Boxing: Thumbs up for a peace fighter

Briton's boxing school gives boys from Brazil alternative to the mean streets
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The 33-year-old Londoner now runs a boxing academy just outside Rio called Luta Pela Paz (Fight for Peace). It is a community where there is a frightening amount of gun violence, teenagers walking around with AK-47s, weapons so powerful they can hardly handle them; when fired, these assault rifles buck and bullets fly all over the place.

"When that happens, the safest place to be is on the floor," Dowdney says. "One of my staff members was shot only a few weeks ago. Some of our kids have been killed too. There are constant gun battles in the streets outside, and an unbelievable amount of drug trafficking. The club is designed to give these kids an alternative to a way of life that otherwise would end in crime, imprisonment and probably an early death."

Complexo da Maré is the first favela - or shanty town - that tourists see on the way in from Rio's airport to a city that has the highest rate of gun deaths per capita outside a war zone. Maré is said to be the most violent favela in Brazil, with constant gang battles over territory.

Dowdney's own remarkable fight for peace began there after he had an operation following a bout in Japan. He was on the brink of starting a pro career in Tokyo after learning he could earn around $10,000 (£5,800) a fight. "It was the usual story. I'd followed an English girl out there but things didn't work out."

So he packed his rucksack and took himself off to Brazil, where he had been two years previously researching his Edinburgh University dissertation on the police killing of street kids in Recife for his masters degree in social anthropology. Shortly after arriving he collapsed with a brain haemorrhage, the result, he believes, of a fight in Tokyo. He was in hospital for three weeks but decided he wanted to stay involved with boxing in some capacity. "I was working for the development organisation Viva Rio and was just astounded at seeing these kids walking around with war weapons, guns, grenades. I just didn't understand what was going on.

"Eventually I thought a boxing club would be a good idea to try and get them away from this. I managed to find a little room in the back of one of the slums there and started with me and 10 kids. It has grown to a situation where we now have new £250,000 premises with computer-equipped classrooms built with money raised through charity, notably the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and also the help of the Brazilian motor- racing icon Emerson Fittipaldi, who donated £50,000. No one is allowed to have boxing instruction until they have completed 'citizenship' classes, learning how the community is run, how to access education, and how to find work."

He says he is now looking to do similar things elsewhere, including London. "When I see and hear about what is happening with kids in the UK I think something like this would be helpful. In Britain there can sometimes be a complacency, a belief that the rest of the world is far more violent, but every time I come back to London it's a bit worse. But unless you've seen what is happening in the favelas you'd simply never believe it. You hear about Moss Side in Manchester, but this is hundreds of times worse in terms of gun crime. It is something I will never get used to.

"What we do with Fight for Peace is try and encourage the kids to get basic respect through boxing, to convince them that they can be someone without picking up a gun."

This is typified by a female boxer, Manuela Lopes Silva, who says: "I lived on the streets making mischief. Today I dream of being a lawyer."

Dowdney is also introducing martial arts into the programme. "We have around 200 kids - boys and girls - and stage tournaments with audiences of up to 3,000 a time," he explains. "We are the only people putting on regular amateur shows in Brazil. When you have a kid in the ring in front of 3,000 people he can be getting the same kick as he would be getting through drugs or guns, and he is doing it through sport."

Dowdney says that the favelas are completely under the control of drugs tsars, but he has never felt himself to be in serious danger, unless it is from a stray bullet. "They do their thing and don't seem to have a problem with what we are doing."

It may be of small comfort, but he adds: "I'm probably less likely to be killed because dead foreigners tend to attract a lot of police attention."

It concerns him that gun violence is now being packaged and marketed around the world among kids. "One of the global idols is the rapper 50 Cent. You can't listen to this man's music without him telling you that he has killed 30 people and been shot nine times himself. I don't believe that creates violence, but it does celebrate it. Two of our kids were shot last year and another recently, and I don't find that something to celebrate.

"It's the opposite, and if boxing is the way to do that, it shows you can have peace through strength. In order to be peaceful you don't have to be a flower-waving hippie, but you have to be strong to know how to protect yourself. You can be hard but at the same time you can be empowered as an individual."

So far none of Dowdney's boys from Brazil have turned out to be champions, but that, he says, is not the point. "The most important thing is these kids are training, learning and working. They're not shooting each other, or trafficking. They're fighting for peace, so I'm happy for them."

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