fight town

words: anicee gaddis 

photography: gustavo di

Riding the line between brutal exorcism and a poetic sublime, boxing has produced more legends than any other sport of the last century. The noble art, as it’s historically known, has also fed an enduring fascination with pugilism as being more than just a sum of its parts. A solo act, an intimate engagement, one of the purest demonstrations of man-versus-man, boxing is ultimately a complex dance whose multiple rhythms coalesce into a strange tango falling somewhere between the lethal and the divine.

In Ghana, boxing ranks second only to football in terms of national obsessions. In the small oceanside fishing town of Bukom, an open-air boxing ring is situated within close reach of the local football pitch. Having already produced a wealth of hometown champions, Bukom has taken on the otherworldly dimensions of a mythological kingdom whose elegant warriors live, breathe and dream boxing. As the story goes, when a victor returns home after a win, the short twenty-minute journey from the capital of Accra can take as long as two hours once the locals turn out to escort their hero home. This is fight town. This is Bukom. This is myth becoming legend.

“The boxing university” has seen its fighters, most notably Azumah Nelson, gain celebrity status beyond Ghana’s borders and even induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Bukom’s hierarchy of top contenders includes Alfred Kotey, Ike Quartey, Kwame Asante and Joshua Clottey, who won the International Boxing Federation title by defeating Zab Judah in 2008. One who aspires to join their illustrious ranks is Malik “Bukom Snake” Jabir.

When I met Jabir in the spring of 2008, his record was 11-6 and he was somewhere on an uncertain road toward becoming either a boxing champion or a journeyman opponent. He invited me to come and watch a training session at Bukom’s acclaimed Attah Quarshie Boxing Gym. Upon arrival, I noticed boxing posters in German, Swedish and Russian papering the upper reaches of concrete walls, while hand-painted slogans decorated the remaining sepia-toned space. “Rule #1: The trainer is never wrong. Rule #2: If you think the trainer is wrong, refer to Rule #1.” The trainer himself informed me that the gym, operational since 2000, serves as a second home for some forty boxers from the neighborhood and beyond. The current crop of talent, alongside Quartey and Kotey, includes the towering 30-year-old heavyweight Frank “Big Shark” Frimpong, along with Joseph Agoko and George Hash, who, at 22, is the youngest ranked boxer from Bukom. Despite his current record, the trainer assured me that Malik Jabir could still turn out to be Bukom’s next thing.

As I sat on a bench waiting for Jabir to show up, a row of children lining the windowsill cocked their heads with expressions of transfixed envy bordering on uncertain alarm. The cement doors, stretched canvas boxing ring and chained punching bags were peopled by five young men who looked like muscular furniture arranged at wry angles in the mid-morning light. Frimpong, a gravity-defying Goliath, began taking shots at a corner bag. Between the smacks of glove against canvas, you could hear him talking to the bag, scheduling his right jab with a click of the tongue, alternately rallying and admonishing an imaginary opponent. At 6'6", he towered over his more compactly framed colleagues shadowboxing on the sidelines. The other boxers’ chat—their Shh Shh Shhs to his Ahh Ahh Ahhs—the pounding of fists and the ether of sweat and breathing formed a cadenced backdrop for individual soliloquies. After awhile it seemed as though the men were breathing and boxing collectively, like a well-oiled machine at ease with its various parts.



A stir among the children announced Jabir’s arrival. After a brief round of greetings, he summoned me to an abandoned courtyard, enclosed by crumbling facades that looked closer to belonging in Old Havana than contemporary Accra. There was a high metallic sun and the sky was a faded, powdery blue. After half an hour of sprints, Jabir began shadowboxing, pausing only to remove his T-shirt and accept refreshment from a young boy who fed him water like milk from a bottle. Another boy with a plaster cast fitted on his left foot muttered to himself as he measured and dissected the lightweight’s unusually asymmetrical technique. Jabir, whose thuggish pout transformed to a darkening grimace, was lost in the moment. By the time he took a break, a local posse of wannabees, has-beens and future aspirants had amassed to watch.

“I train Monday to Monday ... twenty-four-eight,” Jabir offered as we sat talking under the now blazing sun. He started training professionally in 1999, at the age of 16, but was discovered as early as age 7 by a coach who spotted him mashing up some kids in the street one day. “He walked me home and asked my mother if he could coach me,” Jabir recalled. “I was always fighting in the street so my parents were happy when they saw that I could develop my hobby into a real skill. I don’t have my own family yet, but once I do, my children will not follow me into the ring.”

At 5'8" and weighing “9 stones,” the topography of Jabir’s body alone—the carved biceps and ripped abdominal cords—is proof positive of his dedication to his craft. He works out from 4:00 to 7:00 every morning, takes tea with an egg for breakfast and spends the remainder of the day training at the gym. He lives alone, sleeps alone and often cooks his own evening meal of rice and stew. His mantra is not unlike that of any other professional athlete: “I eat. I sleep. I don’t do things that will weaken me.” He’s never been injured, is not yet married and abstains, for the most part, from the “weakening” vices of sex, drugs and cigarettes. His sole indulgences it would seem are watching football matches, listening to music, particularly to Ga artists (the Ga-Adangbe are an ethnic group from Ghana), and dancing. “Every Friday night I go out to the Yegola club with my boys,” he confessed with an airy smile, “but by Saturday morning, I’m back in the ring.”


I thought I wouldn’t see Jabir again after our day spent at the gym. But as it turned out, we bumped into each other at a Ghana-Nigeria football match at the Accra Sports Stadium a few nights later. After linking arms in the post-victory tumult, we made our exit among the fans, many of whom paused amidst the frenzy to pay respect to Jabir. In the quieter reaches of a neighboring lawn, we watched the crowd celebrating the Black Stars victory. There was something delicate and breakable about the “Bukom Snake” with a God complex that night. Even so you could still smell the fighter in him. You could tell by the look in his eyes that boxing, whether forecast or freely chosen, was his natural birthright.

Since that day I’ve followed Jabir’s progress from afar. That fall he fought for a title bout in Moscow and was knocked out in the seventh round. He was inactive for almost a year and a half afterwards, but scored a first-round knockout in his comeback match. Jabir has won three more fights in the past year, including the West African Union lightweight title. It may not be the most coveted belt in the world, but I hope and imagine that it earned him a long trip home from Accra and a proper hero’s welcome in Bukom.