It was an unusual debut for international boxing. The ring was in a plush hall built for meetings of Afghanistan’s tribal elders, the audience waved signs saying: “We want peace,” and there were no beer stands or women in skimpy outfits.
However, Kabul was wild with excitement about hosting the country’s first professional boxing match, with one of their own, Afghan-German boxer Hamid Rahimi, as the odds-on favorite to become World Boxing Union middleweight champion in a match billed as a “fight for peace.”
In a city with little entertainment and almost no world-class sports, fans had dug out savings and sold prized possessions to buy tickets that started at US$60 — the equivalent of two weeks’ salary for many in the capital — and went up to US$150 for fake-leather VIP seats, their arms still wrapped in plastic.
“I had to sacrifice my iPhone to buy the ticket,” said 25-year-old Essaq, a salesman and amateur wrestler from northern Afghanistan, joining the crowd for a match organizers said was beamed live to 52 countries.
Before the bout the crowd roared: “God is great,” when asked to pray for Rahimi’s victory, and nearly drowned out a video message from the fighter with cheering.
“This was my biggest wish, to have a match in my own land,” he told the crowd. “In Germany, when I was talking to people about having a professional boxing match here, they laughed at me and said: ‘There’s a war there, it’s impossible.’”
His opponent, Tanzanian Said Mbelwa, sat through a string of tributes to Rahimi and Afghanistan, and then a half-hearted welcome.
With the partisan crowd cheering him on, Rahimi was dominating by round four and in the seventh round claimed the gold belt with a blow to Mbelwa’s shoulder that put him out of the fight.
Rahimi fled his country two decades ago, when it hovered on the brink of civil war. The family settled in Germany and the young refugee discovered his talent when he stood up to bullies at his new school. He has won all but one of his professional matches, but always dreamed of coming home.
This year he ventured back to Kabul to plan the “fight for peace,” with his mother, Fatima, who had been deputy head of a school in the capital, and his brother Waheed. For many of the children and teenagers packed into the hall to see Rahimi claim his title and then dedicate it to Afghanistan, the evening was one of the best of their lives.
“I have been so excited all day I couldn’t eat,” 14-year-old Asef Abdullah said. “And I know I will be awake all night now.”