After the more reverent church service took place last week, about 150 of his friends, fellow coaches, students and the owner of The Arena MMA Gym got together for an additional Celebration of Life for their dear friend Lucky-Phineas Nhlengethwa Saturday afternoon at the gym where Lucky gave them so many fond memories and helped mold many remarkable athletes.
Regarding the attendees who came and went, you couldn’t help but notice that many were still caught up in the anguish of missing this caring individual. It was just as you’d expect – those assembled were mirrors of his delightful temperament. His passing was still bringing people together to celebrate one of the most cherished commodities in life, that of a friend.
Though likely a bundle of nerves, having to get up and speak in front of a large assembly, the speakers, like their hero Lucky who boxed in front of thousands, ignored the butterflies in their stomach and went up into the ring to relate their cherished memories. Some of the tales were touching while others had everyone laughing. All ended with, “We’ll miss you Lucky!!!
Fellow coach Ed Buckley led off. “Most of you didn’t know Lucky the way I did. He was the meanest person I ever knew. I remember one time, when on short notice, he accepted this exhibition bout to fight Tiger Smalls of Undisputed. It was an inter-city, inter-gym rivalry. We had less than two weeks to prepare and at the time, he had this ole potbelly. Literally, within days, that pot belly was gone and he was in excellent shape.
“Mean guy! Yeah, he was always smiling, smiling for everyone but me, his sparring partner. We’d get inside that ring and he was fierce. He’d hit me so hard, and not once did he apologize. After beating the crap out of me, he went on to beat the sh## out of Tiger. At that point, he added, “Whoootywho!” which was Lucky’s favorite saying.
“Another thing, he didn’t just instruct a class, he led the class. He had so much energy, I can still see him carrying around this huge medicine ball, running up and down the stairs with it, always leading by example. That’s why it came as such a shock that he was ill.”
The next speaker was Frank Salgado, another fellow coach and former sparring partner for the heavies. “I was really nervous about getting up here and wanted to do right by Lucky. Then Buckley goes and steals all my material. The things I hate about Lucky? Number one, he was always happy. Working together became such a grind. He’d say, “Happy Monday, Frank!”, then it was, “Happy Tuesday Frank!” “Happy, Wednesday!”, “Happy Thursday!” I’d say, “Really?” He found the silver lining in everything, and say “It is a day closer to Friday.”
“I brought some of my favorite reggae music to the gym and the owner said he didn’t like it. A week later, here comes Lucky with the same music and the owner is delighted and says, “He must be Jamaican.”
“I remember that rivalry we had with the North Park Undisputed. They had their Tiger, we had our Lucky. I’d get tired just watching him work out on his breaks – either shadow boxing or sparring.
“And the conversations he had with his students. You didn’t understand a thing he was saying but you always wanted to please him. It was the way he carried himself.”
Rose Miller added: “I hope this resonates. I had gone through some struggles, had a rough year and around my birthday I decided to go to the gym to workout. I didn’t know anyone and he greeted me with this big, warm smile, “What’s up Champ? I’m happy you’re here.”
“He meant it…every word. He loved the sport and what he was doing. I remember I went home and called my friend, “I just met the coolest coach. He sees the positive in everything you do.”
He’d inspire you and say, “You’re strong enough to handle this!”
Before long he had taken me on this journey from coach to mentor to friend. He always had your back. He empowered you. When my car got stolen, he was there to help. He made you feel valuable. And to his wife, Annie, I say, “Thank you Annie, for sharing Lucky with us.”
Rick Norton had a similar tale. “There are not enough words to describe what he did for people. At the time I came into the gym, my dad was just getting out of the hospital and Lucky became my personal trainer.
The best damn part of my day was coming in here to work out. It was the way he put his hand on your shoulder to show his love. It changed me forever. It’s hard to let his passing just slip away. What I wouldn’t give for one more conversation with Lucky. The times you appreciate are now the times you regret. Regretting that I didn’t have more time working out with him. Plus, I would be thanking him for being a part of the family.”
Coach Vince Salvador, normally one of the toughest mugs in the gym, broke down soon after beginning his walk down memory lane. “I worked with Lucky for two and a half years. I already miss our joking around. He used to joke and call me Cuba Gooding Jr. Then he had his wife Annie repeating, “Show me the money!” He always went overboard when you had an injury and ask you every day, “How’s your hand? How’s the foot?” He was a very compassionate human being. He’d even call from the hospital. Called me “a brotha from another motha.” After I stopped boxing, he told me I was too young to quit. In the memory of Lucky, I’m going to fight again. I’ll be doing it for Lucky.”
Next, the gym’s General Manager Mike Liera mentioned the different ways they planned to carry on his memory. They had raised close to $15,000 to cover not only the funeral cost but fulfill Lucky’s request to have his ashes returned to his homeland of South Africa. The area in which they held the Celebration of Life would now be known as “Coach Lucky’s Striking Facility.” Plus they we’re going to implement a boxing scholarship fund for the underprivileged kids who want to learn how to box. “We’re going to call it – Lucky’s Kids,” said Liera. “Now, it’s time to ask Lucky’s wife, Annie Kraft, to come up.”
“First, I want you all to know how humbled I am by this whole experience,” said Annie. “The love you’ve expressed for Lucky is overwhelming. You can’t imagine how much I appreciate everything you’ve done.
“I suppose I should begin by mentioning all the little things Lucky did that made him so very special to me. Each night, Lucky would say, “I’m setting the alarm clock to go off five minutes early. That’s so I can always get my five-minute hug.”
“Then, before going out the door to work, he’d say, “Watch me.” What he’d do is go a short distance, turn around and then wave. Go another couple steps, turn around and wave.”
Then, looking up, she concluded, “I love you Honey, and I’ll see you on the other side.”
Another student by the name of Max added: “When I heard the news, I kept hoping it wasn’t true. I needed for it to be a mistake. Lucky would never give up. His boxing credo, “We’re going to get pass this. Jab, jab, right cross, left hook, right uppercut, make them miss, make them pay.”
At one point, everyone bowed their heads and said goodbye to this wonderful man. A loving force who helped inspire many, shape many lives, and on a daily basis made so many feel warm and fuzzy.
We Love You Lucky-Phineas Nhlengethwa and we wish you peace and happiness in your next chapter. Whoootywho!!!