- 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”.
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.
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.
“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”
“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.