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Fistfuls of Hope

In a little boxing gym, youngsters from a Navajo reservation are learning lessons that go far beyond fighting.

January 02, 2001|LEO W. BANKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CHINLE, Ariz. — 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.

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.

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.

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