Libya’s boxers recover from Kadhafi-era knockout
Omar Zlitny holds up a decade-old black-and-white photo of him as a boxer in his prime, posing in shorts and a training vest before then Libyan dictator Moamer Gaddafi banned his favorite sport.
Boxing was “in his blood,” said the 63-year-old Tripoli resident, who proudly keeps the image as his phone’s wallpaper.
In 1979, he was only 19 years old when boxing, along with wrestling and other martial arts, was banned by Gaddafi, who considered such competitions a threat to his cult of personality.
“We were a whole group. We were going to fight in Italy. And then suddenly it was banned. Why?” Zlitni told AFP, anger clouding his normally calm face.
“There was friendship and love; boxing was everything,” he said, adding that he regrets that their lifestyle was taken away and that “each went his own way.”
Officially, the sport was considered too violent by the authorities, despite the fact that the Gaddafi regime was accused of atrocities for more than 40 years, including terrorism, torture, massacres of civilians and targeted killings.
After the 2011 revolution in Libya, during which Gaddafi was expelled and killed, Zlitni reunited with former fighters and worked to revive boxing, rebuilding the national federation “through his own efforts.”
Since then, Libyan boxers have shone in various competitions, emulating Malik Zinad, the light heavyweight fighter who rose to success after leaving the country for Europe.
– “Under the flag” –
Under a tin roof, in a shed in Tripoli, young fighters spar in a dusty old ring. They are aiming to be selected for the African qualifiers for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Zlitni, now a trainer, laments the lack of support from the authorities, pointing to the rudimentary equipment he and other former boxers had to pay for out of “their own pockets”.
But seeing so many young people freely playing sports and “waving the flag of Libya” brings him “joy.”
A crowd of spectators sitting on plastic chairs shouts to the boxer parrying the opponent’s blows: “Block!”, “Come on!”, “One more time!”.
One of them stands out in particular among the crowd at the ringside – Mountaha Tukhami, one of the few female boxers in a conservative Muslim country.
The self-proclaimed “athlete” said she was inspired to enter the ring by her father, who fled to the United States due to the boxing ban.
“Among the girls of my generation, we didn’t know that others were training,” the 25-year-old said, describing how she often secretly trained with a punching bag.
“Even here, people are surprised to see a woman,” she said, arriving at the boxing gym to support a friend.
“But just because you’re a woman, a child, or an adult doesn’t stop you from playing sports.”
– ‘Perseverance and patience’ –
Since 2011, other types of martial arts have reappeared and emerged in Libya. For Omar Bukhwiya, a passionate kickboxer and Muay Thai, their existence provided an opportunity to develop new passions.
“These sports allowed me to gain more self-confidence, get rid of negative energy, gain a sense of responsibility and communicate more,” he said.
The 29-year-old action fan said he first came across a kickboxing Facebook group in his hometown of Benghazi in 2013.
Having won several competitions including regional titles, Bukhvia now trains in a state of the art gym in Tripoli.
Dressed in Libyan-colored gloves and shorts, he punches and kicks hard on a punching bag while filming the scene for his 14,000 Instagram followers.
He says there is a gap between Libya and its neighbors in such sports, but believes that “perseverance and patience” has made it possible to “break prejudice” about Libyans.
Bukhvia dreams of reaching the top, even becoming a world champion.
“Nothing is impossible,” he said.