Al “Hollywood” Meggett is looking for disciples. The 86-year-old patriarch of the Charleston Boxing Club has held court on upper King Street for more than 30 years. Temporarily laid up in a hospital bed at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the Navy man fields calls from the gym as daytime television roars in the background. Preparing his fighters for an April 1 bout, he admits his health hasn’t been with him through the process, but as he says, “You can’t keep a good man down.” For decades, Hollywood has preached discipline and assertiveness. Without pause, he asks, “What do you think made Jesus famous?” Met with no real answer, he explains, “His disciples. There’s a church on every corner in this city. Jesus did the work, all right. His disciples, they talked about his works. Well, what I did in Charleston, I was God sent. And now, I’m looking for some disciples.”
Born on the last day of February in 1931, Hollywood grew up in New York City. It wasn’t until 20 years later that he’d reconnect with his Lowcountry roots. Stationed in Charleston during the early ’50s, Hollywood was introduced to the segregation and bigotry that infected the South. His father’s family still lived out on Edisto Island, but that part of his heritage had been closed off for reasons that anyone can understand.
According to Dr. Susan Carn, who is writing a three-part biography on Hollywood, his parents never allowed him to venture down South out of fear that the color of his skin would endanger his life. Stepping out one day, one of Hollywood’s long-lost relatives recognized him from an old photo hanging in their grandmother’s house. Through sheer chance, he found family in a place he never expected. But it wasn’t enough to make him stay.
Dressed in the uniform of his country, Hollywood still took his seat at the back of the bus. He says a black man couldn’t say too much about what was going on around him.
“I knew they were hanging black folks in trees. I did my four years in Charleston and left,” he says.
After shipping out from South Carolina, Hollywood returned to New York, traveled, picking up whatever knowledge he could along the way training boxers. Hollywood says he could have been a millionaire if he had stayed in New York or traveled to Las Vegas and plugged into the high-profile boxing world. But the memory of his days in Charleston stuck with him.
“When I went to school in New York, I went to school with everybody. For kids in the South, it wasn’t like that,” says Hollywood. “Imagine what separation like that does to your mind. So much of our history we don’t know about. It’s been my mission to bring these kids together. But I’m not a politician. I’m a boxing coach.”
Whether out of fear of prejudice or hope of profit, Hollywood says those with his expertise avoided Charleston. He would not do the same.
“If everybody else can have this, why not the kids in Charleston?” Hollywood asks, his style of explanation a gruff catechism delivered as plainly as possible. “Everybody is coming to America from all other countries for a chance like this. Why can’t the kids in the South have something? Somebody had to give it up. Somebody had to share with these children.”
Outside, the VA is dressed in scaffolds and tarp as renovations redress and rebuild the veterans hospital. Wives and daughters follow a generation of men who have either left a limb on some distant battlefield or been slowly crippled under the weight of time. From his room on the fourth floor of the VA, Hollywood recounts the early days after his return to Charleston, teaching kids more than just how to throw a punch.
“It’s about discipline. That’s a strong topic I had to teach to these kids and their parents. It’s not going to be all about boxing,” says Hollywood. “I was taking kids across the state, and they were calling them niggers. People said that way of thinking would die off. That was 30 years ago. Segregation is gone, but the problems and damage are still there.”
When you begin training with Hollywood, he sits you down and asks what you want to do — not just in the ring, but in life. Then he tells you what you need to know to make it in the program. Hanging at the top of a narrow stairway at the entrance to the Charleston Boxing Club sit the gym’s code of conduct — 10 clear commandments that Hollywood has handed down to all those he’s trained over the years. No profanity or obscene language will be tolerated. The locker room is to be left as you found it, clean and clear. Hollywood makes it a point that no sagging jeans, tight-fitting clothing, or anything deemed inappropriate be worn in the gym. More or less, he wants all his fighters to dress the same because, as he says, no student is different from the next — regardless of their race, age, or gender. And anyone who fails to measure up to Hollywood’s standards is pointed out the door.
“The only thing a young man or woman is going to get out of this program is what they put into it,” says Hollywood. “I was around great trainers, great managers, who put me to the test. I’ve been in this business all my life. I started as a young man, then I brought my lessons to Charleston, and I’m still here.”
The first female boxer Hollywood ever trained, Rebecca Nettleton, went on to become a Golden Gloves champion in 1999. Hollywood recalls that when he was first coming up in the sport, women weren’t allowed to box. During his training with Nettleton, Hollywood remembers she had to spar with male fighters for lack of a female opponent. Hollywood admits he felt a bit of uncertainty when he first began coaching Nettleton. “I told her, I don’t how this is going to work,” he says. A faded newspaper article with a photo of Nettleton, hands raised in victory, still hangs in the gym. Alongside the dozens of photos of legendary fighters, community leaders, and celebrities — from former mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to Muhammad Ali — Nettleton’s photo is almost easy to miss. But it stands as just another example of the impact that Hollywood has had on the lives of those he’s met.
“I want people to understand what boxing means to him. It’s his heartbeat, the air he breathes,” says Carn, an English teacher who has taken on the responsibility of telling Hollywood’s life story. “He gives the people that he trains life skills. He has expectations more like a father. He wants to know what they are going to go on and do. It is about boxing, but he goes on to broaden that scope.”
Meeting with Hollywood once a week to go over his story, Carn has also been working to write up grants and figure out a way to keep the Charleston Boxing Club running. A certified nonprofit organization, Hollywood’s program has increasingly fallen under a financial strain in recent years after losing funding from the Charleston Police Department. Carn now focuses her efforts on new ways to expand the Charleston Boxing Club beyond the gym’s four walls. For Carn, this means exercise and training programs based on Hollywood’s teachings. According to Carn, she feels an obligation to tell Hollywood’s story, what he’s contributed to the community, and what he has meant to those around him. Her ultimate goal is to see Hollywood inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame, but for now Carn has to focus on keeping the Charleston Boxing Club’s program going.
After his stint at the VA, Hollywood is back in the gym. He sits by a window in a corner of the room, a portable respirator hangs on the ring post next to him. Fighters arrive one by one, each met with instructions from Hollywood. All four men who step into the gym are preparing for their bouts at the April 1 event at the Arthur Christopher Community Center on Fishburne Street. In between working to organize and promote the show, Hollywood has also been busy making sure his boxers are ready to win.
“I’ve been in and out of the hospital. It’s been a lot of stress on me making sure everything is in order. But I got these guys in shape. They’re ready to go,” says Hollywood. “I’ve been balancing this all for over 50 years. Over the years, you gain knowledge and experience. The more you do, the easier it gets, but it never gets easy.”
The ring bell inside the gym sounds, and the boxers begin to bob and weave. The rapid helicopter sound of fists on a speedbag is undercut by the dull, heavy thuds of gloves on the punching bag. Hollywood calls out orders from his corner seat. “Watch your left,” “Jab, jab jab.” The fighters take each piece of advice with a silent acknowledgement.
Finally, the bell sounds again, and silence settles over the gym, broken only by the heavy breathing of the fighters and the quiet hiss of the respirator. From his seat in the corner, Hollywood looks out onto King Street. A boarded-up storefront sits next to a barbershop. The city’s changed in countless ways since Hollywood first opened up the gym more than 30 years ago. New businesses continue to stretch up the peninsula’s main artery as the shops and stores that have stood as Charleston landmarks for years give way to what some would call progress. A new wine shop is set to open just next door to the gym.
Over the years, Hollywood says he’s seen the city grow and change, but the Charleston Boxing Club has remained the same. He reads about all the new money that comes pouring into Charleston, but he says whatever investment they’re making never trickles down to the gym.
“It’s got to start somewhere. I see all these big companies that say they are sending money to the community. I’m not seeing any of it. It bothers me when I hear these people are donating money, but it never drips down,” says Hollywood. “I want to be the farmer. I want to plant the seed that allows these kids to grow into successful adults. We need to spend money on the youth now. We might be able to save them instead of locking them up.”
Inside the Charleston Boxing Club hangs a framed sign with a quote from Hollywood’s mother, Estelle Meggett. They are words that have stuck with Hollywood his entire life and served as a source of motivation and confidence: “A heap see, but only a few know.”
As someone who teaches assertiveness, Hollywood is never afraid to speak his mind. Sticking to the principle that the truth will set you free, he believes that those unwilling to accept the truth are the ones who have the problem. In addition to teaching students about anatomy, fitness, and discipline, Hollywood also stresses this unflinching look at the truth to everyone he trains.
“I don’t sell these kids dreams. I tell them to go out and get their own dreams and make them happen,” he says. “Too many people don’t want you to tell kids the truth. They want to keep them in la la land. But these kids don’t live in la la land.”
As the boxers settle inside the gym, the smell of sweat mixes with the chilly breeze that slips in through the cracked window at Hollywood’s side. He tells his fighters that they had a good workout, and recommends that they soak in epsom salt when they get home. With his mind on the upcoming fights, Hollywood asks “Are your weights alright?” One by one, the men respond by calling out their numbers. Hollywood nods in approval and reminds two of the fighters that they need to shave before they step into the ring with anyone. Because the next fight is always sooner than you think.
“The stage has been set, fellas. All you guys got fights,” Hollywood says. “All of you are ready. Now it’s up to you to keep it real.”
Charleston Boxing Club presents its next tournament on April 1 at the Arthur Christopher Community Center, 265 Fishburne St. Doors open at 6 p.m. General admission is $10, kids ages eight and younger get in free. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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