Words Gabriel Alvarez Photos Kenneth Cappello
Los Angeles’ Zachary Wohlman had been through a lot to get to this point in his life. Growing up, he had a rough time at home, and during his teenage years he got involved with drugs. A stint at military school introduced him to boxing, but even his love for the sport wasn’t enough to keep him from ending up on the wrong side of the law.
So, for him to end up in the ring as a professional boxer was a blessing. Not only that, the exposure the 24-year-old was getting as a newcomer with barely a few pro fights to his name was unheard of. He had already graced the cover of LA Weekly. His debut bout, which took place in December, 2011 at a packed Club Nokia in downtown LA, aired on Fox Sports Net.
“I feel like boxing rolled out the red carpet for me,” he says today, reflecting back. Zac sits in front of a small, spicy meal at a Thai restaurant on the border of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Zac’s “look,” obviously helped with the hype: with a sharp, throwback haircut, classic pugilistic nose and an array of old school tattoos, he resembles a modern version of a fighter from the 1950s.
Having world-class trainer Freddie Roach — the man who has guided superstar Manny Pacquiao — didn’t hurt Zac either. Things were definitely looking up for the charismatic young man who embarked on his own quest for stardom, going 4-0 to start his career, and often hustling on the side selling tickets to his fights, face-to-face with fans.
Zac went into his fifth fight in September of last year feeling sure that he would reign supreme. By his account, he was controlling the action against an overmatched opponent when an accidental yet forceful clash of craniums opened up a nasty gash on Zac’s forehead down to the bone, causing blood to squirt everywhere.
“It didn’t hurt that bad,” says Zac. “I don’t think I tripped out. I know what business I’m in: It’s show business with blood.”
The ring doctor stopped the match, then went to work on the bloody cut. “They brought me [to] the back of the Florentine Gardens and cleared off a metal cutting table,” says Zac. “They put me on there and stitched me up. And all the cooks were taking pictures with their camera phones. That’s boxing: in the back of an old nightclub getting stitched up.” The fight was scored a technical draw. Zac’s record was slightly blemished, but he remained undefeated.
Told that he couldn’t fight for three months while his injury healed, Zac headed to New York. But, as Zac puts it, “ ‘Idle hands’ is like the Devil’s playground for me,” and he started to indulge in NYC nightlife. “I started partying a little bit, and I don’t know how to party a little bit. It was hard for me to put it down. The truth is I think that I started playing too much. I think it was a lot of ignorance [on my part]. It sucks to say, I wish I could say something else.”
Before long, he started feeling antsy being away from the ring. October was almost over, and he wasn’t supposed to fight until January at the earliest, but he decided rather compulsively to call his manager to get him a fight. An opportunity presented itself to appear on the Abner Mares vs. Anselmo Moreno undercard at the Staples Center, one of the bigger boxing attractions of last year. The only catch — the fight was 10 days away.
Zac hightailed it out of the Big Apple back to the Wild Card gym in Los Angeles to start sparring. But, as a result of his partying, Zac had ballooned up to 167 pounds. He was 20 pounds over the welterweight limit.
“I was losing so much weight so fast, my hands were hurting [when I punched],” he says. “I couldn’t take shots. Freddie was like, ‘I don’t know why you’re taking this [fight].’ ”
But Zac hadn’t lost a round in his pro career. His confidence was soaring, and he took his opponent, Alonso Loeza, with a record of 2-7-1, lightly.
Luckily, despite the lack of discipline, the brief camp and rapid weight loss, all was going fine for Zac. He boxed well the first two rounds. Then, in the third, something happened.
“It felt like the batteries fell out of me,” he says, who had to dig deep to survive, which he did, buying a minute’s rest before heading into the fourth and final round. There was still hope. He just had to get through the next three grueling minutes.
But the previous months’ partying had taken its toll. With his legs betraying him, he had no choice but to stand and trade.
“I had, like, that Jake LaMotta moment where I basically put my arms on the ropes and said, ‘Give it a go.’ And this guy gave it a go,” says Zac, who let the other fighter tee off on him until the ref stopped the action. Zac finished the fight on his feet, but lost for the first time as a pro.
“I never felt pain in my heart like that before,” he says, “and I never ever want to feel that pain again.”
“It’s one thing to lose to a guy that’s better than you,” he continues, “and it’s another thing to like walk back out to the car and be like, ‘You were clearly better, and you clearly got tired,’ ” he says. “But that’s also the great thing about boxing: it’s that the guy who will stand there and fight may beat the guy with skill. And you got to always respect that part of the sport.”
Zac is from The Valley, a place more known for producing porn, not breeding boxers. Most of the time when you think of fighters, they come from
the ‘hood or the barrio. You think of Mike Tyson comin’ out of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Even former Olympian and boxing megastar Oscar de la Hoya is from East LA.
But, believe it or not, people in the ‘burbs also have problems. A young Zachary Wohlman was one of those people.
“If you’re getting hit in the face for a living, something fucked up happened [in your life],” says Zac. “I think that whatever pain you go through, you go through. There may be, like, some kid who’s from a mansion in Beverly Hills who had a fuckin’ tough time who becomes a world champion. Pain is relevant to whoever you are and how you deal with it.”
Born in 1988, Zac dealt early on with what he says was an unstable household. He lived in Northridge, Reseda and Woodland Hills, but one thing remained constant: he got in trouble.
“I had a tough time in school,” he says. “I got in fights. And I had a knack for doing illegal things. Thinking back on it, I would always forge my signatures on my report card.”
His parents were high school sweethearts who married young, divorced, had other relationships and then remarried before splitting up again.
Zac vaguely remembers that his real father, who he didn’t grow up with, was “in and out of crime” and “dealt in chemicals like fuckin’ Breakin’ Bad.”
According to Zac, he did not get along with his stepfather, and it put a strain on his relationship with his mother, a hard-working beautician. “I’m not gonna say the guy was a leech, but he didn’t do anything for a living,” says Zac.
When he turned 14, he had an incident with his stepfather. “I got into it with him,” he says. “I had some marks on me, around my neck. And my mom asked if I wanted to go away to this military school because I was just having such a tough time out in the world.”
It was at the military school in Texas where Zac was formally introduced to boxing. He soaked up as much knowledge as he could, reading books about the “sweet science” in his spare time.
“When I got back my stepdad tried to put his hands on me,” he says. “[Only this time] I could fight [back]. I was little older and not such a little kid and I let it show.”
It was then that Zac decided to leave home and stay with various friends. “That’s where the trouble comes in and you start stealing a little bit because you’re broke.”
Eventually, he ended up running into his biological father and moved in with him.
“I came home one day and saw a nice, fat stash of cash,” he says. He knew his dad had gotten the money through illegal means, but the temptation was too much. “I wanted to take girls on dates
and I wanted to get a car, so I started doing that with him.”
The pair engaged in forgery and some drug-related endeavors.
“I liked to do coke. He did speed,” says Zac.
One night, his father warned him: “You don’t want a life like this. Everything we have in this apartment is stolen.” But Zac wasn’t ready to listen.
Then, on one fateful early morning, the party was over. Unbeknownst to Zac and his pops, authorities were on their trail.
“We were just doin’ our thing, rippin’ and runnin’,” he says. “And one day the detectives put down the door at like six in the morning. They rushed us and they found everything and they put us in the back of the cop car together.”
His father was in his early 50s and was going to do some time. Meanwhile, Zac, only 17, was in and out of juvey, then moved up to Oakland to work on an oilrig. He kept drinking heavily. Then he received a phone call that changed his life. It was his father, who had finally been released. He told Zac, now 19, to come visit him at the Judaism-based halfway house he was staying at back in LA. That day, Zac discovered his dad was clean and sober.
“I just have never seen such a smile like that before,” says Zac, who was emotionally on the opposite side of the fence. “At the time, I was still getting fucked up. I was fuckin’ miserable.”
It was after a few more incidents with the police that Zac realized he needed help. As it turned out, the same halfway house that his father had previously been living at took the young fighter in. Now 20 years old, Zac was bar mitzvahed and began attending Shabbat dinners every Friday night.
“I got that sense of family and community that I didn’t grow up with,” he says.
Obviously proud of his Jewish faith, Zac embraced the phonetically spelled “Kid Yamaka” nickname given to him in the gym and has the Star of David tattooed across his stomach.
“My tattoos have good meaning to me,” he says. “I have a tattoo for my father, it says ‘Like Father Like Son,’ a tattoo for my mother, a tattoo for my religion, and what’s important to me.”
Zac Wohlman shadowboxes in front of a mirrored wall at the Wild Card Gym on this blazing hot Thursday afternoon. He patiently waits his turn with Freddie Roach, who is busy with another fighter. It’s three weeks before Zac’s next fight, which is to be held at the Hollywood Park Casino.
“He could be a great success story,” says Roach, who met Zac via one of the counselors at the halfway house. “From where he came from to where he is now is a great story already. But if he can take it even further, it’ll be even that much bigger.”
“The thing is he was just a fuck-up at one time,” he continues. “He was ruining his life. He really turned it around. He’s cleaned his life up, he’s been doing a lot better, and hopefully that keeps going. Even when boxing ends, I think he learned his lesson.”
Zac still doesn’t know who his next opponent is, but this doesn’t seem to bother him. Neither does the fact that he’s dropping to junior welter, meaning instead of 147 he must weigh in at 140. This has also meant he’s had to adhere to a new, strict diet, which consists of blending foods, and keeping his weight to below 150 pounds while he trains.
For Zac, the last seven months have been somewhat bittersweet. He was scheduled for a Showtime ShoBox event in February, his first match since his first loss, but his opponent pulled out at the weigh-in due to an illness. Then, two days later, he was sparring with pro boxer Wale Omotoso, in preparation for another fight three weeks later. The session had barely started when Zac got caught with a weird shot while his mouth was open. The shot broke his jaw and he had to get his mouth wired shut.
“That was heartbreaking,” he says. “I felt like when a horse has a gimp leg, and they take it off the track and shoot it.”
But the time spent out of the ring has given him more time to spend with his family.
“My dad is my best friend,” he says. “We went to the movies last night. That’s my fuckin’ man.”
So far as the shady past they shared, that’s over and done with. “I mean, we laugh it off,” says Zac. “It’s crazy. It will always be a part of us. He made his amends. He’s clean and sober. He’s there in my life. I respect him.”
“And I just started to speak with my mother [again],” he continues. “She had cancer. God forbid anything happens to her. But I can show up as a son at this point. I turned 25 like a week ago. I’m starting to feel like a grown man. I’m starting to feel like whatever happened, it happened.”
Zac’s next fight is not so much a comeback but rather just getting back on track. He has an Undefeated clothing sponsorship in the works, so the lone loss has not hurt his commercial appeal. Now he just needs to focus on what goes on inside the ring.
“Boxing is one fight at a time,” says Zac after his workout. “When you get into the ring you’re putting your life on the line. And now with Freddie working with me, I have a better understanding. This man is teaching me how to protect myself because I’m putting my heartbeat on the line, and my livelihood. Like, this is how I make a living. I’d be stoked if I wanted to be a doctor — I don’t. If I wanted to be a lawyer, that would be awesome, but I don’t. I want to hit people and get hit in the head. I don’t know how to do anything else. Not to say I’ll end up in the gutter if I quit boxing, but this is it for me.”
It’s a cool Saturday night in Inglewood, CA, just a few hours after the Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict. The problems of the world, however, have to be shut off from Zac Wohlman’s mind as he returns to the ring to the sounds of “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave. Tonight he’s matched with a game opponent who takes massively wild swings intent on knocking Zac’s head off. Kid Yamaka uses his better footwork to avoid the majority of punches and cruises to a clear victory. Zac is back on track.
*Zachary “Kid Yamaka” Wohlman fights this Thursday Nov. 14th at Florentine Gardens in Los Angeles, California. Check out the flyer for details.*