x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Helping the sport that lacks the killer punch

UAE publication aims to win an Olympic gold but says it is being handicapped by a lack of sponsorship for local events.

DUBAI // Efforts to promote amateur boxing among the country's youth are being hampered by a shortage of funding and by public ignorance of the intricacies of the sport, according to enthusiasts. While the UAE Boxing Federation (BF) is seeking to attract Emirati youths into the game, and is subsidising any training and promotion of the sport in government schools, one of its senior officials said a lack of sponsors for local events was one of several obstacles to progress.

"We used a marketing company before, which knew how to find us great sponsorship [for local events], but they no longer operate here and it has proved difficult since then," he said. "If we were able to find sponsors then we could bring in international competitors to fight here." The long-term aim of the BF is an Olympic gold medal for the UAE, but a lack of understanding about the difference between amateur and professional boxing appears to be thwarting progress.

The official, who did not wish to be named, believes much of the UAE population's apparent reluctance to embrace the sport stems from a tendency to associate it with the brutal professional fights regularly shown on television, rather than amateur bouts, which rarely generate media interest. Clutching a copy of the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) rules, he said: "There is a huge difference between amateur and professional. With amateur we are caring about safety. We use head guards, groin guards, large gloves and we have strict rules to protect all of the competitors. "

In an attempt to promote amateur boxing at the grassroots, the federation has signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education in Abu Dhabi that allows it to train pupils, after hours, at two government schools in the capital and two more in Al Ain. The BF, which is supported by its patron and board chairman, Sheikh Hamed bin Mohammed bin Butti al Hamed, as well as the General Authority for Youth and Sports Welfare, hopes the agreement will lead to at least a handful of pupils pursuing the sport long-term.

"As a federation we particularly enjoy watching the children progress," the official said. "They play from the heart, they do it because they enjoy it, without tricks or games. "In the beginning it was difficult. It took us to show them how a boxer should behave. Now they behave well, they understand and have respect, they know their own power." He said: "We are still young compared to other countries, having only been in this field for eight years and having established the federation from zero," he said.

"It is not easy to convince people to be in different games but we have reached a lot more than advanced countries. There are some countries that have been in this field for more than 40 years. Our chairman is now one of the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) EC members and chair of the Arab Boxing Commission as well as the GCC Boxing Federation." Abdul Rahman Sahem, 22, is one of eight Emirati boxers representing the UAE in national and international amateur competitions.

Describing the challenges he faces as he follows his passion, Mr Sahem said: "I have been boxing for three years now but there are many difficulties in boxing here. One of the main challenges is the focus appears to be more on other sports like football." Rising rents and limited space has also made it hard to find affordable locations to set up BF boxing gyms, particularly in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

In an attempt to tackle this problem in Dubai, fighters such as Mr Sahem now have the option of training at a gym in Fujairah run by the federation, using a private gym the federation has an agreement with, or else finding a trainer nearer to them whom the BF will then pay. The BF also pays all Emiratis who wish to train, whether juniors, youth or seniors, between Dh10 and Dh40 per session - enough, it says, to cover fuel and food expenses.

Mr Sahem, who trains with Zack Taumafai in Dubai, believes regular local competitions in the UAE involving both expatriate and Emirati fighters from all seven Emirates, are essential. "It is important to compete regularly," he explained. "That is what makes you improve as a fighter." Mr Taumafai is recovering after the success of his third amateur kick-boxing fight night in Dubai last Friday. He flies in fighters from overseas to compete against his best students to produce an entertaining fight card - something which is proving to be a successful, but expensive, process.

Despite the cost, Mr Taumafai is adamant such events provide local fighters with an opportunity to gain invaluable experience in the ring. "I want to see the hard work the boys put in, training every day, amount to something," he explained. "I want them to be proud of the work they put in." Someone who has benefited from the experience is the Ghanian kick-boxer Richie "Black Pearl" Commey, who won the Asia-Pacific Welterweight Championship belt in April last year. Mr Commey believes promoting existing UAE competitions among the country's expatriates will nurture talent already here. "If that happened in a short period of time the UAE would be producing fighters of a similar standard and fame as Joe Calzaghe and Oscar de la Hoya," he predicted.

"I train with Emirati fighters who have the heart and want to do something for their country. They just need to be guided and invested in." loatway@thenational.ae