Boxing, considered as a "savage" sport and banned since 1979 by Kadhafi, is making a comeback in Libya
Coach Dris Ali Mohammed (out of picture) trains Mustafa Abdel Nasser during a boxing training session for young Libyans in the capital Tripoli on January 14. Boxing, considered as a "savage" sport and banned since 1979 by former Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, is making a comeback in the North African country after the strongman's ouster and death. © Mahmud Turkia - AFP/File
Boxing, considered as a
Jay Deshmukh, AFP
Last updated: January 17, 2012

Boxing punches back in Libya after Kadhafi ban

Sofiyan al-Bassar swings his right fist and delivers a blow to the face of his rival, splitting his lower lip and knocking him off balance before rushing in to try to finish him off.

"Stop! Stop!" yells a stocky man as he pulls the 23-year-old back.

Bassar and his opponent Ramzi Abdulhadi al-Haji are not members of rival militias fighting on the streets of Tripoli, but they are among the first enthusiastic young men to join a newly opened boxing club in the city.

Boxing, considered as a "savage" sport and banned since 1979 by former Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, is making a comeback in the North African country after the strongman's ouster and death.

The club, which is still to be named, operates from what used to be a regular meeting place of Kadhafi diehards to discuss the dictator's "Green Book", a collection of his political, economic and social teachings.

"This is our fitting reply to the dead tyrant. We are relaunching the sport which we love, but he hated, from one of his own places," the stocky man, coach Dris Ali Mohammed, tells AFP.

"Kadhafi banned boxing because he thought it to be a savage sport. But he had no problems hanging and killing people in Abu Slim (prison in Tripoli). No wonder he was killed by our boys," says Mohammed.

Kadhafi was killed on October 20 in a fierce battle at his hometown of Sirte, ending an eight-month conflict against his regime which erupted in February last year.

Tens of thousands of young and old Libyans took up arms to fight his diehards, eventually ending his 42 years of iron-fisted rule.

Mohammed says he was part of the last international boxing championship in which Libya participated, in Venezuela in 1979.

Now 63, he took part in the featherweight class and fought rivals from Thailand and Venezuela before a broken finger forced him to withdrew from the tournament.

Only three years beforehand, Mohammed had met boxing legend Muhammad Ali in Benghazi, the eastern city of Libya which first rose up against Kadhafi last year.

Soon after his return to Libya from Venezuela, Mohammed had to stop boxing and instead took up powerlifting and bodybuilding after Kadhafi banned the sport.

"I kept my gloves in the closet and began training in powerlifting and bodybuilding," he says.

"I took them out two months ago after nearly 33 years to teach these boys," he adds, as behind him Bassar and Haji begin another round of sparring.

The small compound from where Mohammed runs the club in central Tripoli's Zawiyah Street resembles an old garage with big iron gates painted in green -- a symbol of Kadhafi's regime -- and half-covered by a wooden roof.

On the outside wall, a neatly drawn image depicts the sentiment of the men inside. The picture shows a young Muhammad Ali knocking out Kadhafi with a punch.

"The last punch of October 20," say the words accompanying the painting, referring to the day Kadhafi was killed in Sirte during a battle with rebels who these days often clash among themselves.

Only a few days ago, two groups of former rebels armed with machineguns and anti-aircraft guns skirmished in Zawiyah Street itself, leaving four dead and several wounded.

Behind the iron gates of the compound, two brown punching bags swing wildly from the rafters as three young men deliver a series of blows with their dusty looking gloves.

"This had always been my dream. I used to ask people where I can learn boxing, but nobody dared to talk of it," says Haji, a broad-shouldered man dressed in a T-shirt and tracksuit.

"Now, thanks to our coach Mohammed who is spending his own money, I can learn the sport. I want to be Libya's Muhammad Ali. I know we Libyans were good at boxing and that glory must return."

Haji and Bassar say their families fully support their love for the sport.

"My father says I must follow it. He says that I am one of the first to take up this sport after Kadhafi's death and this will help in becoming famous," says a beaming Haji.

Bassar, who describes himself as a "peace-loving man", says boxing gives him "happiness and releases my energy."

"I want to be a professional boxer. I know it will happen," he says with a look of confidence.

Mohammed believes that boxing comes naturally to Libyans.

"Our men from cities like Benghazi and Tripoli are good at it, especially from Benghazi," he says.

"Benghazi produced good boxers in the past," he says, adding that in the 1970s Libya won some of its gold, silver and bronze medals in the boxing ring.

But several challenges lie ahead for the likes of Mohammed who are passionate about the sport. To start with Libya needs fully equipped clubs with latest fitness equipment and professional trainers.

The club which Mohammed runs has rain water dripping in through the roof, with his recruits often slipping on the wet floor during practice bouts.

"Look at this place. It is cold and wet. There is hardly anything here, except our desire to become boxers," says Haji as he steadies himself on the wet floor.

"But I am sure in this new Libya we will achieve our dreams."

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