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Living to fight

When Curtis Crawford was 15, he walked into the Knott Street Boxing Club with nothing but a desire to learn how to box; it changed his life forever - 30 years later he returns the favor in his east Portland gym


Curtis Crawford, middle, owns Curt's Ultimate in Gateway, a gym for training fighters of all disciplines. Crawford also oversees a boxing program for at-risk youth at his gym. Imad Abouzaki, left, and Ray Monge are Crawford's youth coaches for the 15 kids in the boxing program.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
Boxing is not just for boys; Whitney Cruz, 21, comes from a family of boxers and is on Crawford's youth boxing team.
During their weekly workouts, Crawford teaches fighting techniques to Serena Weixel, who has used Curt as her personal trainer for years. Commented Weixel “I need to get in shape. Curt gets me in shape, and it's fun.”
Curt's Ultimate Youth Boxing Program fighters and coaches from left, L.A. Monge, Coach Ray Monge, Lorenzo Caldera, Carlos DeJesus, Eric Nichols, Coach Imad Abouzaki, Jesse Cetz, Manny Altamirano and Marco Canul.
At Curt's Ultimate gym in Gateway, there are no free weights. Workouts involve hitting things: punching bags, punch mitts, Muay Thai pads, body protectors and people - in the boxing ring. Crawford and his instructors teach people how to fight. In exchange for a fee, Crawford's clients get in great shape; along with muscle mass, their confidence grows as they learn how to defend themselves from attack - especially true for young people with a dysfunctional home life where anger and low self-esteem is a byproduct. Remembering the kindness that was shown him when he was young, Crawford established a youth boxing program in 2004, the gym's first year. “There are a lot of kids out there, especially black youth, that don't want to do anything,” Crawford said. “They don't know what's out there. I've travelled around the world; I know what's out there. I'm trying to give it to them how it is.” Crawford said he has changed a few kids' lives and turned them from gangs, but he sees too many lives and talents wasted. He lost a kid to suicide a few years back and it affected him deeply. “If I can keep kids from running the streets, I'll do it. They don't know what's out there. I just want to help them. I'll have the kids clean the gym in exchange for free workouts rather than see them run the streets.”

In 1981, when Crawford was a sophomore at Franklin High School he wanted to learn how to box. After three years of Tae Kwando lessons, he learned he had a passion for contact and fighting and understood it took commitment, discipline, and a lot of work to succeed. Despite the fact his family could not afford to pay for the additional lessons, he went anyway to the locally famous Knott Street Boxing Club. Acutely aware how boxing changed young black men's lives, the nationally recognized Northeast Portland boxing club opened its doors to Crawford and offered him boxing instruction at no charge.

At Knott Street, Crawford met Joe Fay, who introduced him to the relatively new sport of American kickboxing (1970). Subsequently, Fay introduced him to Maurice Smith, who had recently won the 1983 World Kickboxing Council's Heavyweight Championship title, going undefeated for the next 10 years. Under Fay's and Smith's tutelage, Crawford quickly got so good at kickboxing, he won the 1984 and 1985 World Kickboxing Association's amateur championships. Crawford was training partners with Smith for the next 15 years, following Smith into the even newer sport of mixed martial arts; MMA is a combination of all forms of fighting. Smith was the eventual heavyweight champion of world in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1997 and 1998, the largest MMA fight promotions company in the world. As fast as boxing loses fans, the UFC is gaining them.

Smith's appraisal upon meeting Crawford for the first time was that he had a sufficient set of skills, “Curtis had great, quick hands, great boxing skills and decent kicking skills.” Smith said he still considers Crawford a kid, because he met him when he was 17. “He's a great guy,” Smith said about his former sparring partner. “I have nothing but high regards for him. His knowledge has grown so much since I met him. I contributed to Curtis' kickboxing skills, but his boxing skills were far superior to mine. He easily out boxed me. He is a very smart person; he is an athlete; he has a lot of natural talent.”

From that point on Crawford said, he went all-in with mixed martial arts. “It all kinda went from there,” Crawford said. What 'all' is is a 30-year career of training to fight, fighting, training amateur and professional fighters to fight and being a personal trainer for hire. East Portland resident Serena Weixel, who has used Curt as her personal trainer for years said, “I have an intense job (rehab associate at Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest). Working out, getting in shape helps me cope with the stress. Curt gets me in shape, and he makes it fun.”

Besides Smith, Crawford has met, trained and sparred with some of the best MMA fighters in the world: Randy Couture, Evan Tanner and Frank Shamrock, all UFC world champions.

Most men his age, 45, look for the armchair and an adult beverage at the end of the day. Not Crawford; despite being halfway through his forties, Crawford trains to fight again. He has a less than sterling 1-4 MMA record; it rankles him. “I have two more years on a contract; I want to fix my record. I hurt my shoulder fighting. I fought on a bad shoulder, and lost two fights I shouldn't have lost. Gotta fix that record, determined to fix it.” It took years to heal, but he said he is ready to fight. “I'm actually a better fighter, but I train people. Because I know so much (about the fighting disciplines), I just want people to learn what I know. It helped me; it might help someone else.”

Former professional boxer Ray Monge, who's good enough to spar with champion fighters and also a Knott Street alum, is one of Crawford's youth boxing coaches. “Curt's a good guy, he's always been a good, positive role model. As long as I've known him, he has always wanted to work with kids and here he is years later doing it. He's giving back what was given to him when he was younger. He has a big heart.”

To learn more about Crawford, his training methods and gym visit his website:, or call him, 503-819-9207. Curt's Ultimate is at 10945 N.E. Halsey St. in Gateway.

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