Fight club: Boxing gives teenagers hope in crime hotspot

Story highlights

  • Hillbrow Boxing Club in Johannesburg has produced champions
  • Hillbrow is a notoriously dangerous inner city neighborhood
  • After school, youngsters come to the gym to learn the basics of boxing

Her gloves held high, Rita Mrwebi dances in the middle of a blue boxing ring. Eyes focused straight ahead, she unleashes a flurry of thudding jabs and powerful hooks.

It's here, inside this small, dark gym at Hillbrow Boxing Club in Johannesburg, where Mrwebi, the South African female welterweight champion, comes to train twice a day. She hasn't had a competitive fight for a year but she's working hard to stay at the top of her game before a big title match in August.

"I'm looking forward to this fight," says Mrwebi, who is set to defend her title for the third time. "It's a very tough fight because I'll be defending what is mine and she also wants my title," she adds. "I'm training very hard because I need to defend this title."

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There's a lot at stake if Mrwebi loses next month. Boxing is her main source of income, but with no sponsors or manager, fights are rare. In fact, she only gets to fight about once a year, and though she's set to take home some $5,000 -- win or lose -- for the August match, she can't afford to lose her title because that's what attracts challengers and ultimately brings money.

Yet it's not all about the money. Mrwebi says boxing has also given her purpose whilst growing up in Hillbrow, a notoriously dangerous inner city neighborhood of Johannesburg.

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"It did change my life a lot," says Mrwebi, who didn't finish school and never got to meet her father. "It kept me strict. It's a challenging sport; it's a very strict sport," adds the champion. "It kept me from bad things -- from drugs, from bad friends, having lots of boyfriends."

    But Mrwebi is not the only one to have benefited from the Hillbrow Boxing Club. Built in what used to be a gas station, the gym has been a haven for many youngsters in this densely populated part of Johannesburg, known for its high poverty and crime rates.

    After school, local boys flock to the gym to learn the basics of boxing -- how to move, jab and defend. No fee is required as the goal is to keep the young ones off the streets and out of trouble.

    "The Hillbrow Boxing Club has done a lot for the community," says Mrwebi, whose wins inside the boxing ropes have made her a local star. "It has saved the community, it has saved Hillbrow," she adds.

    "Hillbrow is not a good place but this gym has produced a lot of boxers, it has produced a lot of champions. We always go outside to look for younger stars, younger children; we keep them away from drugs; we keep them away from doing wrongs; we keep them away from walking over the street, walking around, don't know what they're looking for.

    "We always go outside and look for them; we bring them inside the gym and then we train them."

    The club was started by George Khosi, a former boxer who's been with Mrwebi since the very beginning of her career, training her since she was just nine years old.

    Khosi himself began boxing to avoid a life of crime. By the age of 20 he was fighting professionally across South Africa. Yet his career came to an abrupt end seven years later after a brutal robbery left him with a limp and damaged eye.

    "I was very sad," recalls Khosi. "I had no career. I can't do anything when I'm crippled. But God listened to me. He healed me."

    His dreams shattered, Khosi realized he would never be able to take part in professional matches again. But if he couldn't box, he could at lease use his skills to train others.

    Starting Hillbrow Boxing Club, he says, has brought purpose back to his life. And the gym is now also bringing hope to others in the neighborhood.

    "I grew up here in Hillbrow," says the powerfully built but softly spoken coach. "I don't want them to be in the street like I was," he adds.

    "You know sometimes kids, they can get bored ... in the house, so we want them to get out and come here to spend their day. When they get home they are tired. They just sleep. These are big guys. They will forget about doing stupid things outside. They come here and enjoy themselves and then they go home to sleep."

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    Back in the gym, Mrwebi continues her rigorous training regime by pounding a punch bag, her hands wrapped in tape. She says she is determined to work hard to make it far in her own career and also impact the next generation of Hillbrow's boxing hopefuls.

    "I'm hoping that one day I'll be a successful boxer, a trainer, a promoter so that I can promote other youngsters," she says. "So that I can put them somewhere so that they cannot suffer like I have suffered. So I'd love one day to be a promoter, to promote other children, to put them somewhere, to make them something one day."

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