The big fight

A two-year-old boxing gym that trains professional fighters is growing out of its digs in Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood, largely because it is so popular with kids grappling with real life issues.

The three pre-teen boys on bikes peering through the windows of the Edison neighborhood boxing studio have potential – to be champions, or anything else.

“Yo! What’s up?” hollers Alejandro Rodriguez, who was translating an interview with gym co-founder Yaimari “Cuba” Gonzales-Santos and jumped at the opportunity to interrupt another potential outcome for kids in a neighborhood with disproportionately high rates of violent crime and gun violence.

“You guys wanna come train with us? We own that gym.”

The United Boxing Club on Portage Street was started two years ago by professional fighters Gonzales-Santos and Ben Williams Jr., but has grown so fast that they are preparing to move into the Crossroads Mall in Portage this summer.

Word is spreading quickly about this home for future prize fighters and a home away from home for kids in need of a literal fighting chance. They’re still open to anyone, 6-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, Rodriguez tells the kids.

“We’ll be here. You guys invite your friends, tell them we got enough room, we’ll make it happen. If we get too packed out inside, we’ll train outside.”

“I’ll come tomorrow,” the older kid says as he and his friends pedal off.

  • Several teenage students stand in boxing poses while holding hand weights.
  • Several teenage boys exercise with hand weights.
  • Yaimari Gonzales-Santos stands as if ready to box while several students look on.
  • Several t-shirts with boxing logos hang from a brick wall. Each shirt is signed by several people.

The coaches say they will sometimes pack 40 to 50 people sparring and shuffling in the 750 square foot gym. Yet, no one is turned away, every child is worth their time.

“Not many people have a place they can go to like we do and get the love and support that we get while we’re here,” said Johana, a 17-year-old Loy Norrix student who trains at the gym. She had just stepped outside for fresh air after a high intensity workout on the punching bag.

Gonzales-Santos understands firsthand the hope that opportunity breeds, and what happens in the wake of its loss. He’s been lured by the same vices that taunt young folks and exploit troubled minds. Now, he’s committed to training them to win in the ring and ultimately in life. He only requires them to pay in discipline and self-control.

“It keeps kids off the streets, and it keeps their mind off of doing drugs or committing crimes or getting in trouble,” he says.

At 10 years old, Gonzales-Santos began training as a boxer in Cuba – hence the nickname – but he was forced to stop and was kicked out of school when he began speaking out against Fidel Castro and the forced conscription of young people into the military. That’s when he sunk into depression, addiction, and self-destruction, until he met his wife, Elisabe Hernandez-Perez. He says they escaped Cuba first via Costa Rica and then through 11 other countries, before claiming asylum and moving to Kalamazoo in 2017 where, like most refugees, they had to start over.

Without a car or strong enough English skills to traverse the Metro bus system, the couple walked to and from their job at a Portage restaurant each day.

A co-worker introduced him to the local boxing community, and his style and experience almost immediately brought him attention, clients to train, and opportunities to fight himself.

Then the pandemic hit, the gyms were closed, and the fights were canceled.

He rushed to the stores on the last possible day and bought a speed bag, a punching bag, and a couple of weights. He knew he’d need to stay in shape, so his wife popped off her acrylic nails and filled in as his trainer.

Elisabe Hernandez-Perez holds a stick while a student in boxing gloves practices dodging.
Elisabe Hernandez-Perez, Gonzales-Santos’s wife, trains young kids at the gym.

The rhythmic thuds were like music to the boxer, but a cacophony to their neighbors. Their complaints put an end to Gonzales-Santos’s indoor training. In the summer, he took his training outdoors to the parking lot.

First his neighbors watched, then they started joining him. He says kids that lived in the apartment complex would join him after school and adults would arrive in the early evening and stay until midnight.

“Soon enough, when I would wake up to leave my apartment and go train, I’d have four or five students sitting on the staircase waiting for me to get out there,” he says. He was committed to the kids just as much as they were to training with him. Then winter came and he told them, “you guys gotta stop coming because if you keep coming, I’m going to keep training, and we’ll freeze to death out here.”

That’s when Gonzales-Santos sought out a real space for them to train, and partners to help support it. His promise to the kids was that as long as they showed up, he’d handle the bills and finances, caring for them in a way he wished someone had done for him as a kid.

“A lot of the students that come, they don’t live at home with their parents, and not all of them have their moms and dads at home,” Gonzales-Santos says. “A lot of them don’t have money.”

Nearly six years ago Ben Williams Jr. noticed Gonzales-Santos working out at a local Planet Fitness, he recognized a movement and technique unique to boxers, which led to a conversation and eventually a partnership.

Ben Williams holds a heavy bag while a student practices boxing with it.
Ben Williams works with an amateur fighter, holding the heavy bag as the teen throws punches.

Williams grew up boxing in between Benton Harbor and Kalamazoo. He says at the age of six he caught the eye of legendary coaches and competed for years. He won five Michigan Golden Glove state championships in the early 2000s.

His progress in the ring was stunted as he became preoccupied with the streets, a lesson learned that he deploys as a trainer now.

“My dad always told me ‘you need to get away,’ but me not knowing, just wrapped up in my gang – I guess you wanna say gang activities,” Williams says, using air quotes around the words. “I didn’t see it. So now as an adult, as a man, I see a lot of kids with talent. I want to help them.”

Williams was training Gonzales-Santos when COVID-19 shut things down. It didn’t take much convincing for Gonzales-Santos to get Williams on board with the idea of starting up their own gym and providing a resource for kids.

“The first thing I teach you when you come into my gym is discipline,” Williams says. “If you just going out, starting fights, then I can’t train you.”

Williams is still a professional trainer and promoter, which brings in money that is covering some costs and giving something tangible to kids who might seek money in other ways.

“It generates income. I know a lot of my friends (were) used to selling drugs,” he says. “They can get in the ring and fight and let out frustration and make $1,500 win or lose.”

Alejandro Rodriguez, Yaimari Gonzales-Santos, Elisabe Hernandez-Perez stand outside the plate-glass front windows of the boxing club. Several countries' flags hang in the windows.
Co-owners Alejandro Rodriguez, Gonzales-Santos, and Hernandez-Perez pose outside of the gym on Portage Street.

The two met Rodriguez through mutual friends, and he stepped in as an administrator of sorts, with a skillset for managing nonprofits and applying for grants.

Even if they don’t make their money from boxing, Rodriguez says, many of the teens become motivated to get their first legitimate job. The partners build trust, which helps the young fighters develop other parts of their lives.

Boxing draws the kids in, but in reality, the men provide a hub of resources that they’re looking to grow as they upgrade to Crossroads Mall. The finances just didn’t work in the smaller location, and they’re planning to close down the Edison neighborhood gym. They are working with parents and local nonprofits to help with transportation and other sustainability issues so that the expanded gym can still be a resource that kids heading toward trouble can be referred to.

The bigger space will allow them to better support their young amateur boxers and a larger, more traditional clientele, to make up for and build on the passion project for which they’ve paid out of pocket for two years. In addition to boxing, there will also be training in Zumba, Taekwondo, Jujutsu, and Karate at the new facility.

Credell Kitchen spars with Yaimari Gonzales-Santos in a gym.
Credell “Pete” Kitchen trains Gonzales-Santos as he prepares for an upcoming fight.

Credell “Pete” Kitchen, the newest partner in United Boxing Club, says the first time he heard Gonzales-Santos’ plans, he knew it was something he wanted to be a part of. The two met at a gym and talked for six hours, neither knowing the other’s language (Rodriguez translated Gonzales-Santos’ interview with NowKalamazoo). “Good people speak good people,” Kitchen says.

Kitchen credits his wife for helping him realize he could earn a living by training the people who were drawn to his technique and routine in the gym. The road to United Boxing Club was not straight, though. The only profession he had ever known before that was selling dope on the Kalamazoo streets that he grew up in. It’s the only skill he learned from a father that abused him and his mother.

After multiple stints in prison, “the FBI shows up at our door,” and he went away for good. The aggression and rage that had built inside were assets in the drug game. “I was strong enough to pull a gun on a human,” he says, “and terrified to be the person who walked through Walmart and not own a gun.”

At 34, he started training again. “Martial arts served as the principal building blocks when it was time to reconstruct my life,” he says, “because the principles, discipline, accountability, respect, self-respect are all the focal points of martial arts.”

A changed man, he’s built up a personal trainer clientele, and will bring that to the gym when it opens in a bigger space in Crossroads Mall. Until then, he and Williams are both training Gonzales-Santos, who is still a professional fighter. And he maintains a role model presence for the young people who walk through those doors, and even his fellow coaches.

  • Alejandro Rodriguez points to the other end of a room as if planning out how this space will be laid out. Another man watches.
  • Two adults pull out a large, black trash bag as a teenage student looks on. All are wearing blue, plastic gloves.
  • Four men and a woman stand in boxing poses facing the camera.

“It’s very inspiring to know that even people like our coaches can change and give something back to the community that they once took from,” says Johana, the Loy Norrix student.

“We use the physical activity to build bridges and the next thing you know, a week later this kid is holding the bag for that kid and then that kid’s holding the bag for this kid,” Kitchen says. “You start to build that through conversation and morale. It’s all of us in here. Same goal.”

The partners say they ask the kids to leave beef on the streets when they come to the gym, but take what they learn in the gym when they go back out those doors.

“No one wants an enemy,” Kitchen says. “If I have an enemy, chances are me and that person just haven’t communicated enough.”

Gonzales-Santos says there are a lot of people from different gangs, but they know that inside the gym, all are welcome and there have never been any confrontations.

“When one of them shares, they all get to talking about how they have similar thoughts, and they start talking to each other about how they can help one another and they all become students of each other,” Gonzales-Santos says.

“I see it in their eyes and in their character that they got problems and I know that every one of my alumni that come here want to change. Everywhere the youth go there’s violence, there’s drugs, there’s murder, but when they come here, it’s the complete opposite.”

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