Ben Bautista was always a good salesman. He started out selling drugs.
Now, as proprietor and head trainer of Straight Forward Club, a boxing gym in the Tenderloin, Bautista sells young men on their futures — and City Hall and private donors on the worth of his program.
In October the gym opened its new Tenderloin location at 52 Mason St. after years when Bautista cobbled the club together in an annex at Ida B. Wells High School, his own basement and a Bayview warehouse.
Despite its humble homes, SFC produced successful champions, including 2007 165-pound San Francisco Golden Gloves winner Richard Hargraves and, most notably, Karim “Hard Hitta” Mayfield, a light middleweight who is 5-0-1 since turning professional two years ago.
“As a businessman, Straight Forward Club is not what I want,” Bautista said. “It’s the start of a big thing that’s about to happen. Boxing was pretty much dormant in San Francisco until Straight Forward Club gave the rebirth to it.”
As a youth, Bautista had been a boxer at Newman’s Gym, the classic club that housed The City’s boxing traditions for nearly a century. But he was thrown out after a dispute over music, and had to start driving to King’s Gym in Oakland.
“So I got a car,” he said. “I got the car selling drugs.”
Sent to juvenile hall, Bautista got acquainted with a counselor at Ella Hill Hutch Community Center who bought him boxing equipment. Eventually, Bautista’s parole officer referred him to a teenage fatherhood program, where he became a popular youth speaker and later an activist for drug prevention.
He made a career of it. Ten years later, he was involved with a program at Ida B. Wells when he noticed a heavy bag in the annex. Bautista approached the school about initiating a boxing club. He had seen children leaving school, taking drugs.
“I truly believe success stories come from the struggle,” Bautista said. “Kids can’t pay gym dues. They already struggle to buy food, buy clothes. They fight with getting a job. They fight with getting a passing grade. They fight with police on the corners.
“For years I had to demonstrate the fact that boxing can be used in those areas,” he said. “Kids who succeed become role models to the new youth.”