Libya’s boxers recover from Gaddafi-era KO

Omar Zlitni holds a decades-old black-and-white photo of himself as a prime-year boxer, posing in shorts and a track vest before Libya’s then-dictator Moamer Gaddafi banned his beloved sport.

Boxing is “in his blood,” said the 63-year-old Tripoli resident, who proudly keeps the picture as his phone wallpaper.

In 1979 he was just 19 years old when Gaddafi banned boxing, wrestling and other martial arts because he saw such competitions as a threat to his personality cult.

“We were a whole group. We wanted to fight in Italy. And then suddenly they banned it. Why?” Zlitni told AFP, with anger darkening his normally peaceful face.

“There were friendships and love; boxing was everything,” he said, adding that he regretted that their way of life had been taken from them and that “everyone went their own way”.

Officially, the authorities considered the sport too violent – even though Gaddafi’s regime has been accused of atrocities such as terrorism, torture, massacres of civilians and targeted assassinations for more than 40 years.

After the 2011 revolution in Libya that overthrew and killed Gaddafi, Zlitni reunited with former fighters and worked to revitalize boxing and rebuild the national federation through her “own efforts”.

Since then, Libyan boxers have excelled in various competitions, modeling themselves after Malik Zinad, a light heavyweight fighter who found success after leaving the country for Europe.

– “Hoist flag” –

Under a tin roof, in a barn in Tripoli, young fighters fight in a dusty old ring. They are aiming to be selected to compete in African qualifiers for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Zlitni, who is now a coach, regrets the lack of support from the authorities and points to the rudimentary equipment he and other former boxers had to pay for out of their “own pockets”.

But the sight of so many young people practicing the sport freely and “waving the flag of Libya” gives him “joy”.

A crowd of spectators on plastic chairs shout at a boxer who is parrying punches from his opponent: “Block!”, “Come on!”, “Again!”.

One in particular stands out from the ringside crowd – Mountaha Touhami, one of the few female boxers in the conservative Muslim country.

The self-proclaimed “sports lover” said she was encouraged to step into the ring by her father, who was exiled in the United States because of the boxing ban.

“We didn’t know about the girls of my generation that others train,” says the 25-year-old, describing how she often secretly trains with the punching bag.

“Again, people are surprised to see a woman,” she said after coming to the boxing gym to support a friend.

“But the fact of being a woman, child or adult, does not prevent you from playing sports”.

– ‘Perseverance and Patience’ –

Other martial arts have reappeared and emerged in Libya since 2011. For Omar Bouhwiyah, a passionate kickboxer and Thai boxer, their existence presented an opportunity to develop new passions.

“These sports have allowed me to have more confidence, release negative energy, develop a sense of responsibility and socialize more,” he said.

The 29-year-old is an action film fan and said he first came across a Facebook group dedicated to kickboxing in his hometown of Benghazi in 2013.

Bouhwiyah, who has won multiple competitions including regional titles, now trains at a modern gym in Tripoli.

Wearing gloves and shorts in Libyan colors, he powerfully punches and kicks a punching bag while filming the scene for his 14,000 followers on Instagram.

He says there is a gap between Libya and its neighbors in such sports, but believes “perseverance and patience” have made it possible to “break down prejudices” held about Libyans.

Bouhwiyah dreams of reaching the top and even becoming world champion.

“Nothing is impossible,” he said.


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