No holds barred

A local boxing club draws men and women of all ages and backgrounds

Stepping into the bomb shelter from the crowded car park above, the heady aroma of sweat is first to assail the senses. The smell is so pungent it can be tasted, and is testament to the hours of toil put in by dozens of youngsters during every training session at the Jerusalem Boxing Club. The dull thud of heavy punch bags being struck makes its way up the stairs alongside the sharp, piercing cry of the head coaches barking orders to their charges in gruff, Russian-accented Hebrew. The scene inside the gym is one of intense dedication: 30 men and women ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving, as they dance around their opponents looking for an opening to unleash their best shot. Discipline is key and the fighters' ears are every bit as alert as their eyes, listening for the "Stop!" cry from the trainers, which signals an immediate cessation of hostilities. Perspiration pours off the foreheads and upper bodies of the combatants in the intense, airless two-roomed bomb shelter where they train. The walls are plastered with dozens of inspirational pugilistic portraits, posters of world-famous fighters interspersed with photos of homegrown talent who have come up through the ranks of the club. Founded in 1981, the Jerusalem Boxing Club has bred some of Israel's most formidable fighters under the tutelage of brothers Eli and Gershon Luxemburg - both professional boxers who learned their trade in the USSR. "We don't give private lessons," says Eli, 67, his powerful body framed in a hooded training top and tracksuit trousers. "We're not in it for the money. "We do this because we're Zionists," he says. "We want to create strong, tough soldiers for the IDF - and that's what we've done." Gershon, 63, points to a prized medallion among the boxing memorabilia on the wall. "This is from Shayetet 13 [Naval Commandos]," he says. "They presented it to us in honor of two of our boys who joined their unit." In another corner of the room is a framed black and white photograph of seven Golani soldiers clutching their rifles. "Our boys too," he smiles as he recalls the many success stories who've come up through the club's ranks. The relationship between trainer and trainee is far more than academic. "We're one big family," says Eli, a rare smile cracking his otherwise stern features. Since making aliya in 1972, he and his brother have been integral to the Israeli boxing scene, training the national team as well as coaching hundreds of up-and-coming local fighters over the years. They don't pull any punches when it comes to keeping their pupils in line, which is an essential part of their success. Neither brother takes his eyes off the ring for a minute, painstakingly studying the boxers and quickly intervening with criticism or advice when needed. A well-placed left hook strikes a boy's nose and blood begins to gush. The brothers immediately soften as they tend to the injury and wipe the red streaks from the pupil's face. The club caters to students of all ages but the majority are in their teens or early 20s. "We even have a 60-year-old fighter," Gershon smiles. There are no separate training sessions, but pairings in the ring are age-appropriate. Regardless of the strenuous effort of the two-hour training sessions, and seemingly oblivious to the pain, each student seems utterly in love with the sport and the club. "I'll definitely talk to you," says Akiva Finkelstein, 13, "but I can't miss the next round - it's the last one of the night." Flushed with excitement, he ducks under the ropes and heads straight for his opponent, jabbing and punching with precise, powerful strokes. Last month, he fought in an amateur tournament in Germany. He lost to the German national champion by a mere two points. A keen boxer since the age of 10, Finkelstein has dreams of turning professional - and has already been flagged by the Luxemburg brothers for his natural talent. "I started boxing because I wanted to learn how to defend myself, but also because I love the action," he says breathlessly as he unravels the tape wound around both of his fists. "I do play other sports, like basketball, but just for fun," adds Finkelstein. "Boxing's the only sport I take seriously. "My parents don't mind except my Mom worries that I'll break my nose," he continues. "But I haven't yet," he grins, before heading off to the changing room. Maternal concern also dogs Yitzhak London, 17, who says his mother "worries about me getting hurt, but otherwise the rest of the family are fine with me boxing." A broad-shouldered teenager, London won this year's Jerusalem championship and came in second in the national finals. He sees boxing as the perfect way to channel aggression. "It makes you less violent [in the real world] since you become more disciplined and you're afraid to use your power on others." Eli agrees. "[Our coaching] turns these boys into gentlemen," he says. "Parents send us their kids if they're too aggressive, and boxing gives them self-confidence and stops them from feeling the need to be violent in the wrong situation." The club's location between the affluent German Colony neighborhood and the less salubrious neighborhood of Katamonim translates into an eclectic mix of students. "We have French fighters, Russians, Arabs and Anglos and they all learn to get along with one another," says Gershom. "As soon as they're out of the ring, they're back to being friends again." The brothers regularly take their top fighters around the country to represent the club in tournaments, which also helps develop a sense of community among those they train. Many of the fighters come from disadvantaged areas and boxing provides them with a much-needed alternative to alcohol and drugs, Gershon says. "One of our boys lost a brother recently to an overdose," he says with a shake of his head. "He was found dead lying in the street, with the needle sticking out of his arm." The surviving brother has - thanks to the distraction of boxing - "never even seen drugs, let alone taken them," he says. When 7 p.m. nears and the session winds down, parents arrive to collect the young novices. Gloves are flung off and mouth guards spat out as the students gulp down water. Longing glances are cast at the ring, in anticipation of their next step onto the canvas. As Finkelstein describes: "Sometimes I get nervous beforehand, but once I'm in the ring I forget everything and all I care about is the fight."