Morocco, like much of North Africa, has often been portrayed in the West as mysterious and exotic, a land of belly dancers, enticement and Arab enchantment. This outmoded stereotype is firmly laid to rest by the country’s burgeoning combat sports scene.
In Casablanca Fight Club, the regional qualifying stage of the Moroccan amateur boxing championships is just weeks away and the young boxers at the Bateha club are training for the biggest fights of their lives. It’s here that a 75-year-old parking attendant and former Moroccan featherweight champion, Saleh Rouman, mentors fresh young boxing talent.
“There are kids without any education or trade,” explains Saleh, Bateha boxing club’s head coach. “I save them from the street and encourage them to be productive. I point them in the right direction, but in the end it’s up to them. I do my best with them.”
Saleh founded Bateha in 1979 and his honours board boasts national champions. He gets a government subsidy for rent and electricity but has to fund the rest from his day job, devoting all his free time to nurturing young boxers in the modest Derb Ghallef area of town.
His club was the first in Casablanca to admit female fighters and Sanaa Akeel was a four-time national champion.
While Saleh’s always on the lookout for talent from the outside, most of his members are from Derb Ghallef and nearby areas. Morocco has produced several combat sport champions, including kick-boxer Badar Hari and boxer Mohammed Rabii. Rabii won world super-welterweight gold in Doha and Olympic bronze in Rio.
Weight is as important to a boxer as for a jockey in horse racing. And with the qualifying stages for the national championships around the corner, everyone at Bateha needs to be the right weight for their class. That’s a problem for 19-year-old Omaima Haji who currently weighs 71.6 but needs to be under 69 kilos to qualify as a welterweight. She doesn’t want to fight heavier, middleweight girls, fearing she may be outclassed.
“I gained four kilos from January to April,” explains Oumaima. “I registered in the 69 kilo class, but my weight now is 75. Uncle Saleh advised me to register as a middleweight but I refused.”
Fifteen-year-old Marwan Keroual has the opposite problem. He’s never yet had a competitive fight but time is running out and he’s still too light to compete as a junior pinweight. He’s also performing poorly at school, putting extra parental pressure on him to balance study with training.
“All my attention is on this fight. I have to win,” says Marwan, who’s determined to prove himself. “I want to improve my life through boxing and be a champion like Rabii.”
Will Marwan win his first fight? And will Oumaima Haji even make the weight? Casablanca Fight Club follows the trials and tribulations of the build up to the big day, and the blood, sweat and tears in the ring, in this compelling “life-in-the-raw” story of passionate young fighters and their inspiring, gnarled old coach.
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