for tearing his retina, an injury that needed surgery. “His jab was working beautifully and digging into my eyeballs”

A man is seen listing his shirt to reveal his chest tattoos
The boxer Kid Yamaka attends SKEE Live at The Conga Room at L.A. Live on November 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

“One of his love languages was sparring,” said Eli Cobillas, who knew Wohlman in Dallas. He had a “slick, crafty” style and liked to put on soul or jazz before he started punching.

Eric Brown, a celebrated trainer who named Wohlman Kid Yamaka, said Wohlman liked to humiliate his opponents by standing right in front of them while somehow remaining untouchable.

Calderon is a tee-totaller who says he was never around Wohlman when he was high. Rather he emphasized Wohlman’s drive to improve himself. “I knew that even when things were going good, it’s a balancing act, a tightrope walk,” Calderon said. “There were times when he faltered and faltered hard.”

In December Wohlman came back to California and went to a rehab facility in the desert east of LA. It was the first time he was really sober since he was 19, he told Adriance, our mutual friend. In rehab he learned to play chess, which reminded him of slow-motion boxing.

On January 29 he posted a picture of a 60-days sober key chain on Instagram.

Adriance last spoke to Wohlman two weeks later, on the Friday before Valentine’s Day. He said he was coming out of a meeting with someone he’d met in rehab.

He died the next day. His body turned up at a gas station bathroom.

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Teens would rather break their bones than lose their phones

Following is a transcript of the video.

Adam Alter: “Nomophobia” is a new word that’s being coined to describe no mobile phobia, and it’s the idea that a lot of us, in thinking about not having our phones, experience something like a phobia, and this is supposed to describe hundreds of millions of people today, and I’m sure that number is growing at the moment. What that means is that when you think about, for example, your phone falling out of your pocket, tumbling to the ground, and shattering into a million pieces, you should experience anxiety symptoms, and it’s especially true among young people.

I ran a study at one point where I asked young people, a whole lot of teenagers, a very simple question. I said to them: “Imagine you have this very unpleasant choice. So, you can either watch your phone tumble to the ground and shatter into a million pieces or you can have a small bone in your hand broken.” Now, that seems to people of a certain age and older like a fairly straightforward question with a straightforward answer. It seems ridiculous. Of course you choose to save the integrity of your hand and let your phone break. You can always replace a phone, but for young people this is actually a very difficult question. In my experience, about 40% to 50% of them will say, “Ultimately, I think it probably makes more sense to have a bone in my hand broken than it does to have my phone broken.”

And you can understand why that is, apart from the fact that it is expensive to have a phone repaired and there’s some time where you’re without your phone. That is their portal to a social world that is very important to them. Being without that social world for a while is probably not as detrimental in some respects as being without a particular bone in your hand. Most of the time, you can get by and you can see this in the way they ask follow-up questions. So, a lot of these teens will say to me things like, “Is it my left hand or my right hand?” and the most important question, “Once I break that bone in my hand, can I still use my phone? Is it a bone that I need to be able to scroll on the phone, because if it is, then that’s no deal, but if it’s not a bone that I need to use my screen at least I can continue to use my phone during the time I’m healing.” If people are willing to endure physical harm to keep their phones that obviously suggests that this is a major issue.

The definition that I like for behavioral addiction that makes the most sense to me is an experience that we return to compulsively over and over again because it feels good in a short run but in the long run, it ultimately undermines our well-being in some respect. So, it can be someone who notices that over time their social relationships are degrading because they don’t have a consistent, face-to-face contact with people and that’s especially problematic for kids who need time in that real face-to-face social world because that’s where they develop all the competencies of being a social creature. The way to work out what other people are thinking, to share your feelings in a way that you want them to be shared for other people to understand you for you to make just the right facial expressions at just the right times. Those seem like obvious and easy-to-do things for most adults but for kids it’s very difficult to do that. They take time to hone those skills and so you need face-to-face time to do that and if you don’t have that, if you’re spending all your time on screens because it’s really fun to crush one more candy on Candy Crush or do whatever it is that you might be doing, you’re not developing those long-term competencies and therefore your long-term well-being is degraded.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2018.

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How magic shrooms affect your brain

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is the map of a typical human brain, and this is the map of a brain on psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. All those new connections you can see don’t just make people trip. They’re also the reason that psilocybin is one of today’s most talked-about drugs in certain medical circles. Worldwide, more than 180 species of mushrooms produce psilocybin, likely as a defense strategy. Scientists believe that psilocybin may dampen the appetite of predatory insects like ants so that they feel full long before eating their way through the entire mushroom. Humans, on the other hand, well, they trip.

Johnson: Psilocybin is a so-called classic psychedelic, so it’s in the same category as drugs like LSD and works in the brain in basically the same way.

Narrator: When you take psilocybin, your gut converts it into another chemical, known as psilocin, which binds to serotonin receptors called 2A, and experts think that’s what triggers what they call neuronal avalanching. It’s essentially a domino effect of different changes in the brain. You’ve got increased activity in the visual cortex, which leads to changes in your perception, and then decreased network activity in the default mode network, which leads to a loss of ego.

Johnson: And that may be why people often report at high doses a profound sense of unity, transcending beyond themselves.

Narrator: But perhaps most importantly, psilocybin increases connectivity among different regions of the brain.

Johnson: Because of that receptor activation, there is a profound change in the way that different areas of the brain synchronize with each other.

Narrator: Think of it like an orchestra. Normally, the brain has different musical groups that each play independently.

Johnson: A sextet there, here’s a quartet there. This one’s playing jazz. This one’s classical, and a number of other ones.

Narrator: But once psilocybin enters, it’s like you suddenly have a conductor.

Johnson: So there is this communication between areas that are normally kind of compartmentalized and doing their own thing.

Narrator: Scientists believe that it’s a combination of these effects that make psilocybin so useful for combating depression and addiction. When new areas in the brain start talking to each other, for example, you might have new insights into old problems. And that’s why some experts describe tripping as a condensed version of talk therapy. And then dissolving your ego, Johnson says…

Johnson: Can be profoundly healing.

Narrator: And there’s actually an increasing amount of research to prove it. In two studies published in 2016, researchers gave cancer patients with depression a large dose of psilocybin, and even six months later, at least 80% of them showed significant decreases in depressed mood. And research on addiction is equally promising. In a study led by Johnson, 15 volunteers took psilocybin to quit smoking, and after six months, 80% of them had kicked the habit, compared to a rate of about 35% for the drug varenicline, which is widely considered the best smoking-cessation drug out there. Yet despite these results, psilocybin is still listed as a Schedule I drug, a category reserved for compounds that have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Now, taking magic mushrooms recreationally does come with some risks.

Johnson: So a dramatic example would be driving under the influence of psilocybin or using it in a way that interferes with your job, or your family relations, or your schoolwork, for example.

Narrator: But as far as scientists know, long-term use doesn’t damage the brain in the way that other drugs can, and according to at least one study, it’s actually the safest drug out there. In 2018, for example, just 0.3% of people who reported taking them needed medical emergency treatment, compared to 0.9% for ecstasy and 1.3% for alcohol. Taken altogether, that’s why some states across the country have campaigned to decriminalize psilocybin, including Denver, which, in May of 2019, became the first ever to succeed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in May 2019.

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