At the Ann Wolfe boxing gym if Ann Wolfe is the heart of the gym, her trainer, Pops Billingsley, is its spiritual soul. An HBO commentator characterized Pops as a boxing coach "straight from central casting," and it is true that he fits the part—an African-American man with a shock of grey hair, few teeth, and Yoda-like wisdom.
His is the first smile to greet visitors to the gym, he is the first to introduce new boxers to work on the mitts, he closes each training session with a prayer, and the muscle memory of his innovative training methods pulses through Ann’s own training techniques.
Pops was born Donald Billingsley, in Austin Texas, on March 3, 1938. He was born into a harsh world of poverty and racial inequality, one which would prime him to become a fighter. His mother moved the family to Roswell, New Mexico, when he was five years old, and she became very sick. With no friends or family around to help, little Donald was forced by necessity to beg for food from house to house.
Pops traces God’s hand in his life back to that time, noting that although he performed this task in winter in shorts without shoes, he never felt cold. More evidence of God’s kindness came in the form of Pops’ aunt, who he came to refer to as “Mother Dear”, who came to New Mexico to find his family, and took them to her home in San Antonio, Texas to nurse them all back to health.
When his mother was ready to leave, he decided to stay with Mother Dear, and credits his own ability to stay out of trouble to her loving and clear guidance.
Pops was never a stranger to hard work, picking cotton to help his aunt with household expenses from the age of five. He was also never a stranger to fighting—defending himself in the streets against gangs, with too much pride to get his older brother for help.
School was difficult for him—he likes to tell the story of how he couldn’t grasp reading comprehension until he picked up the bible in 1965 and suddenly all of the words came to life—so he found his identity in sports. Though he was good at basketball and a star on the football team, it was boxing that gripped him for the long term. In high school, he fought as an amateur, and was deeply affected by an incident in which he got a bad cut over his eye and was taken to the hospital for stitches.
Though he didn’t know exactly where his resolution would take him, he resolved to discover a technique for boxing which would focus on protecting fighters against cuts and injuries.
Pops worked hard on this technique, which involved putting punches together in a devastating order and slipping punches with graceful body and footwork. Later in his life, he taught his own sons this technique, and found it to be successful at keeping them safe in the ring.
He balanced work as a janitor at a high school in Austin with training his children and other children in the neighborhood as amateur fighters. Inclusivity came naturally to Pops, and just as he brought black, Mexican, and white students together at the newly integrated Johnston High School, he brought neighborhood children of all backgrounds together to train and compete.
When he looked for a gym to house his makeshift team, he found Montopolis Gym in East Austin. At first, he got a chilly reception from the fighters there, most of whom were of Mexican descent and weren’t open to being coached by an African American man.
Eventually, however, his boxers began to outbox the rest of the fighters, and Pops was promoted to the role of head coach. It was there, in 1995, that Pops met the woman who would become his pride and joy, Ann Wolfe.
That first meeting was a magical moment for them both. As Pops describes it, Ann, a beautiful, tough woman, walked into the gym one day and asked Pops if he would teach her how to box. She was living on the streets at the time and was used to fighting to protect herself and her family. She had seen women fighting for money on T.V. and realized she could turn her fierceness into a ticket out of the streets.
Pops, skeptical about women boxing, told her no. He couldn’t hold on to his resistance when she looked him straight in the eye and told him, “If you teach me how to box, I will never leave you.” He thought about all of the boxers who had left him as soon as they got enough skills to move on to the big time, and he relented. He notes with amazement that she indeed kept her promise of loyalty, and has never left his side.
Pops had found a boxer who would work as hard as he could push her, and he laughs as he remembers making her run five miles with him driving behind her in his truck, making her hit a heavy bag on the truck while running backwards, egging her on by telling her ‘This is a man’s world’ while sparring with her, and finally putting her in the ring with heavyweight men and letting her get beaten around until she figured out how to get the upper hand even in those unfair circumstances.
He watched the anger she had carried on her shoulders dissipate as she channeled it into the ring, and describes the love that grew between them as trainer and boxer, as he realized that he could help her to become the greatest female boxer in the world.
When Ann decided to open her own gym in August, 2003, Pops let her know that he would back her up completely. He was ready to let go of the role of head trainer to be her assistant, noting that she has a natural talent for training boxers, and is able to train alongside her fighters in a way he was no longer able. He looks forward to the day when her work with up-and-coming 154-lb. James Kirkland will lead her to the honor of becoming the first female to train a world champion.
Pops has worked Ann’s corner at each of her fights, and continues to work the corner with her at every amateur competition. His most recent motivation has come in the form of Ann’s new baby, Zion. He senses Zion’s natural interest in and aptitude for boxing, and looks forward to the days ahead when he can pass along to Zion the intricacies of the sweet science.
When Pops walks around town, he is constantly greeted by people whose life he has touched in some way, and he is a man content with the impact he has made in the world.