November 28, 2004

FIGHTING CHANCE ; One African Shanty Town Has Produced More Great Boxers Than Anywhere Else in the World. And Now a New Generation of Its Down-at-Heel Children is Preparing to Step in the Ring. In Ghana, George Bearfield Meets the Would-Be Champions

On the outskirts of Ghana's capital, Accra, is Bukom, a shanty town with pot-holed streets and crumbling houses. Poverty hangs over this slum as oppressively as the stagnant sub-Saharan air. But this place is remarkable. Ever since the late Roy Ankrah won the British Empire Featherweight crown in 1951, Bukom has produced dozens of title contenders and several boxing world champions. It is also the home of the greatest African boxer ever, Azumah "The Professor" Nelson, who, during the 1980s, was a three-times world champion.

The people of Bukom come from the Ga tribe which has traditionally seen fighting as both a good sport and a way of boosting a young man's morale. Competitive fighting, however, only took off here at the end of the 19th century when, every Sunday, young men would do battle on the beach to prove their prowess. Then, in the 1940s, soldiers from Ghana - or the Gold Coast as it was then - returned from fighting in the Second World War with the British Army and brought with them new-found sporting skills. Soon, inspired by the success of men such as Ankrah, boxing replaced tribal fighting in Bukom.

Today, like their 19th-century forefathers, the boxers of Bukom seem to be instinctively drawn to the beach. They rise just before dawn and, lit only by the nearby streetlights, begin their training there with stretches and lunges. As the sun rises, and the shanty town that sprawls across the old harbour at Fort James comes to life, they are still there, sprinting and doing their seemingly endless rounds ` of sit-ups in solemn silence; the only sound is the lapping sea. Then they set off jogging, their feet kicking sand and stomping through the litter that covers the beach. Occasionally, they stop and throw a cluster of punches, their graceful movements contrasting sharply with these desolate surroundings.

The Attoh Quarshie gym is a barren shell of a building, typical of the dozen or more working gyms within a square mile of Bukom that is known as the "fighting village". Its stone floor glistens with the sweat of the hundreds of men who have trained here. A boxing ring, cleverly fashioned from scrap material, is in the centre of the room. As the morning progresses, dozens of fighters crowd into this small gym and the shuffling of feet, and the snorts of exertion, gradually swell to a din. Dozens of children cluster around, watching the boxers through the empty window frames.

Agoe Ashong struts around the gym with all the confidence you would expect from West Africa's welterweight champion. Ashong's nickname is "Tyson" and it is easy to see why when his turn comes on the gym's only heavy bag and he punches it as though its very existence is an affront to him.

Fellow fighter, Frank Kwaku, has a different temperament. At 6ft 7in, he dwarfs all of the other fighters in the gym but, although he is the undisputed "daddy", he is a gentle giant. "I want to be a good champion like Lennox Lewis," he says with a grin. Yet when Kwaku slides between the ropes for his sparring session, his smile soon melts away.

Then there's Zakaria Issah, who is less boastful and talkative than the other fighters but whose eyes betray a quiet determination to succeed. "Boxing is my life," he says. "Azumah Nelson is a hero of Bukom and Ghana. Maybe I will not be a hero, but if I can support my family, for me that is enough." Zakaria currently lives in two rooms with his parents and grandmother. Like many families in Bukom, they survive as subsistence fisherman. When the day's catch is fried on a wood-fired stove outside their home, the largest portion is reserved for Zakaria. It is his only regular source of the protein that he needs to build his strength.

For the past 20 years, the club's trainer has been Godwin Kotey. For most of the day he leans on the top rope of the boxing ring surveying the action. His occasional words of guidance are always respected. "Boxing offers the opportunity to raise people from nowhere to somewhere," he says. "I do my work in the hope that somebody will be successful from this community."

Godwin currently has four African champions, and one Commonwealth champion, in his stable. His gym is one of many in the area that have had similar successes. It is hard to understand how this is possible, given that his fighters have such dilapidated training facilities, an insufficient diet and almost no financial backing.

Yet, time and again, Bukom throws up men who can compete with the best in the world. Perhaps this is because boxing, more than any other sport, is about heart. The fighters who succeed in competition are those that can tap into reserves of energy and motivation even when they have apparently given their all.

Bukom has great success in amateur boxing too. Local fighter Clement Quartey was a silver medallist at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960 and Eddie Blay won bronze four years later in Tokyo. Azumah Nelson's remarkable career began with a Commonwealth Games gold medal in 1978, and it was this experience that set him on his road to greatness as a professional. But medals don't buy food. Kwaku is one of the many men who has been forced to ` turn pro before being able to prove himself as an amateur. He was in pre-qualification for the Athens Olympics when he was inexplicably dropped from the Black Bombers, the Ghanaian national amateur team.

"Coaches have their favourites," he says when pressed on the matter. He is certain that he would have been able to qualify for Athens and do well there. But now his professional career is beginning under Godwin's guidance and the money he earns will provide him with some consolation.

Not all boxers in Bukom have such opportunities. Daniel Lartey was a boxer once. For nearly 30 years, he fought to become the next Nelson. Boxing was his life, but after narrowly failing to make the Black Bombers, no promoter would take a chance on investing in him. He persisted, pushing himself harder than ever, but in the competitive world of Bukom boxing there are no second chances.

One day it dawned on him that he would never be a champion. So Daniel decided to pass his knowledge and dreams on to others. He now runs the Fit Square club, where he puts local children through the training regime he knows so well from his fighting days. Two of their number are his own sons, Jessie, nine, and seven-year-old Jerry.

It is late in the day when Jerry steps forward into the courtyard of the Fit Square club to face his opponent. Before the sparring sessions start, Daniel ties Jerry's boots and whispers gentle words of encouragement into his ear. But when the bout is about to start, his face becomes impassive. The boys' necks look barely strong enough to support the headguards that they wear. As they approach each other, people stop talking and become attentive. More spectators - passing children, and vendors bored by their relentless march up and down the village streets - swell the crowd.

The boys spring forward, their arms shooting out like pistons. The audience claps and shouts encouragement. One old man throws punches at his own invisible opponent. Some spectators laugh but it is not a laugh of ridicule, more disbelief at the tenacity of these pint-sized warriors.

Daniel isn't laughing. He is deadly serious as he surveys each boy's technique. He has no favourites now, shouting out encouragement and advice to both boys alternately. He isn't unduly worried about the prospect of Jerry falling over or banging his head on the concrete floor. "He must show courage, like the other boys," he says, his eyes flitting between the fight and the stopwatch that is gripped in his hand. "We are all depending on him." And they are.

Jerry attends school in the morning and begins boxing training in the afternoon. His parents do not believe that his education will lead to a worthwhile career. As difficult as boxing may be, it is the family's best hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. Daniel, his wife, mother, and two children live in a two- roomed shack with no running water. The family's income comes from his wife, Helen, who sells eggs and tea from a stall not far from the gym. The average wage in Ghana is $300 (pounds 160) a year but, in Bukom, few people make even this modest sum. Decent boxers can make $100 a month but Bukom's fighters dream of the success of Ike Quartey, the former world welterweight champion, who earned hundreds of thousands of dollars during his career.

Becoming a world-class boxer should not be a realistic goal for the people of Bukom. But these people don't have the option of being realistic. Life has taught them that you must fight for survival. And the success of their boxing pioneers has reinforced that belief. Against all odds, this shanty town, equipped with nothing more than desperation and hope, has become the most dependable breeding ground for champion boxers in the world. n