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Zachary Wohlman, aka 'Kid Yamaka,' Is Boxing's Great Jewish Hope

Zachary Wohlman
Zachary Wohlman
Photo by Star Foreman

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."

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."

Follow the writer on Twitter at @PamelaChelin. Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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