Libyan boxers recover from a knockout from the Qaddafi era
Libyan boxers recover from a knockout from the Qaddafi era

Tripoli: Omar Zlitni is seen holding a vintage black-and-white photograph of himself in his prime as a boxer, posing in shorts and a training vest before Muammar Qaddafi, the country's then-dictator, outlawed his beloved sport.

Boxing was "in his blood," according to the 63-year-old Tripoli resident who proudly keeps the photo as his phone's background. He was only 19 when Qaddafi outlawed boxing, along with wrestling and other combat sports, in 1979 because he saw them as a threat to his personality cult.

"We were all together. We were planning a battle in Italy. Then all of a sudden, it was outlawed. Why?” Zlitni spoke while displaying anger on his typically placid face.

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Boxing was everything, he said, adding that "everyone went his own way" and lamenting the loss of their way of life. "There were friendships and love; boxing was everything."

Although the Qaddafi regime has been charged for more than 40 years with atrocities such as terrorism, torture, mass killings of civilians, and targeted killings, the sport was officially deemed to be too violent.

Zlitni reunited with former fighters and worked to revive boxing after Libya's 2011 revolution, which resulted in Qaddafi's overthrow and death. They also succeeded in re-establishing the national federation through their "own efforts."

Since then, Libyan boxers have excelled in a variety of competitions, taking inspiration from light heavyweight champion Malik Zinad, who found success after emigrating to Europe.

Young fighters square off in an aged ring beneath a tin roof in a barn in Tripoli. They are attempting to be chosen to compete in African Olympic Games qualifiers in Paris in 2024.

Zlitni, who is now a coach, laments the lack of government assistance while highlighting the basic equipment that he and other former boxers had to pay for out of their "own pockets." But he expresses "joy" at seeing so many young people playing the sport freely and "waving the flag of Libya."

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A boxer is deflecting blows from his opponent as a group of spectators standing in plastic chairs yell, "Block!" Let's go! One in particular once more stands out in the ringside audience. Mountaha Touhami, one of the few female boxers in the traditional sport

The self-described "sports lover" claimed that her father, who had sought asylum in the US due to the boxing ban, had encouraged her to enter the ring.
"Among the girls of my generation, we did not know that others practised," the 25-year-old said, describing how she often trained in secret with a punching bag.

She explained that even in this place, where she was at the boxing gym to support a friend, people were surprised to see a woman.

But being a woman, whether as a child or an adult, does not preclude you from participating in sports. Since 2011, other combat sports have made a comeback and emerged in Libya. Their existence gave Omar Bouhwiyah, a dedicated kickboxer and Thai boxer, the chance to discover new passions.

Through these sports, I've been able to boost my self-esteem, let go of negative energy, develop my sense of responsibility, and socialise more, he said.
The 29-year-old, an action movie enthusiast, claimed he first discovered a Facebook group devoted to kickboxing in his hometown of Benghazi in 2013.

Bouhwiyah now works out in a contemporary gym in Tripoli after going on to win numerous competitions, including regional championships. He strikes out at a punching bag while filming the fight for his 14,000 Instagram followers while wearing gloves and shorts coloured like Libya.

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He claims that there is a gap in these sports between Libya and its neighbours, but he also believes that "perseverance and patience" have allowed for the "breaking down of prejudices" held against Libyans. Bouhwiyah aspires to success and even winning the world championship.

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