By Luke Power
Sometimes you encounter characters whose stories are so moving and inspirational, personalities who flood so much light into the lives of others, that they have an almost lunar quality to them. Jason Scalzo is one of those people.
Durham University Amateur Boxing Club have launched an incredible fundraiser in support of Scalzo’s charity, Boxing is Love. Over the past two weekends, participants have run, walked and cycled the 3,334-mile distance between Maiden Castle and Garmu, Liberia, raising over £4,000 in the process. One runner, Sara Ismail-Sutton, clocked up 44 miles across two days, despite being injured.
Boxing is Love is a charity which aspires to give deprived people “the self-belief to break the crippling cycle of dependency and poverty” that they are trapped in. In June 2018, the charity touched down in Liberia, West Africa, to teach young people boxing and put a smile on their faces. Liberia is among the world’s most impoverished nations and is still reeling from a civil war which took 250,000 lives.
“Boxing is characterised by inclusion, discipline and structure, and that’s what these young people in Liberia need, now more than ever,” the charity’s director, Jason Scalzo, tells Palatinate. “The war left the adult population decimated; the average age was 17 years old. 17 years old. There were children left unguided all over the country, completely invisible.”
So far, Boxing is Love has completed four expeditions to Liberia, reaching over 4,000 young people. The goal is to offer disadvantaged youths a caring community and a beacon of hope, as well as providing a platform for anybody who wants to pursue the sport further in a country that has never held a professional fight.
Plans have been accepted to build a gym in Garmu, which will represent not only a training facility but a sanctuary for children from “broken homes” and a hub for “volunteers from all over the world to gather, share their love, and bridge cultural gaps.” Local workers will be employed to build and maintain it, and food will be provided and prepared by local producers and cooks.
It is in aid of this mission that Oli Hinds, Captain of DU Amateur Boxing Club, set up the charity challenge. Hinds has worked tirelessly to gather support, and the club have endorsements from names as influential as Chris Eubank and Troy Williamson.
Both he and Scalzo have been uplifted by their own experiences in boxing and are trying to pay that debt forward. “Boxing gives you so much: confidence, maturity, determination, not to mention the health benefits,” says Oli. “Once you step into the boxing club, all your stress slips away. Almost everyone would be positively impacted by taking up boxing.
“There’s a misconception that boxing is all about the blood you see on the television screen and there’s a negative stereotype associated with it. For that reason, a lot of people dismiss it. But it doesn’t even have to be a contact sport – you don’t have to fight anyone. At Durham we’ve had a lot of people taking up beginners’ classes who’ve never considered it before, and they’ve loved it. It’s accessible to anybody.”
Scalzo’s own involvement in boxing has been remarkably therapeutic. He attests to how it has dragged him from dark mental places and helped him focus during a maelstrom of emotions.
“Boxing has saved my life more times than I can tell you. Boxing got me through extremely challenging times as a kid: the death of my mother, difficult times socially. I returned to it after an acrimonious divorce, at a time when I was fundamentally unhappy with my career.
“From a mental health standpoint, if you define depression as the constant dwelling on stuff that happened yesterday, and if you define anxiety based on the worry of tomorrow, then boxing is the perfect remedy, because it’s a sport that forces you to remain in the moment. It gives you a physical reality outside your head. When I got back into the ring, I had to focus on the present and saturate myself with that happiness that stems from knowing you’re living in the moment.
“I could name lists of people who have been changed by the sport, people who would have otherwise had no focus and, without it, might have ended up dead. There’s this narrative of brutality attached to the sport, but boxing has saved more people than it has ever hurt.”
While their current plans are firmly grounded in Liberia, this is a project with worldwide scalability. Already, a second project is planned for Tijuana, Mexico, where children have been abandoned and displaced due to drug cartel violence.
In both places, Scalzo has identified a role model. In Liberia, it is boxer Freddy Kiwitt, who had to flee the country due to the civil war and returned years later: a figure Liberian children can relate to and be inspired by.
In Mexico, the role model is legendary fighter Julio César Chávez, whose involvement brings immense commercial promise. It is hoped that the support garnered will propel further projects: Scalzo is looking into working with Larry Ekundayo and Anthony Joshua in Nigeria, where the latter’s parents were raised.
To Scalzo, it is a humanitarian necessity which can uplift entire generations, whether that be children surrounded by gang violence in the alleys of Mexico, or, further down the line, affluent parents in America looking to burn off their career-induced stress. He believes in the mission so much that he resigned from his high-paying job a few years ago and hasn’t yet earned a wage from Boxing is Love.
“At the moment, we’re still in that early stage where every dollar is going directly to the programme, but I see no reason why, in five years’ time, Boxing is Love can’t be the boxing equivalent of UNICEF. There’s a utility for it in every culture.
“It will be the most significant social movement this sport has ever seen by a million miles. I mean that with all my heart. Our mission is to be the reason the world turned to boxing.”
There are still challenges. Reaching Liberia during Covid-19 is impossible for Scalzo, who usually has to take five flights from South Carolina to get there. But this is a movement which is gathering serious momentum, and it is with the work of promoters like Hinds and the Durham University Amateur Boxing Club which will catapult this project on its way.
Main image courtesy of Jason Scalzo. Gallery images courtesy of members of Durham University Amateur Boxing Club.