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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Get Ready For Blob Girl Summer

Talia Birth of Venus
A detail of Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” on view at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

  • The writer Talia Lavin reflects on emerging from our Covid quarantines with the same perceived flaws and insecurities as before.
  • What if the coming season is less “Hot Vaxxed Girl Summer” and more “Blob Girl Summer”?
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the petals drop to the pavement and shots slip into arms, we’re rolling inexorably toward Hot Vaxxed Girl Summer. We, the immunized, survivors of the plague, are supposed to emerge from our Covid quarantines without hesitancy. The problem with this is that I was never Hot in the first place and this Summer is no different.

It’s still just me, blinking hesitantly and shaking a little, sweating under my shapeless clothes and knowing that there are still people dying at war with their own lungs.

The truth is I am a Blob Girl. I am part of a vast middle sector of womanhood who are pretty bad at Being Women in the way that involves an arsenal of products and a wealth of knowledge to address every detail of our femininity with attention and care and perform it with the practiced grace of dancers. My je ne sais quoi is a literal translation: I don’t know what it would take to have such a quality.

This summer, the humid air will press down on me like a sweaty hand and I, in the middle of it, will be as limp and unluscious as a two-day-old funnel cake. In a world of curation through layers of screens-in which even I, stale dough pinched into the rough approximation of a human woman, know my best selfie angles-it is difficult to admit it and still more difficult to hope that somewhere I have a tribe.

There is so much expectation, after more than a year locked inside. We were supposed to improve ourselves during our time away from the world. In a social milieu shaped by the bright relentless self-optimization of capital we are supposed to come out of our bedrooms-slash-workspaces thinner and shinier.

Except I didn’t. For me, what’s coming is Blob Girl Summer.

I know I am not alone, that there’s a secret legion of grieving and unimproved femmes who have tried and failed to enter the halls of a kind of womanhood that is locked off to us. Somewhere there is a place, I imagine it to be not unlike the Temple of Dendur in the Met, where the Hot Girls sleep at night in their sarcophagi. I could get my ticket my life would change, and since I can’t, I live an unchanged life. The last time I tried to sit on a stoop on a sunny day I sat in dog piss and I didn’t even know, for hours.

For years I have tried to enter the temple, but I haven’t tried hard enough, and I have a big furrow in my brow and wrinkly hands. So much of what Being A Woman is supposed to be is the ability to transfix and enchant, glances sticking to you like cobweb.

Talia Temple
The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

I was built for gazes to pass over, an awning is more exciting than me, a hot dog cart is more exciting than me, the little creatures in the rainwater coming out of the gutter that you can’t see with the naked eye are nonetheless more visually arresting than I am. Am I a woman still? I have tried to be.

So many people have died this year, millions, and I have survived to take into my body a miraculous shot that is the very flower of medical science, a code written in my genome to lock out the great threat. And I, imbibing this, have the temerity to not even be sexy. If Vaxxed Girl Summer is meant to be a kind of pan-cultural Rumspringa I ought to be someone that transcends schlubhood under its thrilling aegis. And yet.

A SUGGESTED RITUAL

The proof of my failure is all around me, entombed in the room I rent. Somewhere in my possession is a pale blue container of Tatcha’s The Water Cream, a moisturizer that goes for $68 for 1.7 fluid ounces. Within the pale unguent, the advertising copy states, are wild roses, and leopard lilies found “on the cool hillsides of Japan.” The cream is thick and white, and the luxuriant vessel that holds it is accompanied by a gold-colored spoon, with which to smooth the pricey goop onto your face. There is a “suggested ritual” to accompany the cream: Camellia Cleansing Oil, Rice Polish, The Essence – $286 worth of salves and scours meant to alchemize one’s face and decolletage into youthful, glowing perfection. I bought it, all of it, in a manic phase in the last year of my twenties.

I was a Blob Girl convinced I could be a Hot Girl and so I was attuned to the chatter all around me about skincare routines. There were articles about it – The Cut runs a repeating feature interrogating how various women “Get Her Skin So Good” (most are very rich or very young or both). I wanted in, and I read the articles, bought the best, as far as I could determine, among a blizzard of beauty guides laden with an intricate web of affiliate links. For a few nights I bathed my skin in these things, titrated them drop by drop onto the bags under my eyes, the sallow tops of my breasts, my unspeakable neck. But I had no discipline; it was just another dilettante’s sally into a kind of femininity I had no real business taking part in.

By now I’ve mostly mostly hidden the serums away, feeling a vague shame about the whole thing.

I’m now 31, and I grew up when Heroin Chic was still the ideal of womanhood, hipbones protruding from low-rise jeans. The belated acknowledgement that flesh belongs adjacent to bones came late in my twenties, too late for me, and I continue to await a great cultural reset that hallows a body that looks like mine–an overstuffed couch dropped from a great height, a knockoff Venus of Willendorf made of plasticine. Somehow and somewhere (many somewheres, or everywhere) I learned that a perfect woman is a mirror that shows you precisely what you desire.

Nonetheless I stand in my sack dress and Walmart sandals and tilt up my bare, pore-heavy face with its incipient jowls and admit with chagrin and little grace that I am not among the blessed. I am a Blob Femme, a creature half-made of envy and shame, whose breasts are incidental and pendulous. A woman sure she is a woman, but sure of little else.

To be a woman and do it properly is a job that requires both effort and skill. It can involve cash, yes, but also work – testing and curation, a keen awareness of audience and effect. Much can be done with simple and cost-effective material, and while its primary cultural exemplars are wealthy, looking fantastic isn’t solely the provenance of the bourgeois. There is value to this work: learning the mysteries of the contour, differentiating foundations, finding the just-right nook of bone that blush ought to be applied to; assessing one’s palette, knowing hair milk from hair gel from hair cream. There is work in building looks each day out of the raw material of simple clothing, and it is work I admire, and at which I lack talent and initiative. There is unimaginable amounts of work involved in sculpting a beguiling figure out of simple flesh. I do not denigrate it; I long for it, strive for it when I’m flush in mad dashes of acquisition.

Talia Makeup school
A group of young women learn to apply make-up, circa 1950.

I never learned how to be flat enough, silent enough, to be all winking, passive chrome. During the pandemic I was lucky enough to be cloistered; this privileged solitude left me alone with a mind that wouldn’t stop buzzing, alone with a body that kept manufacturing its own insistent and extraneous desires. I know that there are many women who excel at both the labor of performed femininity. Who lust and take with grace, and who are as skilled in attaining their own pleasure as they are at giving pleasure away. Still, after this wearing year, a year of morgue-trucks and uncertainty and pain, I am still a woman unskilled at womanhood, not new to its arts but still humbler than an apprentice: A supplicant at the door of the temple.

The world calls me out into the light of Hot Vaxxed Girl Summer, to be warm and poised and lush, but the spring is still cold and I am frightened and frozen at the threshold. Each step I take from an isolation in which my body, being alone, had no locus of comparison, is a step back into a world of all-too-familiar shame. Forgiving myself for every untoward fold and hair, every lemurish attempt at eyeliner, every clumsy waddle on thighs like boiled dumplings, forgiving myself for being me, or even just for being, is its own ongoing labor.

Having survived through a plague I want to live every inch of my survival, the world my oyster and I, its irritant little pearl, the gem at the lip of the mantle, to be plucked out and buffed to shining nacre. Instead I’m the oyster, all slime in the throat, eating grit. Still, I lived. My body allowed me to hide and survive and, surely, for this it has earned a little grace.

Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, undid her weaving each night to ward off suitors and buy herself time. I too have much to unthread each time I close my door on the world. From the poor material of myself, I have to spin patience and a little kindness. Hot Vaxxed Girl Summer is coming, and all I can do is set my fat hands to the loom.

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