Photo by Kelly Nicolaisen. Photo Assistant Storm Vincent. Location provided by K-One Fitness.
Within the neighborhood the professional boxer orients his behavior and routine around the role of boxer.... He is admired, often has a small coterie of followers, and begins to dress smartly ... and to conceive of himself as a neighborhood celebrity, whether or not he has money at the time.
— "THE OCCUPATIONAL CULTURE OF THE BOXER," S. KIRSON WEINBERG AND HENRY AROND, AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY, MARCH 1952.
The brakes squeal and a car jolts to a halt. A disbelieving voice blares from within. "Shit! That's Karim!" A middle-aged man abandons his vehicle — leaving the door wide open and the engine running — and lopes across McAllister Street with the glee of a kid chasing down the ice cream man.
Karim Mayfield, undefeated boxer and the pride of the Fillmore, is in his element. Wandering the streets where he "came up and came back," he is interrupted by well-wishers like a groom on his wedding day. Shouts of "Karim!" or "Hard Hitter!" — Mayfield's nickname — come from restaurant patrons, passing drivers, and the apartment windows above. Mayfield is doted upon like a returning war hero — or the pope.
He is intensely loved, revered, and respected.
He is just barely scraping by.
Neighbors assume that an unblemished record, sponsorships, gigs sparring with champs like Shane Mosley and Manny Pacquiao, and a June appearance on ESPN's Friday Night Fights pummeling former champion Stevie Forbes translate into vast wealth — or at least financial security. "They don't know me," says Mayfield with a wan smile. "And they don't know boxing."
They don't know that while Mosley and Pacquiao command millions for each fight — Floyd Mayweather, Jr. was recently filmed literally setting money ablaze — the majority of boxers are outearned by crossing guards. Mayfield has pocketed more than $3,500 for a fight just twice, and has never fought more than three times in a year. The boxer's San Francisco roots provide him with a refuge, security, and support — but haven't furthered his career.
Professional boxing in this city has gone the way of afternoon newspapers. Jack Johnson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, and countless other pugilists whose names evoke nostalgia fought here. Fifty years ago, San Francisco hosted 30 pro boxing shows. Last year there was one.
A local boxer chasing dreams of wealth and prestige is facing lottery-like odds. Yet scratching this ticket requires years of struggle and prolonged periods without income — and it scratches you back. Mayfield, however, has beaten the odds to come this far. He's fought his way out of boxing's periphery and landed what every fighter covets — a title shot. But a single loss could undo dozens of victories and years of toil. "Boxing is not like football. You can't come back in the playoffs. You lose one fight and you set yourself back a year, maybe two," says the fighter. At 30 years of age and with a wife and three kids, Mayfield does not have years to burn. "It's a crossroad. And this is my time."
The odor of urine and desperation lingers over the intersection of Seventh and Market streets. After two alarmingly steep stairways, that scent is overpowered by the pungent aroma of sweat-soaked clothing and hard-working bodies that's as much a part of boxing gyms as the dumbbells, heavy bags, and memorabilia to furnish 10 Irish pubs.
While acclimating to the smell, one is mesmerized by the surreal scene of 27 frenetic boxers crammed into a space a shade larger than a studio apartment. Even more incongruously, all the goings-on at Straight Forward Club (SFC) are on display through windows for workers at the federal building across the alley.
Boxing coach Paris Alexander, a former lightweight champ, takes in the scene and breaks into a gap-toothed grin. "It's a room full of dreams," he bellows over the din. At 5-foot-7 and a shade under 155 pounds, Karim Mayfield is far from the biggest man in the gym. But he may have the biggest dreams. At the end of the month he'll be fighting in front of the crowds and the cameras. If all goes well, he'll be hoisting a champion's belt, too. After that — a man can only dream.
Pick up any boxing manual — there are many — and you won't learn to fight like Mayfield. He describes himself as an "awkward" and "unorthodox" fighter; opponents don't know what's coming because neither does he. "A boxer may be used to catching certain punches in a certain way; a right, and then you're anticipating a left," he says. "But I may throw four rights in a row. You'll be expecting that left next, but I'll be throwing three more rights after that."
What he lacks in grace and fundamentals he has — so far — made up for in raw power and an utterly devastating right hand. "Oh, Karim has a hellacious overhand right," says veteran Bay Area cut man Phil Mondello. "He will just kill you with that overhand right." Stevie Forbes found that one out the hard way. In the 10th round of their June bout, Mayfield battered the 34-year-old into journeyman status. He staggered Forbes with a crushing right, then followed with at least 21 unanswered blows. As Forbes shrank into the ropes, Mayfield battered away at his receding head; it resembled a man beating the melting witch in The Wizard of Oz. Referee Gregorio Alvarez curtailed the fight and Mayfield immediately dropped into a Cossack-like dance — the "Get Low," a Fillmore-originated move nobody in the old 'hood failed to note.
SFC boxers part to make way for the gym's founding trainer Ben Bautista — they also give space to Bautista's hulking pit bull, Victory. The only female in the gym, Victory is stowed in a kennel atop a derelict treadmill and yawns at the cacophonous scene in front of her.
Bautista is a short, powerfully built man with enough tattoos to inspire a Ray Bradbury short story. He founded SFC in 1999 and has moved it between basements, garages, warehouses, and, now, a proper gym. Mayfield has long been his star pupil. The boxer has periodically left to fight under trainers with championship resumes, but he has always returned to Bautista. And it will be Bautista guiding Mayfield into the most important bout of his life — a shot at the vacant North American Boxing Organization junior welterweight belt.