Fistfuls of Hope

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Follow the road that winds through a cottonwood grove behind the police station in this wind-battered Navajo town. Go past the trailers, the shacks marred by graffiti and the cows munching on grass. At the back of a clearing patrolled by surly hound dogs stands a weathered sign held up by two forked juniper posts. It says simply: Boxing Gym.

Inside the small, flat-roofed building, home of the Damon-Bahe Boxing Club, Cal Bahe is standing in the center of a ring calling instructions to his fighters. They're young Navajos, a boy, Ryan Eskeets, and a girl, Christine Lewis, both 12.

Christine is getting the better of this match, popping Ryan in the jaw with a solid right and again with a left. "Move your head!" Bahe shouts to Ryan. "Your head's in one spot! Move around!"

The 54-year-old Navajo trainer is square-shouldered and heavyset, his arms hanging wide at his sides. Any question as to whether he's been in the ring himself is answered in his face, which has clearly met some leather, and by the flat-footed prowl that passes for a walk.

In fact, Bahe has been around boxing on and off for 40 years, the last 22 of those teaching the sport to Navajo youngsters. His home, next to the gym, is a showcase of trophies and citations, some calling him a hero for his work with kids who might otherwise fall to the despair of reservation life.

Over the years, Bahe has produced 13 national champions--five in USA Boxing silver gloves competitions, and eight in National Indian Athletic Assn. tournaments. His record is all the more noteworthy coming from hardscrabble Chinle, population 4,000, where young people struggle every day with alcohol, drugs and gangs.

"We've got lots of problems here," says Bahe, who retired in 1998 after 20 years with the National Park Service, much of it as a cop at nearby Canyon de Chelly. "There's no teen center and nothing for kids to do but get in trouble."

At present, he works with about 25 youngsters, including the Tsosie brothers, William, 13, and Jerold, 12. Together they hold 12 Arizona state championships and two titles from the NIAA. But the real benefits, according to dad William Tsosie, come outside the ring.

"Boxing has taken the boys off the reservation, allowing them to interact with people outside their culture," says the 40-year-old electrician. "The discipline has changed their attitude toward school, too. They're different from kids you see hanging out, getting into trouble."

Ten of Bahe's fighters are girls. Christine, a seventh-grader, describes her choice of sport simply. "I like to fight," she says through braces. "And it's a good way to see the country. I've been everywhere, Minnesota, Phoenix, Fruitland, N.M."

Bahe has trained girls for about five years. They are drawn to the sport for the same reasons as boys--to get attention, relieve stress, forget problems at home. It's also a means of resisting gang pressures.

He Swears the Sport Saved His Life

Bahe knows all about troubled youth. As a 13-year-old living in nearby Holbrook, Ariz., he recalls spending much of his time breaking into houses and cars, stealing whatever wasn't tied down. A judge allowed him to avoid reform school, he says, if he agreed to leave town.

With his mother, Bahe returned to Fort Defiance, Ariz., his birthplace, and was taken in by his uncle, who ran a boxing gym. Lee Damon was a noted amateur and Marine Corps fighter, considered one of the best the reservation ever produced.

At 14, Bahe entered the ring for the first time, and he swears it saved his life. "It kept me from drinking," he says. "And if I strayed, I had my uncle there to kick my butt. If it wasn't for this sport I'd be in jail or worse."

Now, Bahe hammers that message into his fighters. At practices each day, he reminds them that he listens to police scanners at night. If one of their names turns up, they'll be hearing from him.

Most of Bahe's fighters come from single-parent families. But Lovelyn Draper is an exception. Initially, her mom was reluctant to allow the 16-year-old girl to box at Bahe's club.

"I didn't want people thinking we were a mixed-up family," says Betty Rose Draper. "But Lovelyn's grandfather was a boxer, and he gave her encouragement. So I came here and checked the place out, and I trust Cal."

As a four-year ring veteran, Lovelyn has won 15 trophies, and last year she was Arizona's state champ in the Junior Olympics competition. "When I first came here the boys gave me a bloody nose and split lip and stuff," she says. "But I've learned how to block." Her goal is to graduate from college and turn professional.

Bahe's wife, Judy--a social worker with the Chinle schools and a respected boxing judge--says Navajo girls make good fighters because the culture is matriarchal, which encourages strong females. Many come from remote parts of the reservation, she says, where everyday chores include hauling water and chopping wood. Some parents don't want their children learning to box at all, and a few have pulled their youngsters out of Cal Bahe's program. When that happens, Judy says she talks to the parents, telling them that it's a safe activity, well below the professional level, and invites them to attend practice.

It that doesn't change their mind, she says, reality often does. In many cases, the child goes back to running the streets and the parents bring them back to the club, she says.

Judy spends afternoons at the gym, acting as a kind of matron to the boxers. "Whatever emotion is going inside these kids comes out in here," she says.

She remembers one boy bursting into tears after a bout. When she asked why, he explained that his parents were divorcing, and his mom supported his boxing but his father didn't. The boy was bothered by that and needed to talk.

"When children start boxing, their behavior stabilizes to where they begin watching what they say, what they eat," Judy says. "They're more polite. The discipline gives them self-esteem and confidence. Cal went through all that when he was young."

'Cal Has Been Quite a Positive Influence'

Cal was a street fighter first, then a boxer. As a teenager in 1963, he was an Arizona state champion and Four Corners regional champ. After high school, he moved to L.A., and continued fighting into his 20s in California Golden Gloves competitions.

But alcohol has defined Cal's life as much as boxing. His father was a drinker who abandoned the family when Cal was young, and his mentor, Damon, died of alcohol-related problems in 1978.

Bahe himself struggled with an addiction that developed in the late '60s and the '70s, when he worked as a drummer in Indian bar bands. He spent much time in Gallup, N.M., then known for its notorious dives, and returned there for treatment in 1983.

"Gallup did me in, so I went back to Gallup to get treated," says Cal, who has been clean 17 years. He took over Damon's club in Fort Defiance in 1978 and moved it to Ganado shortly thereafter. In 1983, he transferred to Chinle and has been running the club there ever since.

It hasn't been easy. When he and his fighters drive to tournaments, they sleep at roadside campsites to save money. Training is with donated equipment. For years, the gym was wherever Bahe could find space, usually at local schools.

In 1994, he and Judy decided to build their own gym, setting aside money from their paychecks and pushing their credit card limit. The land on which the gym sits was once a sheep corral belonging to Judy's dad, Roy Notah, 82, a Navajo code talker during World War II. He donated the property and used his skill as a carpenter to oversee construction.

After a year of work and $10,000, they ran out of money before applying finishing touches, such as a ceiling. The latter is still a network of exposed insulation, partly covered with plywood.

But training goes on year-round at the gym, and through the Chinle schools, where Cal works as a substitute teacher and gives boxing instructions as a prevention activity.

"Cal has been quite a positive influence," says Sharon Jones, director of the after-school program. "His students are maintaining good grades and their discipline referrals have decreased. It's been a real plus."

One of Cal's most successful students has been 25-year-old Pete Gilmore, of Kayenta, Ariz., who trained at Damon-Bahe for seven years and turned pro in June as a junior middleweight. "Cal is the best coach on the rez," he said. "He's really good with boxing fundamentals, but he's also an outstanding person. We have very few Indian leaders here we can look up to. Cal teaches discipline and courage, and shows his boxers ways to stay on the right track."

As a member of the Native American Sports Council, headquartered at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Cal says his ultimate goal is getting a fighter into the Olympics. His 13-year-old son, Lowell, a USA Boxing Silver Gloves national champ last year, might be his best hope.

"If I get a Navajo to the level of alternate, I'll be happy," Cal says. "But if I don't that's OK too, because I'm finally doing what I want. No more wearing a sidearm and tossing people in jail."

As Melissa Eskeets watches son Ryan fight, she couldn't care less about the Olympics. She's not even concerned that Christine Lewis is pummeling him in a practice bout. Eskeets is only glad Ryan has someplace to go.

"I needed to get him away from the gangs," she says over the thump of colliding gloves and blows. "Since he's been fighting he's doing better. He used to be so sensitive about everything, but now things don't bother him as much."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 3, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Incorrect year--A story Tuesday about young Navajo boxers misstated when 13-year-old Lowell Cahe was a USA Boxing Silver Gloves national champ. He won the title in 1999.
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