Punching Through Jamestown

The blood on Akimos Annan Ampiah’s hands wasn’t his own; it belonged to a boy who foolishly told him he couldn’t walk down the street. The boy punched Ampiah in the face. Ampiah responded with a left jab, followed by a quick right cross and left hook that sent him to the ground. Ampiah stopped; he can’t fight blood, he says, it makes him feel bad.

Two years ago, on that day, a spectator saw potential in the 18-year-old Ampiah, took him to a boxing gym in Accra, and paid for Ampiah to train there. Within a year, Ampiah was on the national team. Currently, he is training for the All African Games and the 2016 Olympics.

Ampiah walks 20 minutes every day along the shore of the South Atlantic Ocean towards Jamestown, one of the oldest districts of Accra, where he trains at Attoh Quarshie Boxing Gym. While his family wonders why anyone would risk disfiguring his face by choosing boxing over, say, swimming or lawn tennis, for Ampiah the reason is clear: to turn professional, make it to America, make money, then come back to Ghana and help his family.

Inside the Attoh Quarshie gym, eight fighters punch two heavy bags that hang from a thick pipeline running across the ceiling. Three boxers punch padded sections of the wall, others skip rope. The ceiling is made of tin, the equipment ragged, the mirror dirtied and cracked. The ring is a square of rope on elevated wood — far from regulation size.

A familiar face in the gym is Charles Amadu, who has been training there since 1993. He’s a Sydney Olympics quarterfinalist and a two-time intercontinental champion, looking to win a third title. Amadu is fierce and determined, but, at 38, is also slow. Working three jobs, he only has two free hours a day to train; he’s lost his last two championship bouts.

Adamu represents the problem with Jamestown boxing: an inability to capitalize on and leverage boxing championships into long-term success, sponsorships, and money. Neither boxing, as a sport that has garnered Ghana the most laurels, nor Jamestown — which has produced seven world champions — has been able to propel the other forward, leaving its resident athletes frustrated and boxing in place.

Walking around Jamestown asking fighters, trainers, coaches, and managers what the problem is with boxing, the most common response is raised eyebrows and a frustrated “there’s no money, it all goes to football.”

Between 70 and 80 percent of the sports ministry budget goes to football. Ghana invested $9.5 million in its national football team to go to the 2014 World Cup. But there is also a federation behind football that has potential to bring the money back to Ghana. FIFA pays up to $30 million dollars to countries, depending on where they place. In 2014, Ghana made back $8.5 million based on its team’s performance.

There is no federation behind boxing with that kind of potential. Money made is individual, and apart from taxing the boxer’s paycheck, Deputy Sports Minister Vincent Oppong Asamoah points out, the financial returns the government receives from boxing are “nil.”

When hearing how people in Jamestown point fingers at government for lack of support, Asamoah leans back in his chair, smiles, and shakes his head. “The problem is that we never see ourselves as a problem, we always blame others for our predicament,” he says. “You don’t have to think only of government always supporting you; government has limited resources to take care of over 30 to 40 sports that we have in this country.”

The 50-year-old deputy believes the change also has to come from the boxing associations, which need to ensure a level of accountability, democratically elect their leadership, and have regular competitions. But he doesn’t alleviate all responsibility from his ministry. “It is virtually everything goes to soccer and nothing towards the other sports, but that is what we are trying hard to reverse.”

Asamoah says he has faith in the current leadership of the boxing association and believes it could be the beginning of change in boxing. “If you’re able to think outside the box and get other sources of funding, that’s the best way to go and the mark of good leadership.”

Outside the box is mostly where Peter Zwennes roams. At 51, he has been president of the professional Ghana Boxing Authority for a little over two years, and has recently hired consultants to help rebrand boxing to make it more attractive to corporate sponsors, who have either committed to football, or feel boxing is too violent.

Wornur Duhor, a 61-year-old project engineer, believes money isn’t the issue and would only help Jamestown boxing in the short term. He says sponsors, players, and fans all go to football because “they know football has a future,” whereby boxing doesn’t. “So we have to create a future,” he says, where a boxer and his family know that entering the sport means a good chance of getting a manager and promoter and making money and a career.

Duhor believes promoting boxers and building stadiums in all regions, not just Accra, and hosting international games will establish boxing as a long-term sustainable, marketable industry in Ghana, and not just a Jamestown activity.

But the average boxer dreaming of being a world champion often doesn’t see these complexities; he’s worried about feeding his children. Money equals motivation, and, as one trainer in Jamestown complained, “When you send a boxer home hungry, how can you expect him to come back the next day?”

Vincent Akai Nettey is a professional carpenter who runs the Attoh Quarshie gym out of passion, not pay. For him, it’s all about sacrifice.

“When your father won’t help you, you have to help yourself,” he says about the lack of governmental support. “So we ask ourselves, how did the greats all do it?”

And Ghana has had many greats. It was the first African country to win Olympic gold in boxing in 1960. Azumah Nelson was a three-time WBC champion and is the only Ghanaian inducted into the hall of fame in the United States.

In 2010, Joshua Clottey, former IBF Welterweight Champion, was paid three million dollars to fight Manny Pacquiao. Many boxing fans complained that Clottey didn’t perform well and didn’t seem to want to win. He was content with his payday and after one more fight, retired from boxing.

The reason for that, sports journalist and football commentator Benjamin Willie Graham, 32, believes, is that the reasons for fighting have changed. Nelson fought for national pride and cared primarily about waving the Ghanaian flag at the highest peaks; the money was secondary. But today, Graham says, fighters care more about money than pride.

Graham described Clottey coming back home flaunting his money without helping to develop the gyms or the sport or encourage young fighters — a trend found among many champions who abandon Jamestown after their success. “Because nobody helped them,” Zwennes explained, “once they get to the top, they don’t feel they owe anybody.”

To understand the individualistic inability to capitalize on and leverage boxing into sponsorships and money, it is necessary to understand the mentality of the people of Jamestown, which is to know its history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Accra developed a niche within the transatlantic and slave trade as a middleman country. But once slavery was abolished in 1874 and the British took over the coast, the government turned its focus to developing infrastructure elsewhere. When the governor of Gold Coast built a harbor near Cape Coast in 1927, Jamestown, which had benefited from close relationship with Britain as a trading partner, became too small for the British, and began sliding and suffering.

“This is the psychology of people who remember better times,” Nat Amarteifio, former mayor of Accra, says. “Mentally, this has not yet sunk in that they are now at the bottom.” Amarteifio believes resentment fuels Accra’s boxers, but that the sport prevents them from moving beyond those feelings. Yet, if they resent it, that means being at the bottom has sunk in; they just refuse to accept it and view individual success as the only way out.

“Boxing is a very lonely sport,” Amarteifio says. “And the psychology of that place makes that possible. But it also makes it very difficult for them to come together as a community to pursue their own interests.”

But those who think the sport itself is suffering are wrong; it is only its promotion, as evidenced by seven world titles, the $3-million-dollar fighter, and the older ex-champion who won’t quit. The elements are in place for potential change, if they can only work and come together.

In the meantime, perhaps Ghana’s greatest hope for boxing lies in the old-school boxing personalities that originally built Jamestown’s reputation, and that can be resurrected through young boxers like Ampiah, whose dream to reach the top of the world isn’t completely selfish. “I care about Ghana, I care about people,” he says, drinking a coke and looking at the people of his neighborhood sitting at a beach-side bar on a Saturday afternoon. “Once you have money, you can help people. People help me, I have to help people.”

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