EL PASO, Texas - Thomas McKay’s Southern-American accent radiates through cracks of The Wolves Den. Upon entry, the smell of stale sweat and sounds of human grunts is intoxicating, like an atavistic mirage. In the middle of all of this, there is this little Merlin, this little man. He stands in a boxing ring, a pioneer of pugilism, commanding fighters to duck, move and punch. A bell rings. The boxers no longer duck, move or punch. McKay leans on the boxing ropes ever-moving, a side effect of Parkinson’s disease; always slurping, a side effect of Osteonecrosis of the Jaw; and breathing heavy, a side effect of prostate cancer.
“I am finally beginning to feel old,” said McKay, between breaths, “but I have not lost any of my enthusiasm or passion for boxing.”
This much is evident, as McKay, at 79 years old, is currently the assistant boxing coach at The Wolves Den, senior citizen boxing instructor at El Paso Jiu Jitsu, sportswriter for Convictedartist.com, and Executive Director of the Board for the 2014 El Paso Boxing/Martial Arts Hall of Fame banquet. McKay, admittedly, finds no reason to retire, because, as he said: “employment is a privilege.”
McKay was born Oct. 2, 1934 in Balmorhea, Texas, at a dead end – literally and figuratively. His parents, Raymond and Ermine owned a small ranch and “lost everything” during the Great Depression. After McKay’s father joined the Army, the financial burden of raising five children became too much for Ermine. As a result, she sent Thomas, his brother and sister to St. Margaret’s Orphanage Home during the years 1942 to 1943 of World War II.
“We would sneak out of our room at night, run through the home, lie in the field and stare up at the stars,” said McKay. “It was a time, for us, when our family didn’t seem too far away.”
Unfortunately, during the family’s separation, Raymond and Ermine got divorced. In response, McKay’s mother, as well as two older siblings began to work for different companies. In 1945, when the family was reunited, Thomas followed suit by finding work as a newspaper boy, earning $1.50 a week.
McKay lived peripatetically, moving for work, searching for money, throughout his high school years. From Texas to New Mexico to California, Thomas would squat; find employment and education, and then move. In 1952, he graduated from Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, Calif. However, with graduation occurring in the midst of the Korean War, McKay was forced to make a decision: be drafted or enlist in the military.
“At the time, I heard so many different stories about the Army; none of which made me want to get drafted,” said McKay, laughing at far off memories. “So, I opted to join the U.S. Marine 19th Rifle Company Reserves in 1953, and I went on active-duty the following year.”
McKay was sent to Combat Training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he “excelled in all phases.” This “excellence,” according to McKay, was the deciding factor in not getting sent into warfare, but enrollment in a telephone and communications school. After graduation, McKay traveled throughout the U.S. and Japan performing his job for nearly two years. In 1956, McKay was honorably discharged from the Marines Corps. McKay, in hindsight, admits his time in the military was short, but deeply shaped him for life.
“I have always had a passion for life, but the Marines taught me how to harness my enthusiasm with discipline – a concept I’ve used throughout my entire boxing career,” said McKay.
For the next four years, like he had prior to the military, McKay moved for work. The search ended in 1960, when he joined the El Paso Police Department and was introduced to the “boxing bug.”
McKay, under the watchful eye of talented and renowned boxing trainer Mauricio “Chito” Barragan, learned not only how to fight but how to watch boxing. These lessons prompted McKay to become an official of the El Paso Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union in 1966. In next three years, McKay’s boxing acumen catapulted him to co-director of El Paso amateur events, a charter member of Southwestern International Amateur Boxing Association, and a boxing coach for high school athletes and an academy.
McKay was hired as a science teacher and athletic trainer at Austin High School, as well as, a boxing coach for the Fort Bliss Falcons in 1984. The military boxing team, according to McKay, afforded the coach his best memories in boxing.
“My favorite moments involved with boxing are from my Fort Bliss boxing experiences,” said McKay. “There was no other group of fighters who had more passion and enthusiasm for boxing and life. It was beautiful.”
Eighteen years before the first Ultimate Fighting Championship show, McKay, along with Robert Nava, promoted a full contact martial arts show at the El Paso Coliseum in 1975 – the first of its kind in the greater El Paso area. The main event featured Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion, David “Chunky Bear” Ochoa against legendary fighter “The Abilene Cowboy” Randall “Tex” Cobb.
In 1993, McKay started the first ever El Paso Boxing/Karate Hall of Fame and served as president for four years. McKay changed the name in 1997 to The El Paso Boxing/Martial Arts Hall of Fames. The boxing coach was forced to take a back seat in 1996, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. However, the ailment did not deter McKay from accepting the position of implementing a science and boxing program at Raymond Telles Academy. His efforts prompted an induction into The El Paso Boxing/Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 1997 and “Teacher of the Year” in 1998.
“I am so proud and inspired by everything he does,” said McKay’s wife, Leticia, who is an award-winning artist and professional photographer. “I can barely keep up with all of his endeavors and energy.”
The El Paso Golden Gloves presented McKay and fighter Jake Martinez with the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. The boxing trainer also became an author, writing two books “Magic!Magic!Magic!,” a story about kickboxer Cliff Thomas; and a booklet titled “20th Century El Paso Boxing Legends.”
The bell rings. Fighters, 60 to 70 years younger than McKay, desperately inhale, searching for air and energy. The former, Fort Bliss boxing coach stands up straight and demands boxers duck, move and punch. No longer shaking, slurping or panting; McKay bounces on his toes, gliding across the ring with an elegance of experience.