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from the May 2015 issue

A Knockout Punch

When Adib saw the delegations of athletes waving to the applauding fans in the Moscow stadium, he sighed, I should have been there. He had promised himself a gold medal, and they had all expected one of him. He didn’t watch the rest of the opening ceremony on the TV. He went out into the alleyways of the Abeed district and disappeared in their shadows, walking.

When he was thirteen years old, he thought he was a soccer player. He was considered the top young player in both the old and new neighborhoods. But a friend of his brother Mufid—may he rest in peace—said that same day, after Adib had pummeled his hand and turned it into a red sandbag:

“You’re a boxer, not a soccer player. Start training. Your father will always be working class. That’s quite a punch. Your oldest brother disappeared, your middle brother left the country, and your brother Mufid, the boxer, died suddenly from some mysterious poison. Death’s a knockout punch. Start training. You’re a boxer, not a soccer player. My hand’s killing me, and you’ve got the eyes of a black leopard.”

A small room near the lighthouse. Two leather bags full of sand, two ropes, and a trainer. The wall was where they did their running.

“We all, more or less, pack a powerful punch, but we don’t all have the same endurance. Run. The bags are people. Don’t underestimate them. Punch with all your wits. Tell me, who’s stronger than you?”

The trainer kept repeating those words. And then he said, “In two weeks we’ll host the boxers from the north. I won’t accept anything less than knockouts. Run. Punch with all your wits. Boxing’s a lot more than brute force.”

The coach hadn’t meant for Adib to stick to the issue of knockout punches so fiercely. He hadn’t expected his intuition would be so precise. One of the boxers from the north was the national youth lightweight champion. He wore bright yellow pants. But Adib, in his very first fight, knocked him out with a single punch in the second round and became the national youth lightweight champion.

The president of the national boxing committee was sitting in the audience watching everything closely. He asked the trainer to have Adib come to the Wingate Institute to train with the squad. Adib didn’t know what the word squad meant, but he knew he was to get in a taxi and tell the driver “Wingate.”

 

Tel Aviv 1973

They pointed, “That’s him.” He was afraid they’d kill him. He trained for three weeks at the institute.

“Get yourself ready for the national championships in two weeks,” the president of the committee told him.

“I’m ready,” he replied, and gave the sandbag a single punch.

Adib lay on a cot in the training room after he’d won two fights in the first round. He looked at the imposing boxer surrounded by trainers and other boxers. Adib exuded the confidence of a bulldozer. “What are you doing? Train! Get yourself ready for the fight. He’s the adult champion of your weight class. You’re going to face him in a quarter hour. What’s got into you?” The trainer’s words came out nervously through his teeth.

“I’m ready. I’m not tired. Don’t worry, I’ll take him down.”

The TV cameras and flashing bulbs were waiting for the fight. Adib watched the movements of his legs, as if his opponent weren’t real. The crowds didn’t wait for the starting bell to cheer on the champion.

“Dirty Arab!” they shouted in the dialect of Moroccan immigrants, a mix of Arabic and Hebrew.

The second round ended with the referee giving a chance to the champion. He’d been pinned in the corner of the ring and had fallen. The ref checked his eyes for signs of life.

Adib knew the third round would be decisive. “They won’t let me win on points.”

“The fight’s on now,” the trainer said as he pushed Adib into the ring.

In the third round Adib trapped his opponent in the corner. With one knockout punch, blood poured from the undefeated champion’s nose and lips. Adib became the national champion.

The front pages of all the Sunday newspapers had pictures of the young black boxer, just thirteen years old. The phone was ringing nonstop when Adib made it back home. There were cries of congratulations from the people of the Abeed district, as well as other districts.

The tray didn’t get any rest that day. Endless pots of coffee and glasses of cold juice. His mother never tired of repeating, “May your sons become champions too. O Lord, my darling.” His mother’s house never required a championship for it to become a meeting place for the women of the neighborhood.

When Adib entered the Terra Santa schoolyard that Monday, he didn’t understand what was happening. All the students, including the giant twelfth-graders, were punching the air, cheering, “Adib! Adib!” The priest was laughing. Yes, even the priest. It was a dream.

All the fights that followed over four years—even the world championship bout in Paris in 1977—were merely artistic shows for the fans. His presence was a marketing device. His reputation preceded him in the people’s hearts. They recalled when he used to run around the eastern wall the people of Acre built in the days of Ahmed Pasha al-Jazzar, at the end of the eighteenth century. It was a sturdy brown fortification that protected the city from invaders and from the sea. He would run down from the wall to the designated spot in one corner of the trench then back again. Adib repeated this ten times in a row. He wanted to see if he could run more quickly than he had the previous day. For we all, more or less, pack a powerful punch, but we don’t all have the same endurance. Run.

 

Paris 1977

His middle brother’s two friends who had immigrated to Paris didn’t wait for the bell to shout “Adib! Adib!” And neither did the Moroccan immigrants.

I’ve got the Paris audience, he thought. Then raised his fist to ignite the flames in their throats. Adib didn’t hide his face with his fists to protect it. Instead, he got his fists ready to fall on his opponent and protected his head by moving it along with his shoulders. He looked at his opponent and understood him. His blows were quick, for speed was necessary. He landed a blow and moved back. He hit his opponent, who was short and sturdy like Napoleon, again. Cries rose from the crowds. He could clearly hear the voices from Acre. He could make out their accents from the thousands of people there. His opponent was trapped in the corner, and with one knockout blow, Adib Nisnas was the world champion.

He learned to say the French words for street, avenue, river, and hotel. He learned to recognize the words for right, left, and straight ahead, for he thought the French kind and polite, but liking to speak their own language only. Or maybe, like him, they only knew a little English.

 

New York 1978

It was in New York that he learned the real ways of boxing. During training, Adib fought with one of the team’s boxers. The trainer and other boxer were Russian immigrants, just like the rest of the team’s boxers.

The trainer was angrily barking his instructions to the other boxer, “Attack from the right! Protect your face. No, not like that. No, no.”

The African-American boxers lined up around the ring, their mouths gaping at the scene, ready to pounce on the trainer who made no effort to conceal his prejudices against the black Arab boxer.

“Come, brother,” one of them said to Adib after the training session, “Come with me.” And he took him to the American team’s training room.

“Listen, you’ve got to move more. Dance around your opponent. Movement weakens his blows. The blow won’t knock you down if you keep moving. Brace yourself for a strong blow. Then strike. Hit the bag. Then move off to the left.”

The team’s boxers stood behind the white and blue flag with the single star, while the American boxers stood behind the red, white, and blue flag with all the stars and stripes. The ones who were first to fight shuddered. Adib did not.

He thought, Who’s stronger than you? Did you cross land and sea to be defeated here? Millions here and back home watching. I won’t be defeated.

The team of boxers came back, one by one, leaning on their embarrassed trainer, after they’d suffered knockout blows. “It’s your turn now,” the trainer said.

The first punch from the African-American boxer landed on Adib’s shoulder. Adib quickly realized that his opponent was exceptionally strong, and knew his usual moves wouldn’t bring him victory. So he called up an image of Muhammad Ali. Started dancing, then punched. And at the end of the third round, he planted his feet, directed his blows at his opponent’s jaw, and knocked him to the ground. The people sitting at the fancy tables stood up, as did the crowds that filled the massive bleachers behind them. They applauded. The ref checked his opponent’s eyes, made sure he wanted to continue. But Adib didn’t let him leave the corner where he’d fallen. A first punch to the nose, a second to the right cheek, and then the knockout blow: a left hand to his opponent’s belly.

 

Dusseldorf 1979

Adib’s preparations for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow took place in Dusseldorf. After each practice bout, the other boxers and trainer of the heralded German team praised Adib. The trainer said, “Nisnas has the opportunity to go back home with a gold medal because of his endurance, talent, and determination. His success as a black Arab Muslim boxer confirms that the liberal system is color-blind. This system provides equal opportunities to all individuals who make the most of it. To everyone who perseveres and demonstrates their abilities. It’s a positive model for immigrants and minorities around the world.”

A few hours later, the team’s translator brought them a different piece of news: The countries of the free world were boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games because the Soviet army had just invaded Afghanistan.

 

Acre 1980

After the painful opening ceremony, Adib disappeared into the alleyways of the Abeed district. He walked through the arteries of the fortified city. He made it to the eastern wall. The sea was a black carpet. The horizon responded neither to the call of the lighthouse nor to his own scream. He didn’t jump from the wall. But that was where he decided he’d never fight again.

 

ضربة قاضية” © Eyad Barghuthy. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. All rights reserved.

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