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Boxing-Libya's outlawed boxers open first club in 30 years

TRIPOLI, Oct 17 (Reuters) - When Muhammad Ali was photographed shaking hands with Libya’s most promising boxer, few could have known Giubran Zugdani would soon never been seen in the ring again.

Zugdani collected victories across the world and has a file of newspaper clippings to prove it. But Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi banned the sport shortly after Zugdani’s appearance in the 1976 Olympics and, with a generation of talented boxers, Zugdani disappeared from the limelight forever.

Or so it was thought. Fast forward three decades and the now middle-aged men have dusted off their ancient gloves and opened the first boxing club in Libya since the sport was outlawed.

“He stopped the game because he didn’t like stars,” said Zugdani, speaking at the new premises, half a sports hall at the club that formerly belonged to Saadi Gaddafi and his football team.

In the background, a volleyball game is in full swing and a karate class is beginning at the far end of the room. Anywhere else it might be a normal after-school club, but just months previously the hall had been reserved exclusively for Saadi Gaddafi and his friends.

The football club’s former director, Mohammed Hamozuda said he had been kicked out in 1993, when the former leader’s son took over.

“Saadi forced us civilians to leave and so the club was taken over by the army,” he said, adding that the new head would be elected democratically.

NEW GENERATION

“I want to become a champion like my dad,” said Ahmed, aged 10, dressed in a Spiderman outfit and the only lucky pupil to have a pair of tiny, battered boxing gloves of his own.

His father was one of the former boxers helping Mahmoud Abushgewa, also a championship winner in the 1970s, to steer a new generation of young Libyans into the sport in the post-Gaddafi era.

“In boxing, you have to learn the body is nothing,” said Abushgewa, explaining how one had to overcome the fear of getting hit.

Abushgewa beamed from behind a white moustache as he shouted at a dozen or more pupils aged seven and up, gleaming with sweat and carefully punching straight jabs into the air with their gloveless fists.

“We are waiting for everything to arrive,” he explained.

The men had carefully stored their gloves over four decades during which training sessions had been held in secret locations, as they waited for the time when it would be safe to box in the open again.

They are still impressively fast.

“Libya had a very good boxing team. But Gaddafi said this is violence, which was contradictory in a way. How is it violence in one place, but okay in another?” asked a friend, himself a former sportsman who had played in the national soccer team but never been known by name, because no players other than Saadi Gaddafi were recognised. The rest were just numbers.

Permission had only recently been confirmed by the interim government, but classes were already starting at 5.30 p.m. every day and were free of charge.

Many of the new students were the sons of the former boxers, the youngest still small enough to take their new freedom for granted. (Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib; Editing by Jon Hemming and Clare Fallon)

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