Henry “Penny” Hillaire grew up during the glory days of boxing at Lummi in the 1930s and ’40s.
Boxers drew crowds to smokers at places like the Armory and Battersby Field in Bellingham and Pacific American Fisheries Cannery on Lummi Island in Washington. Audiences of the day didn’t need Ultimate Fighting; that 21st century phenomenon might have been seen as street fighting then. No, crowds appreciated all the elements that gave boxing the name “the Sweet Science”: a boxer’s discipline, endurance and style; the strategy and power behind a well-timed, well-placed cross, hook, jab or uppercut.
Lummi’s amateur boxers faced some formidable competition and those fights are talked about 60 or more years later. Hillaire remembers when Mike Jefferson fought Bernie Reynolds; Reynolds was the 1941 Northwest Golden Gloves champ who after the war would turn pro and in the 1960s and ’70s would serve as Whatcom County sheriff. Jefferson and Reynolds went the distance, with Reynolds winning by decision.
“It was a crowd-pleasing sport,” Hillaire said. “In the late 1930s and ’40s, boxing was the main attraction at Lummi. You never could squeeze the last (spectators) into the gymnasium.”
These boxers were a self-disciplined group, Hillaire said. There were no “bad habits” then, he said, like drugs and gangs. “You had to train and train and train. One young fellow, he thought he was tough, and he couldn’t go two rounds — he ran out of gas. Some guys think they’re tough but they change their minds after they get hit a couple of times. You’ve got to keep in condition.”
Boxing continued at Lummi into the 1980s before involvement waned. But the new Damon-Lummi Boxing Club is helping to revive the sport on the reservation, thanks to the advocacy of Hillaire, who during World War II service was trainer for his buddy Costello Cruz, who became the No. 2 light-heavyweight in the world; and coach Lowell Bahe, a former top-ranked amateur.
They believe boxing can build champions not only in the ring, but in life. “You make better decisions when your body is in condition,” Hillaire said.
Hillaire’s son, Darrell, is director of the Lummi Youth Academy, a residential program which provides at-risk students help with school in a nurturing environment. He believes boxing club members can learn applicable life skills like self-discipline, sportsmanship, and respect for self and others.
“It’s the day to day routine of applying yourself and focusing on one thing. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to put everything aside and go train,” he said.
Bahe said of his boxers after four months of training, “I see a whole new different person — their whole way of looking at things, their sense of self-accomplishment.”
The club is in its infancy but it’s off to a good start – with 10 members and four ready for the ring. The club hosts the Damon-Lummi Boxing Invitational on March 17, 4 p.m. at the Lummi Neighborhood Facility Gym at 2530 Kwina Road, Lummi Nation, with at least 25 fights featuring boxers from Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah. The event is sanctioned by U.S. Amateur Boxing and co-sponsored by the Lummi Youth Academy.
Representing the Damon-Lummi Boxing Club: Ryan Misanes, 152 pounds, vs. Albert Ta of the University of Washington Boxing Club; Samantha Bahe, 150, vs. Selena Peterson of Squared Circle in Seattle; Jaycob Martin, 140 pounds, vs. Garret Strictly of Nation of Outlaws (Muckleshoot Tribe); and Dimitri Sampson, 165, vs. Roman Rivas of White Center Police Activities League.
Martin, the Lummi junior welterweight, has been training hard for his fight; a lot of his family members and friends are going to be there cheering him on. “It’s not about who’s the better guy, it’s about respect,” he said of boxing. “I’d have to say the toughest part for me is the fear of getting in the ring with someone that could knock you out. But that’s what I trained so hard for, to win.”
Tickets are $8 advance, $12 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the Lummi Youth Academy, (360) 758-4218; the Lummi Youth Recreation, (360) 384-2383; Samantha Bahe, Lummi Nation Grants and Contracts Office, (360) 384-2254; or Lowell Bahe, (360) 820-1243.
There are bouts scheduled in most weight divisions, from 85 to 210. Boxers with 10 or more fights will box four rounds, novices will box three rounds. Awards include first- and second-place trophies, Outstanding Boxer jackets, and a team trophy.
Bahe is Navajo but moved to Lummi, where his wife Samantha is from, four years ago. He was approached last year by Henry Hillaire to start the boxing club. Bahe cleared out an old storage area, acquired boxing equipment from the Bellator Boxing Club in nearby Ferndale, and built a ring.
The club is part of Lummi Youth Recreation, which provides a diverse offering of youth sports on the reservation; Lummi also has a skateboarding team and a snowboarding team, as well as baseball, basketball and football teams.
Coach Bahe is a student mentor at the Lummi Youth Academy, but the 24-year-old is a good mentor in the ring as well.
In Navajo Country, the Bahe name and boxing are synonymous. Bahe’s great-grandfather, Lee Damon, served in the Marines and was an Armed Forces boxing champ, qualified for the Olympic trials, and founded a boxing gym in Fort Defiance. Bahe’s father, Cal Bahe, was a troublesome youth who found discipline in his grandfather Damon’s ring and in 1978 built the Damon-Bahe Boxing Club in Chinle to help young men stay away from drinking, drugs and gangs. The club has produced 24 national boxing champions.
Lowell Bahe is among the notable fighters to come out of the Damon-Bahe Boxing Club. A welterweight and middleweight, he’s a one-time Olympic hopeful who won four Native American national boxing titles and two National Silver Gloves, and placed third at the Junior Olympic Boxing Championship. From age 11-16, he was one of the top 5 amateur boxers in the U.S. and was Arizona state champ nine times.
Lowell Bahe holds his charges to the same accountability and discipline that made him a formidable fighter. Boxers practice Monday through Saturday, 5-8 p.m. He recommends they eat right, get plenty of sleep, do their homework, and maintain their running schedules. The club has 10 members.
Bahe leads by example. He runs during his lunch hour, mentors his students for an hour and a half, then works out. He spars with his boxers and is working on getting his weight down from 190 to 178 or 165 for his own return to the ring, May 5 in Seattle.
“I tell ’em, I’m trusting you,” he said of his boxers. “I can’t make them do it, but I tell them that what they need to do is what I used to do, that’s why I was No. 1. There’s no way to win something that big; you’ve got to work hard. It’s not a team sport like baseball or football. You’re the only one in that ring.”