The author in 1998
Photo: Courtesy of Rudy Mageo

Editor’s note: In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Samoan writer Rudy Mageo shares his story.

As a first-generation immigrant from Samoa, my experiences growing up in the Dana Strand Projects in Wilmington, Calif., a poor community near the Los Angeles ports, align with other disenfranchised immigrants and other persons of color from low-income communities.

My father joined the U.S. Marines to leave Samoa in what I can only assume was an effort to find a path for his young family to make it to the U.S.

But struggle breeds stress.

He was abusive to my mother and a flagrant adulterer; yet, somehow, some way, my mom ended up raising four kids as a single mother on government assistance. Most days, we couldn’t afford food on the table, so baseball and football were never options for me and my three siblings. It’s really no surprise that I ended up boxing at the local Boys & Girls Club as a youth. Often referred to as the “poor man’s sport,” boxing was free—of monetary costs, anyway.

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Other sports might have uniforms, coaching and team fees; with boxing, you only need access to a training facility and a fighter’s heart and determination, which is all I had to my name. When you’re in the middle of the struggle, it’s hard to step back and see the systematic oppression around you. You might not even realize it’s there until years later.

Another reason boxing is called “the poor man’s sport” is that you don’t make any real money until you’re a champ, or at least a contender. I had started making a name for myself around Los Angeles fight clubs, making trips to East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles and Hollywood establishments, hanging with, and many times destroying, their fighters. That’s the only way to make your name in the amateur boxing scene.

I was about 18 or 19 years old when I was approached to fight in illegal, underground boxing exhibitions, best described as fight clubs. Unlike the Brad Pitt movie, though, these fight clubs were staged in prestigious clubs and hotels in West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. I remember the first time pulling up to a valet in my trainer’s Datsun B210, feeling like we’d made it. The doormen were always attentive and opened the door for us; it’s only in looking back that I realize the white-glove treatment was only so they could guide us behind the scenes and out of sight as quickly as possible. After all, we were a bunch of young amateur fighters from the other side of town—the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

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It was my first time on that side of Los Angeles, let alone in the opulent hotels and private clubs constructed with myth and mortar. They set up rooms for us with cable television and fruits and drinks, and that was enough to distract us from trying to explore the halls of their private domains. I never found it odd that they didn’t want us mixing with the party, or roaming the hotel, or that we couldn’t even invite our families or homeboys for support.

First rule of fight club: You don’t talk about fight club, I guess.

We were told that we would be fighting for boxing fans, and that promoters were trying to make the best-possible match, emphasizing that they wanted us to put on a good performance and play with heart. The thing is: You don’t “play” at boxing, like you might play football or baseball. You prepare for war. We never knew the details of where the event would be held until the day of, but the events were always held in what is now known as the Thirty Mile Zone, and the scene was always the same: Beverly Hills hotels, private clubs and mansions, and places that I would never have had an opportunity to step into under any other circumstances.

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Fighters were not allowed to join any of the opening ceremonies or watch the other fights. We were segregated with the rest of the help and only brought down—typically through the kitchen or some other service entrance—when it was our turn to fight.

We fought other local fighters, and in some cases, we would fight soldiers—18- to 19-year-old kids fighting the U.S. military’s best on a different battlefield. There would be a boxing ring set up in the middle of a room full of money: old men in fancy suits, drinking dark liquor and smoking Cuban cigars, salivating as they placed bets and cheered on their chosen champions.

Ironically, we fought out of the blue or red corner, like the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles. We were encouraged to go for the knockout but, just in case, the elite crowd had a red or blue card that they could hold up at the end of the fight to cast their vote for the winner. I fought my heart out, as a real boxer will, for the love of the sport—and for the $40 cash payment to the winner.

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Looking back, I didn’t make the connections that can be so obviously made now. Connections about privilege and classicism and racism. Back then, I looked around the room in between boxing rounds and saw one color: green. Money in the fancy buildings, the crystal glasses and musky cigar smell. It didn’t connect that the people who watched were white, and the people who fought and bled were black and brown.

The funny thing is, between the peek into their fancy lifestyle and the $40 in cash, it felt like a privilege to fight for their entertainment. How’s the saying go? “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

We were there to perform and get paid. And isn’t that like life? We struggle with our backs against the wall—then we fight. We fight our way through hunger, fight our way through poverty, fight our way through feelings of worthlessness. We meet violence with violence—hard fists, heart pounding, blood, sweat, blurry vision.

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Then we make it, only to realize that making it isn’t making it at all. We recognize that the people with money never had to step into the ring. We realize, even after making it out of the ring, the ring still exists.

So I fight, still—but now I fight for freedom.

Freedom doesn’t look like $40 and proximity to whiteness anymore. For me, freedom is knowing that access to white privilege does not determine my worth; nor does it define my success.

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Freedom is teaching my children what I wasn’t taught, so that they are able to navigate the world aware of the structures designed to keep them against the ropes and on the defensive.

Freedom is opened eyes after years of hidden and, oftentimes, blatant oppression that had convinced me that I was the architect of the walls closing in around me.

Yes, the struggle continues, but the fight is on my terms now—and I’ll keep fighting until the day I die.

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Rudy Mageo: Former boxer. First-time author. Family man.