But the kids were the reason that Savannah opened the gym. Most would never be a champion beyond perhaps the local Golden Gloves, but at least they would stay out of trouble and perhaps become a champion in life.
By Vikram Birring
It is against the unofficial writers’ code to refer to oneself in an article. But for this subject, an exception must be made. Because the story of Willie Savannah is how his gym saved me, and a thousand others just like me.
The first time I walked into Houston’s Savannah Boxing Gym was October 2009, I was amazed. People everywhere, shadowboxing, jumping rope, hitting different bags. The rhythm of the gym was mesmerizing. I went on a tip from a friend, after saying I wanted to get in shape after being down after a nasty breakup a few months earlier. The first welcoming face was Clara Savannah, Willie’s wife.
The trainer, Hylon Williams Sr., put me through a rigorous routine of pushups and medicine ball workouts. He was amazed I showed up the next day, because most people don’t come back. And slowly, I learned how to box.
But the best part was not learning how to fight and building muscles, but the support system I gained.
Most of the kids at Savannah Gym were nothing like me. They were poor, and usually with a checkered history.
Savannah had a system set up with local authorities to take troubled kids to avoid juvenile detention. I was a kid born with a silver spoon, never paid for anything my whole life until after college. Most of these kids would never even get to go to college.
But we had one thing in common: we all came to get our mind off things. The location of the gym was near Gulfton, a notoriously gang-ridden area of Southwest Houston. The fact that someone like me came daily and took my lumps got the respect of the others in the gym. So we built a camaraderie, one that exists to this day. A family, so to speak.
I paid my gym dues, but I know that a lot could not. And Willie never asked them, he just had them do odds and ends like vacuuming and mopping instead. And if you wanted to, “Daddy Willie” would talk to you for hours about anything and everything.
The morning was a totally different crowd. This was when professionals trained. Ronnie Shields was the head trainer, and because of that walking in was like turning on HBO. There were former champions like Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz, Erislandy Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux, and soon to be champions like the Charlo Twins and Regis Prograis. Some came for a training camp just to soak the atmosphere like Chris Arreola and Tomasz Adamek.
These high-level athletes were as approachable as any normal person, and were the reason Savannah Gym was so highly regarded locally in sporting circles.
But the kids were the reason that Savannah opened the gym. Most would never be a champion beyond perhaps the local Golden Gloves, but at least they would stay out of trouble and perhaps become a champion in life. He lost thousands of dollars monthly and spent every morning and evening sitting on an old leather office chair.
That gym was his home, those kids were his family.
The true impact of a person is how many people he or she affects in a lifetime. I met Willie Savannah when he was 75 years old, and he had an impact on me. His gym gave me joy again, and since I’ve married and stayed loyal to his gym until the recent coronavirus pandemic.
He even drove me in his Bentley to my wedding reception. He opened his first boxing gym decades ago, which makes me think. How many more people did he impact besides me? The count must be hundreds, if not thousands.
If there were more such people, the world would be a better place.
Goodbye Daddy Willie.