In 1977, a 64 year-old Yonoichi Kitagawa was asked in an interview if he would’ve called himself a leader in his Kakaako community growing up. His response from him: “Well, I would say that I had a lot of fistfights.”
This was more a reflection of how things were in the 1920s, when Hawaii was only a US territory and Kakaako was mostly a community of fishermen and working class people. But it is also an apt description of how Kitagawa came to be a genuine leader in his community whose legacy is still felt now 37 years after his death from him.
Kitagawa’s penchant for fighting – as well as playing hooky – got him kicked out of school, but when boxing became legalized in Hawaii in 1929, he saw an opportunity. “If there’s going to be a fistfight, why not do it legally?”
With no formal training outside of what he learned on the streets, Kitagawa started teaching local fishermen how to box in 1932. Within four years, he named his club the Kakaako Young Men’s Association and joined the Amateur Athletic Union. Although the legendary Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn is often credited as the oldest boxing gym in the country, Kitagawa’s club had been in operation for five years before Gleason’s opened its doors in 1937.
Kitagawa had an undeniable passion for the sweet science, but he also saw its potential beyond the boxing ring, especially for kids like himself who got into trouble. Several of his students from him slept and ate at his house from him. When asked if any of the boys who came to him to train were “on the verge of going astray,” Kitagawa said, “most of them were like that. But they change. All of them.”
The physical demands of boxing make it impossible to stay out late drinking or doing drugs, which meant the ones who stuck around were the ones who developed proper regimens of sleep and healthy living. “When they do that, no chance to get into trouble,” Kitagawa said.
Kitagawa explained that insight 45 years ago, but it is no less true now. Earlier this month at the reopening of Kakaako YMA – called Kakaako Boxing Club since 1980 – in its new Kalihi location, the club’s chair and boxing coach Reno Abihai echoed a similar sentiment: “When I was a kid, three hours here took me out for the whole night. I couldn’t be out in the street after coming here.”
Abihai grew up in the Mayor Wright Homes, a tough neighborhood with a reputation that can become an expectation for kids growing up there. “I was running in the streets doing wild things,” Abihai said. “I heard about this gym that some of the kids used to go to. It happened to be KBC. Those coaches helped me learn how to box, how to be healthy, how to set goals. I started to turn my life around.”
Abihai put himself through college and lived on the mainland for 10 years. He returned to Hawaii in 2010, and in 2017 he decided to go back to his old club. It was still going, but struggling, with about half a dozen members. Abihai started helping out at the club, which is how he met Sean Fitzsimmons, a local boy who started boxing while he was at law school in Ohio.
“The owner of the gym I went to in Dayton owned a car dealership, so he had all this extra money in a depressed area of the Midwest,” Fitzsimmons said. “He’d buy all the gloves he could find and keep them in the gym. Whenever kids from the neighborhood would come in, he’d give them a pair of gloves, but the rule was they had to stay in the gym.” That way, the kids kept coming back.
“When I got to Kakaako Boxing Club,” Fitzsimmons said, “the feeling was the same as the gym I had in Ohio. The same community vibe, where the first thing you care about is giving people a place to get off the streets and be productive.”
Abihai exemplified this ethos, when he left a higher salary as a software engineer to work at the Institute of Human Services, a service provider for homeless people that was right next to KBC’s previous location. This allowed him to spend more time at the gym, as well as be in more direct contact with the kind of at-risk kids the club has always focused on. After successful outreach to the women and kids at IHS, they decided to turn the boxing club into a nonprofit in 2020.
Fitzsimmons calls Abihai the heart and soul of Kakaako Boxing Club, and credits his consistency for taking his membership from a handful of people a couple years ago to over 50 now. But as Hawaii’s white-hot real estate market skyrocketed, the building owners at the club’s previous location decided to sell.
“We grew into this family that we couldn’t part ways with,” Abihai said. “We couldn’t just let all this history dissolve.”
They moved into the former Pau Hana Lounge in Kalihi, and opened to the public on July 17. Aside from continuing its community outreach efforts, KBC is partnered with other nonprofits that have complementary goals: Women Speaking Out, which aims to reduce domestic violence, and Keep It Flowing, which uses art and graphic design to reach the same kinds of kids who find guidance at KBC.
“The goal of the gym is to teach life lessons through boxing,” Fitzsimmons said. “The fight is the job interview, the exam, the big difficult thing in front of you. It takes hard work, it takes diligence, it takes consistency. If you know how to be successful in one thing, you know how to be successful in all things.”
This also echoes a sentiment that Yonoichi Kitagawa, the gym’s founder, expressed decades ago: “Because they establish themselves good in sport or whatever, (they become) a bonafide citizen. They law abiding. They go school, they study hard. And each one, each one is a success. This is what makes me feel good. I feel proud of them. Every one. Not one bad.”
In a place like Hawaii where we’re constantly yearning for the past, looking back to the good ol’ days and lamenting the loss of the Hawaii we knew growing up, it’s hopeful and refreshing to see how some of the good things from the old days have stayed the same.