Time-aged portraits of prizefighters hang on the walls, staring down at the man perched at the edge of the ring.
Yes, Zachary Wohlman looks like a vintage fighter. His old-style charm is accentuated by the scar tissue above his brow and the cartilage missing from his nose. He is a throwback, an anachronism. He even has a âKidâ nickname: âKid Yamakaâ [sic]. âI get my hair cut the day of my fight. Itâs a tradition. Well, Iâve only had one [professional] fight so far, but itâs going to be a tradition,â jokes the former Golden Gloves champ.
Wohlman is comfortably back in street clothes, after wrapping up the photo shoot for this magazine. Heâs slipped on a pair of black Nike Cortezes, his shoes of choice, far from the $3500 stingray YSLs he was rocking for the camera a half hour ago. We are four days from the 23-year-oldâs second professional bout. He thinks thatâs pretty amazing. Wohlman also thinks the following fact is pretty amazing: He is getting paid to box.
Well, sort of. Wohlman is selling his own tickets. Thatâs how a young boxer makes it these days. âHow does it work?â I ask him. âDo you get a cut of each ticket sold?â
Wohlman simply points to the Star of David necklace hanging from his neck and jokes, âWhat do you think?â
Itâs a joke about his Jewish upbringing, but itâs also a testament to the idiosyncratic world of boxing promotion. Itâs never just been about tough guys who needed to punch to release some innate aggression, some animalistic pugilism. Boxers have to be salesmen, too. Or as they like to describe it: to hustle.
Wohlmanâs hustle derives from his checkered past. Of course it does.
According to Wohlman, in any boxing gym in America, you will find a dozen or so sob stories, each filled with enough heartbreak to fuel a dozen shows on the Lifetime Channel. In Wohlmanâs case, growing up was rough. He fell into the obvious trappings of life as a teenager in the San Fernando Valley. Most people think the metropolitan areas of L.A. are messed up, but the boredom of the suburban Valley breeds the truly fucked up shit. The Valley is full of temptation. He tried to temper that temptation at age 14, when he wandered into a boxing gym for the first time. There, he realized he had talent, and that enabled him to find solace in the ring. âYou can walk into a boxing gym and you find a substitute father figure instantly,â Wohlman says.
But staying a boxer, and becoming successful at it, thatâs the hard part.
For starters, his real dad wasnât exactly Cliff Huxtable. âIâd known my pops, but briefly, when I was a kid,â says Wohlman. âI just knew that he was a criminal. I met him again when I was 16. We started running together, doing dope and crime and all that. We got arrested together when I was 17.â
Wohlman was tried as a juvenile, but he only spent a few days in Sylmar Juvenile Facility. âThey put me on fucking probation for the rest of my life,â he jokes. âI mean, Iâm off of it now. Thatâs what I got an attorney for. But my dad didnât. He had to go do a couple of years.â
Wohlman continued to get loaded and do dirt into his late teens, while working on oil tanks in Oakland. He was over 200 pounds with a scraggly beard at the time, and he drove a 1970s Lincoln Continental. He was on the road to a life of labor, hardship, and being a total fuck-up. âI remember getting into the ring, and taking a bunch of drugs and drinking. I woke up outside with a transgender stepping over me, asking me if I needed some help.â
Then, his father reappeared. Heâd been sober since the day of their arrest. âI saw what two years clean looked like on himâsaw that big, beautiful smile.â
Wohlman realized he needed to clean up his act, too. He checked into a halfway house that had a gym with a heavy bag in it. One day, a counselor at the house mentioned he knew the legendary boxing coach Freddie Roach. He told Wohlman that if he stayed clean for 30 days, he would take him down to Roachâs Wild Card Boxing Club and make an introduction. On the next visit, he handed him an autographed photo from Roach that said, âTo Zac, keep punchinâ. Freddie Roach. Iâll see you soon.â And so the story goes: That first day at Wild Card, Wohlman was thrown into the ring to spar with a world champ. âI wanted to see if he really wanted to do it,â Roach says. âHe took a beating and he came back the next day with no problem.â For three months, three times a week, Wohlman would take a beating and leave, no questions asked. He never complained and never asked why or what he was doing all this for. His only release was to go behind the dumpsters in the parking lot and cry to himselfânot out of pain, but frustration.
Being beaten up hurt Wohlmanâs feelings more than his body. âIâm very sensitive,â says Wohlman, âand Iâm very emotional, and I take that with me in the ring, you know? That sensitivityâI learned to make it a good thing. I have very good intuition. I feel my way around the ring.â
Itâs easy to make the connection between his fighting style and his approach to life: slow and steady, quiet and confident. Focused. Adding to that focus: the reconnection with his former partner in crime. The guy he used to sit with in an apartment full of stolen goods, he now sits with quietly and reflects. âMy father is my best friend,â Wohlman says. âWe had breakfast this morning. Heâs doing great. Heâs got his real estate thing going. Iâve got my thing going. We just look at each other like, âWow.ââ
Wohlman really has his thing going. Fighting under Freddie Roach has people watching Wohlman closely, but the boxer doesnât seem to feel the pressure. Having Roach in his corner doesnât hurt. If a legend like Roach believes in him, it must mean something.
âIâll take the pressure,â Wohlman says. âI like it. And I like having the fans there. I had all the tickets, and I sold them by hand, so it wasnât like the box office sold 400 tickets for me. I went to 400 people and sold them the tickets. I knew everyone who came to see me. And it wasnât like, âI have to put on for this crowd,â it was like, âLet me take this love and support and take this energy and soak it up. I donât have to show off to these people, theyâre just here to love me.â ***
On the night of the fight, Wohlman climbs into the ring sporting purple satin trunks cut high above his knee like Sugar Ray Robinson used to do. The crowd is clearly behind Wohlman.
In the opposite corner is Tatsuro Irie. His name hasnât even made the fight bill. Within seconds, the crowd understands why. The Japanese fighter is overwhelmed by Wohlmanâs structured repertoire of jabs and combinations.
There is drama in the air, but this fight isnât one people will talk about. Wohlmanâs victory is almost a certainty. Heâs fighting on the protected side, the âAâ side, as the proâs put it. Thereâs no way he can lose, not this early in his career. Still, he boxes as if he was fighting a champ. âHeâs sparred with world class fighters,â Roach says after the fight. âWeâre starting to see the results of that.â
When the announcer declares Wohlman the winner by unanimous decision, the young boxer raises Irieâs hands out of respect. Thatâs the old way of doing itâWohlmanâs nod to the days when boxing was a classy sport.
You have to remember, boxing has always been fought by tough kids. âTough guys make great punching bags,â the old saying goes. Adds Wohlman, âItâs the smart fighter you need to be scared of.â