Heart of a Champion: Inside the Boxing World of an Oakland Legend

Heart of a Champion: Inside the Boxing World of an Oakland Legend

By Alejandra Saragoza February 28, 2020

In Oakland’s gritty Fruitvale neighborhood, tucked away on a dead-end street between old train tracks and a busy interstate, is an unexpected haven: King’s Boxing Gym. If you’ve never been here before, it’s easy to think you’re in the wrong place as you arrive at the unassuming building on 35th Avenue. It looks like a simple cement warehouse, with fading signage and peeling paint—not very remarkable. But once you step foot inside, you realize you’ve discovered something special. 

At 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the humble gym is already bustling with boxers—including young men, an older woman, and a little girl—practicing their hooks and jabs, doing push-ups, and hitting heavy punching bags. The only sound carrying over the hard thuds and heavy breathing is the melody of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” which blares over the speakers. The walls are covered with old boxing posters complete with inspirational statements such as, “The harder you train, the luckier you get” and “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” 

Boxers of all ages and skill levels come to the legendary King's Boxing Gym in Oakland for training, support, and guidance.

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At the center of it all is a full-size, raised boxing ring with coaching platforms, spit buckets, and personalized ropes. Hanging above it are a massive American flag and a banner saying, “Oakland celebrates Olympic Game gold medalist Andre Ward”—one of the many legendary boxers to come out of King’s Boxing Gym. On certain days, you might see a couple of neighborhood kids shadowboxing in complete concentration or two fighters preparing to spar, fitting damp pieces of headgear as their trainer straps them on tight. 

But today, owner Charles King is the one by the ring, instructing a woman on the punching bag and calling out combinations. Mr. King opened his own gym on March 12, 1984, after the downtown Oakland boxing gym where he was working closed its doors; that gym was where Mr. King became inextricably immersed in the boxing world, learning the ropes and training alongside George Foreman—who went on to become a two-time heavyweight champion and an Olympic gold medalist.

A former amateur boxer, King's Boxing Gym owner Charles King continues to train students and share his extensive knowledge on the sport.

“It was amazing to watch [Foreman] come up [through the boxing ranks] and then see him on TV all the time,” Mr. King later says as he sits inside his office, where the walls are graced by photos of boxing greats and celebrities who’ve come through the gym, including Mike Tyson and MC Hammer. “That was my first time training in a gym … but boxing becomes an addiction, and you just want to be around it.”  

Mr. King, a tall and soft-spoken man, is a Boston native and a retired Union Pacific Railroad worker who found himself in Oakland after serving in the U.S. Navy. In the 35-plus years he’s operated his own boxing gym, he’s traveled across the country with boxers he’s trained, met some of the most famous fighters in the world—including Joe Frazier and Hammer’s Hype man (the one who yells: “Go, go, go Hammer!”)—and created a legendary California boxing destination. But he laughs at the idea of King’s Boxing Gym being an “iconic boxing place.” What matters most to him is not the fame, but rather the ability to help the community. “When you take a troubled kid off the streets and introduce him to boxing, his life will change,” he says.

Celeste and Charles King are the power couple behind the gym, motivating and empowering their students by teaching them life skills through boxing.

He and his wife, Celeste King, have always been dedicated to creating a safe, welcoming haven for those who feel like they don’t have one—and they’ve certainly fulfilled their commitment. Many of the people who show up for hours every day are kids from the neighborhood who are looking for something to do, to find an outlet for their energy and frustrations. They are able to find it in this classic, old-school boxing gym, which functions as its own little universe where nothing but hard work (and a lot of sweat) matters once someone walks through the door. The outside world, with all of its problems and challenges, often feels far away.  

“Let’s face it: Oakland is an area where there’s high crime and a lot of gangs, so kids feel like they have no other choices,” says Mrs. King, who worked in corporate America for nearly 30 years before coming to King’s Boxing to oversee business operations in 1997. “We have kids that are here for two to three hours a day. They come in for their training, and when the training is over, they continue to work out here. It speaks volumes. … We try to keep our prices low because we realize it’s a community gym. We’re not about trying to make a profit off of these people, because to me, it’s more important to save their lives.”

Students come from all over the Bay Area—including Danville, Antioch, and Mill Valley—to train at the well-known gym.

The power couple has certainly had a positive impact. Mrs. King describes many stories of kids who return as adults—and oftentimes with their kids—to thank her and Mr. King for keeping them off the streets. She also tells tales of formerly troubled youths who trained at the gym and went on to study at top colleges such as UC Berkeley and to land coveted jobs at companies like NASA. Aside from helping at-risk youth, the Kings have also lifted up children with autism and behavioral problems. They believe the life skills and confidence that kids often gain through boxing make a significant difference.

“The success stories of the people coming out of [the gym] is unbelievable,” Mrs. King asserts.  “We’ve had some kids [on the Autism spectrum], and when they first come in, they can’t even look at you, their self esteem is so low. But after coming here a few times, you can see the difference; I’ll see them at the supermarket, and they’re flagging me down. [Boxing] really does help kids with low self-esteem, because it’s not a team sport. They get out what they put in.”

"Boxing becomes an addiction, and you just want to be around it." Charles King

But King’s Boxing doesn’t just draw local kids. The famous gym also attracts people of all ages from across the Bay Area—including Mill Valley, San Jose, San Ramon, and Antioch—to pummel the various-sized punching bags and speed bags, spar with an opponent, or lift weights with the assistance of one of the trainers. Some come to learn self-defense or lose weight, while others come to train for competitions. Currently, there are about 250 members with diverse backgrounds; on any given day, the gym will welcome tech executives, doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes, and retired folks. While the gym has always attracted people from all walks of life, Mrs. King says the biggest change she’s seen is the number of women who’ve started boxing over the years: 

“When I first came to the gym, we had about 15 women. Now, we have 52 and climbing. A lot of women are doing it for fitness, but a lot of them are doing it for self-defense, and a few of them are boxing in competitions—and people love women fights, because they don’t fight like girls. [Female boxer] Claressa Shields has done remarkable things for women, too. … People now see that we have the same skills, and if we practice, we can be just as good—if not better—than men.”

From young women and children to pro boxers and retirees, people of all walks of life are welcome to work out at King's Boxing.

Boxing enthusiasts can watch the fighting action at one of the shows King’s Boxing hosts every year. Held three to four times annually, these boxing bouts bring fighters from across California and beyond. (And if you’re lucky, legends like Andre Ward and Amir Khan will pop in, too.) But no matter when you visit King’s Boxing, the loud sound of gloves meeting the hanging bags or other punch pads echoes throughout the place all day. 

Unlike many other boxing gyms, the Kings don’t offer group classes; instead, they solely provide personalized—yet very affordable—training sessions to ensure individual students get the proper attention, which allows them to hone their technique and improve their skills more quickly. 

Instead of offering classes, King's Boxing only provides personalized training sessions to ensure each student receives dedicated attention.

King’s Boxing Gym trainer Rae Black has been coming to the gym for seven years and recently became an instructor. She describes how the Kings are pillars of the community, thanks to their generosity and the impact they’ve had on Oakland’s rich sports history. “Everyone here knows who the Kings are—they’re legends,” Black says. “[King’s Boxing] is a home for people; it’s a place to get guidance and support. People who come here are seen as who they are: part of a family.”

For the Kings, the ability to create a community and help empower people make all the challenges of running a business worth it. “I work harder in this than I did in corporate, because when it’s your own business, that’s what you do—the hours are endless,” Mrs. King says. “But the kids are what keep me motivated. When you can put a smile on a little girl or a little boy who’s sad and see their lives change, it’s huge. It makes you proud. ..  It’s phenomenal to see them grow up and see what they do with their lives.”

WRITTEN BY
Alejandra Saragoza

WRITTEN BY Alejandra Saragoza

Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…

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