US basketball

The Ghana neighborhood where boxing is a way of life

Agence France-Presse
In Ghana, a country rich with oil and gold but with high unemployment and low household incomes, it's often the sons of fishermen who step into the boxing ring to escape a hard life at sea

The Ghanaian is just 13 years old but by training in the Bukom neighborhood of Accra – a hotbed for fighters – he probably has a better chance than most of becoming a contender.

The teenager spends hours each day at an outdoor gym close to the Atlantic Ocean’s crashing waves, aiming to make his dream of a world championship belt come true.

Painted yellow circles, to hone footwork, adorn the ground of the small courtyard. Well-used punch bags hang in one corner and old weights, rusted red by the salt and spray of the sea, are testament to the punishing regime needed to hit hard and win.

Ghana has produced 7 world champions and most came from Bukom, a poor area where crumbling colonial-era houses stand beside corrugated iron shacks.

Without a suitable gym in his own town, Takyi-Aidoo came to Bukom specifically for boxing.

“That is where champions are built,” he said, wiping sweat from his face. “It’s about hard work and dedication. That’s why I’m here.”

But some places for learning the noble art are getting a makeover, so big is the sport’s appeal, second only to football. A complex inaugurated nearby by Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama in November, leads the way.

Equipped with an 800-seat auditorium, a two-storey aerobic training, physiotherapy and gym block, a 300-seat conference hall and a 4,000-seat open air arena, it is designed to help young fighters.

Breeding boxers

Takyi-Aidoo is one of hundreds of young men aspiring to be the next Joshua Clottey, a born-and-bred Bukom hero who won the International Boxing Federation (IBA) welterweight title in 2008.

In his February 2016 State of the Nation address, Mahama said the new center would help boxing hopefuls from Bukom and surrounding areas to “realise their dreams”.

Its modernity stands out among 20 gyms in the area.

Bernard Armah, who trains nearby at the Will Power Boxing Gym, a dilapidated shed with a boxing ring in the middle, has given himself 10 years to achieve his dream.

“People encourage you to take up boxing,” says the 18-year-old, whose family comes from Bukom and who grew up knowing it as an area where champions are born.

Ghana’s most famous boxer – and one of Takyi-Aidoo’s idols – is Azumah Nelson, revered as a national hero and beyond as one of the African continent’s best ever fighters.

Nelson came out of Bukom to win 3 World Boxing Council (WBC) belts at featherweight and super featherweight in the 1980s and 1990s.

Takyi-Aidoo also idolizes US fighter Floyd Mayweather.

“My vision is to be one of the greatest boxers ever seen. I always look at Floyd Mayweather and he inspires me,” he adds.

The gym where the young hopeful trains is part of Ike Quartey’s family home, another Bukom star who held the World Boxing Association (WBA) welterweight belt from 1994 until 1997.

Fish or fight 

Coach Prince Owusu said Bukom has become a breeding ground for boxers, in the same way Kenyan Rift Valley towns such as Iten and Eldoret are synonymous with champion middle- and long-distance runners.

“Most of them, because of poverty, they enter boxing,” said the 37-year-old trainer, noting that Bukom offers a chance at some kind of education in a country where jobs and schooling are scarce.

The skills and discipline of boxing make the young athletes excellent hires for police and private security companies, he said.

“It’s a job opportunity if you know how to fight.”

In Ghana, a country rich with oil and gold but with high unemployment and low household incomes, it’s often the sons of fishermen who step into the ring to escape a hard life at sea.

“Most of them are illiterate,” said the president of the Ghana Boxing Authority, Peter Zwennes.

“A lot of them, when they can’t have basic education, they take to boxing.”

Whether the new sporting complex near Bukom will host Ghana’s next champion boxers remains to be seen, but the president recently arrived there dressed as a champion, hoping to gather votes on the back of the changes.

For Armah, the goals are multiple – if he makes it, he envisions a life of travel and fame but insists home and relatives will always be his priority.

“If I become successful in the future, I will help the family,” he said. – Stacey Knott, Agence France-Presse/