“ …it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. “
Few who watched the Hollywood film, Rocky Balboa are likely to forget the words of its protagonist, as he combined philosophy and boxing to characterize the daily struggles of everyday life. However, if what Balboa said is true for everyone, it’s perhaps truer for the young men of Tripoli trying to avoid being pulled into the cycle of violence that has come to embody their city.
Under the Gaddafi regime, many of the sports associated with combat, such as boxing, Muay Thai and kickboxing were banned, leaving the young men drawn to these sports with no choice but to practice underground and watch international competitions through television.
A coach from Algeria
At least, that was the situation that 37-year old Algerian “Captain” Ismail found when he arrived in Tripoli in 2004. Ismail first came to the city to work as a cook in one of the fish restaurants. However, his plans quickly changed after his friends learned of his past experience, competing in a variety of international competitions for his country and winning medals in Muay Thai. The opportunity of bringing his experience to bear on Tripoli’s underground martial arts scene proved too tempting and soon Ismail was at work.
Ismail began training Tripoli’s young men under the name Vo Vietnam (after the Vietnamese martial art), initially instructing them in the state sanctioned sports such as Judo or Karate at the Olympic Hall in Zawiyet Al-Dahmani and then through a network of trusted clubs.
Today, twelve years later, he travels between the sports halls of Tripoli, training anyone between the ages of five and 55 in the discipline and control needed to succeed in both their chosen sports and their lives. "My main motivation was to spread the popularity of the sport and to establish a good reputation for myself as a coach within it,” Captain Ismail said.
Once prohibited sport
After the revolution when restrictions on the banned sports no longer seemed relevant, their popularity exploded and Captain Ismail’s skills were in acute demand.
Many of those who had previously specialized in Taekwondo, for instance, took up the previously banned martial arts, such as kickboxing, due to their many similarities with the previously sanctioned forms. Muay Thai also proved widely popular. However, the limited number of clubs offering training in the sport acted then, and does now, as a barrier to those wanting to take it up.
27-year old, Aseel Mohammed Bukhari still remembers his beginnings in kickboxing under the tutelage of Captain Ismail in 2011. Looking back, he recalls the dearth of training facilities on offer and the Captain’s insistence on each fighter taking individual responsibility for their development, as he strove to establish a core of fighters at the center of the nascent sport.
"We faced many difficulties because of the situation within the country.” Aseel said, “Often entire periods of training would be interrupted due to instability. At other times, we couldn’t travel to international competitions because of the fighting.”
Aseel, who is currently completing his studies abroad, describes his enthusiasm for the sport. "Kickboxing is a combat sports par excellence. Fighters have to rely on controlling their anger and show respect for their opponents. It allows you to look upon the person you’re fighting as a friend who just happens to share a love of the same sport."
Despite the difficulties facing its organizers, Libya’s Kickboxing Union was established in 2013, with the first competition following in March 2014, with organizers keen to use the tournament to establish a national team. Several clubs participated, however, with fighting intensifying across the country the second tournament, in March 2016, saw a reduction in the number of clubs making the journey.
Their main Achievements
Despite the overwhelming challenges facing them, a number of Captain Ismail’s protégés have established themselves as serious contenders within their disciplines. Aseel, won the gold medal in the under 93 kg category in the 2014 Libyan national kickboxing tournament, going on to represent his country in numerous international competitions. However, international progress has been slowed by the closure of Tripoli International Airport in 2014 and ongoing difficulties in obtaining visas. However, a small number of Libyan fighters have not been deterred. Competing in the World Championships in Thailand in 2014, Mohammed Jamal Al Tabbal from the Al Alameen Club won gold in Muay Thai in under 81 kg category.
Despite the endless obstacles and difficulties, Libya’s fighters persevere. For Captain Ismail, the future is bright. In time he wants to establish a new club, Team Gorilla, one that will include the new disciplines and establish a reputation for itself based on its fighters,’ and its country’s courage and ambition.