As 24-year-old boxer Zachary Wohlman beats his opponent in a unanimous decision after four rounds, spectators jump out of their seats and rush the ring. Amid flashbulbs and congratulatory handshakes, Wohlman, aka "Kid Yamaka," smiles ear to ear and triumphantly raises his adversary's hand. His proud father, David, beams in his son's corner.
On this July night, Florentine Gardens, a former Hollywood supper club that entertained such movie stars as Rudolph Valentino, is hosting its first boxing match. It's appropriate that Wohlman is the main event. The Los Angeles native, who made his professional debut in December, looks and dresses like a vintage fighter, with brown hair shaved on the sides and slicked back on top, high cheekbones and crooked nose.But with black tattoos covering his torso and chest, he also looks tough. And he is. Undefeated professionally, he has a rough past.
"I don't have the best background," he says at dinner in Los Feliz a week before the fight. "I was constantly frustrated. I was always in and out of trouble, fights in school, screwing around with drugs. ..."
In the press, Wohlman's "story" has focused on the redemption of a kid who conquered his demons after coming from a broken home. He understands why people are interested, but he's tired of the constant rehashing. "It's my story, so people want to know it. But I'm over it. It's been written already. The last thing I want is the sob story, and you hear it in boxing all the time."
At dinner, none of Wohlman's tattoos, which he playfully refers to as his "midlife crisis," is visible. There's a Star of David hanging from his neck; he wears a black sweater, jeans and dress shoes. Unfailingly polite, he's also a strategic boxer: He will tease you with a good-natured glint in his eyes if he catches you off-guard. He nibbles, but mostly avoids, the complimentary bread on the table, opting instead for a Caesar salad, steak and shrimp. At 5 feet 8 inches, he weighs 157 pounds; he must shed approximately 10 pounds in the next week to qualify as a welterweight. A boxer's diet can be extreme. At times, Wohlman is not even allowed to drink water. (He chews ice to satisfy his thirst.) On the morning of his official weigh-in, he will shadowbox wearing plastics for two hours. Ultimately, once he's made the weight, fluids will be administered intravenously.
Wohlman first entered legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club in 2008. He remembers thinking, "'Oh my God, someone's going to kill me here. I'm dead.' When I walked in, someone was beating the fuck out of someone." When he expressed his desire to be a professional boxer to a gym employee, the response was a dismissive, "Don't get your dreams mixed up with reality." But in the four years since, Wohlman has sparred with world-class boxers, won the 2009 Los Angeles Golden Gloves tournament and, last winter, turned pro. He holds the unique position of having been the first amateur taken on by Roach (who co-trains Wohlman with trainer Eric Brown).While Wohlman is appreciative, he prefers to focus on what he hasn't accomplished yet. "It feels good, knock on wood," he says. "I'm proud of that, but let's do something like win a world title and then say I'm the first amateur he's had, you know?"
Up next: how his popularity has risen
His coaches see great potential. Says Brown, "I've had him box with world champions and contenders, and Zac's held his own with all of them. He's got mad skills, heart, determination and an eagerness to learn." Just as important in this image-obsessed town, Brown adds, "He's a good-looking kid with a great personality, and he's entertaining and people like to watch him fight. He's already starting to get a lot of popularity with only four fights. I can only imagine what it will be like after about a dozen pro fights."
Quick-witted and articulate, Wohlman alternates between revealing a keen self-awareness and shy self-consciousness. He speaks unabashedly about boxing, but he can be self-effacing, saying, "Sorry, these are stupid details. But they are my details." His tattoos include the words "father," "son" and "mom," but his family life is more complicated than the ink might suggest. "I didn't do well with my mom or my stepdad, and my dad was never around," he says. "I love my mother on an umbilical-cord level, but we don't talk. That seems to be the best I can do for that relationship."
As for his dad, he eventually came back into Wohlman's life. "When I was 16, I didn't have a place to live and I moved in with him," Wohlman says. "We were, literally, partners in crime, doing drugs and crime until one day, the police showed up at the door, arrested us, put us both in the back of the car and drove us to the police station. My dad went to prison. I went to Sylmar Juvenile Detention."Both father and son are now clean: "I figured he'd get out and go back to his life, but he got clean the day he got arrested. At this point, we're really tight and he's my best friend."
Perhaps because of Wohlman's troubled childhood, the human bond seems to motivate him. When he speaks about discovering boxing as a 14-year-old at military school, it was the discovery of a substitute father figure that most seemed to affect him. "I got in the ring and I hit the guy, and I just went off on him," he says. "And I turned around and there was a sergeant major there, and I just remember that connection of, like, 'Go. Go kill him. Do what you've got to do,' and I completely fell in love with the sport. Right after that, I cleaned off my blood, went to the library and I got every boxing book. I don't remember anything from zero to military school. I don't remember anything, really, before I started boxing. I feel like it's God's way of doing me a favor."
For a 24-year-old, Wohlman values tradition in general. He attends weekly religious services (that nickname, "Yamaka,"is a reference to his Jewish heritage) and listens to his music on vinyl. His preference for Aretha Franklin and Muddy Waters reflects an old soul that's partial to the blues. "After the fight's over, I crash very hard," he says. "I'm really sensitive. Instantly, I think of what I did wrong. I am very hard on myself when it comes down to it. I'm a fucking weirdo after I fight. Most fighters are on top of the world. I just can't pull it off."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
He credits boxing for saving his life, and his devotion reflects his gratitude: He wants to give back to boxing what he feels boxing has given to him. "I'm in love with what I do," he says. "I will find a boxing gym wherever I am at and I will be in there."
When he's in the ring, Wohlman is fully immersed in the moment. It's one of the few times in his life where he's liberated from his tendency to overanalyze. He points to his head, and says with a chuckle, "I'm a nutcase." Asked to use one word to describe boxing, he says, "Oh my God ... it's heaven."
He shakes his head, looks down, laughs and says, "I'm so addicted, it's terrible."