Coach Bumblebee’s Protégé brings his South Seattle spirit to Ballard
by M. Anthony Davis
In the midst of the bars, coffee, shops, and eateries that line both sides of Market Street in Ballard, is Nomad Boxing Club. On my first visit, it felt like I had been transported right back to South Seattle. That’s because Manuel “Coach Manny” Dunham, the founder of Nomad Boxing, is carrying on the legacy of South Seattle’s local boxing legend Willie “Bumblebee” Briscoray. Dunham, who had an impressive amateur boxing career, highlighted by a record of 56–14, three Pacific Northwest Championships, and a Golden Gloves win, was one of the last prospects to train with Briscoray.
“Me and Coach Bumblebee, we have one of those Mike Tyson, Cus D’Amato relationships,” Dunham says. “I lived with him for seven, almost eight years. We would stay up all night and we would watch different videos of fights, breaking down footwork and head movements … He was a tough dude. I saw how he trained people and the impact he had on their lives. I wanted to make sure I was able to pass on the torch. Out of everyone at that gym, I was the last protégé, I was the last champion. He told me he wanted me to take over the legacy.”
Originally, Dunham is from Fairbanks, Alaska. He has 14 brothers and sisters, all of whom were introduced to boxing by their mother, who was herself a boxer, at very young ages. When Dunham was about 12 years old, he met a boxer named Eddie Johnson that planted the seeds that would eventually lead Dunham to Seattle.
“[Johnson] was so fast,” Dunham says. “He would throw punches and all you would see is like a shoulder shrug and the other guy’s head would snap back.” When Dunham asked who trained him, Johnson said Coach Bumblebee in Seattle.
For the next few years, Dunham continued to train. He recalls working at a warehouse and making his own heavy bag out of unused items he found, and creating a homemade gym in the warehouse’s basement, where he would work out on his break times. But he kept saving and planning for a chance to come to Seattle and train in Briscoray’s gym.
When Dunham was 17, he finally found an opportunity to come to Seattle. “I moved out here literally with two days’ notice. I came with one bag, and Coach B got me set up with my first job at Big O’ Tires. I lasted about 20 minutes. I didn’t know nothing about cars back then.”
More Than a Coach
While the job at the tire shop didn’t last, the boxing did. Dunham formed a relationship with Briscoray, whom he refers to as Coach B, that has now spanned decades. Briscoray became much more than a coach for Dunham. The two became family, with Briscoray not only training Dunham, but helping navigate through life and make it through many rough patches.
“I was living off a loaf of bread, I kid you not,” Dunham recalls. “I remember not having money for laundry detergent, so I would stick little pieces of bar soap inside the washing machine.” Even while Dunham didn’t have money to eat, he always made sure he made it to his trainings. This is how Briscoray learned of Dunham’s struggles.
One day, during training, Dunham passed out. When Briscoray asked what he had eaten that day, Dunham said just a sandwich. Coach immediately sent him home. “On the very next day, he showed up to my house with 24 bags of groceries,” Dunham said.
The relationship Dunham had with Coach Bumblebee was bigger than boxing. It was about life and service and striving toward excellence in the face of adversity. Dunham faced hunger, joblessness, homelessness, and injuries. Throughout, Briscoray was there for support.
The Birth of Nomad
Now, after retiring from boxing himself, Dunham is the coach who supports the next generation of local boxers. As I walk through Nomad Boxing Club, I’m surrounded by youth, most of whom are Black or Brown, and they come together to train not only as boxers but as young men and women who will also face and overcome adversity in their lives. And when it comes to finding success in the face of adversity, Nomad Boxing Club is the perfect place to be.
For a while, Dunham helped Briscoray train other boxers at his famous gym at the South Seattle Union Gospel Mission, but after Briscoray’s retirement, Dunham formed Nomad Boxing. He used the name “Nomad” because at first, Dunham had a group of boxers he was training but no physical gym space.
“They were just really all over the place and didn’t have a home,” says Demetrius Morgan, Nomad’s manager. “And then, when the shutdown happened, the gyms closed and Manny [decided to try training at] Gasworks Park.”
So at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with nowhere else to go, Dunham would load up a van with equipment every day and set up an outdoor gym at Gasworks. Thanks to his days back at the warehouse in Alaska, Dunham was prepared to create his own gym.
“He went there every day and set up,” Morgan says. “Heavy bags, speed bags, slip rope. He had ladders for ladder drills and agility drills. Mats for core work. Jump ropes. He had all that, and set up a makeshift boxing gym every day for the guys, and he trained them in the park through the pandemic. They were training there every day, Monday through Friday.”
A Home in Ballard
The outdoor gym went on for months. Finally, in June, when businesses were able to open and allow people to come back inside, Dunham secured a location for a gym in Ballard through a community partnership.
Dunham says the owners of the building where Nomad Boxing is located gave him a good deal. He gets a discount on rent so long as he teaches free classes regularly that are open to the community. “Anybody that wants to learn the art of boxing, but doesn’t want to get in the ring. We’ll teach you the art of boxing and how to defend yourself.”
During the day, he hosts these community classes, and others that people pay for, and at night, he trains his fighters.
At the end of one of these evening training sessions, as the boxers left, I noticed they were filtering out in groups and loading into cars and vans. Dunham told me that nearly every fighter comes from South Seattle, or areas in South King County as far away as Covington. Even though Coach Manny is now located in Ballard, the pride and spirit of South Seattle boxing now lives on through Coach Bumblebee’s last protégé.
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
📸 Featured Image: Nomad Nomad Boxing Club owner and coach Manny Dunham teaches a boxing class at Gas Works Park in March 2021. (Photo: Susan Fried)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!