A Pugilist's Dream: An Israeli Boxer in Time for Beijing

The story of Brian Rakoff - a Jewish boy growing up in South Africa in the mid-1950s - begins in the musty, smoke-filled boxing halls of Cape Town.

Haim Shadmi
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Haim Shadmi

The story of Brian Rakoff - a Jewish boy growing up in South Africa in the mid-1950s - begins in the musty, smoke-filled boxing halls of Cape Town. Hidden behind apple crates and trash cans, wooden stairs led down to darkened cellars, where the city's blacks - banned by the apartheid regime from competing against white boxers - fought in secret.

It was into one such cellar that Rakoff - who was instilled with a sense of mission, of social justice, and who identified with the blacks of his hometown - stumbled one day, and announced that he was joining in.

Perhaps "stumbled" is the wrong word. Entering the darkened building from the bright sunlight of a Cape Town summer's day, Rakoff lost his footing and fell down the entire flight of stairs leading to the cellar.

The sight of a scrawny, short white boy tumbling into their cellar left the black boxers dumbstruck. The first one who did speak to Rakoff was Gunboat - a huge black boxer, rippling with muscles and with a single shark's tooth hanging from a strap around his neck.

Gunboat took Rakoff under his wing and made him his apprentice. For several months, Rakoff laced up Gunboat's gloves and wiped the blood from his eyes in between rounds. Then, one day, Rakoff was given a chance to fulfill his dream and box against some of Gunboat's friends in the cellar as a sparring partner. Once again, the sight of this short white kid, bouncing around the ring, amused the black boxers - until he managed to floor his opponent with a powerful hook to the face. After several more months, Rakoff finally got his first pair of gloves.

"Gunboat adopted me," Rakoff says. "He always used to tell me, `Brian, boxing will be with you all your life.' He was 35 when I met him, and if he had been boxing today, he would have been an Olympic champion at least. I never liked the discrimination against blacks, and I identified with them. And boxing was the only sport I could participate in and make a little money too. Boxing in South Africa is now all about big money; the cellars are a thing of the past."

Rakoff, now 69, lives with his wife, Adina, in Givat Ze'ev, not far from his son and daughter-in-law. Since immigrating to Israel four years ago, Rakoff has dreamed of setting up a boxing school and, ultimately, sending an Israeli boxer to the Olympic Games. Ideally, Rakoff wants to fulfill that ambition in time for Beijing 2008.

When he immigrated, Rakoff decided that as a religious Zionist who believes in affirming the Jewish people's ties to the land, it was his duty to serve as a volunteer in the reserves. During that time, and during his many visits here in the years before he immigrated, Rakoff saw that Israelis know how to punch. Now he intends to transfer that quality from the street to the boxing ring.

The infrastructure and resources are available, he insists, and with his experience and knowledge - he spent more than five decades as a trainer, administrator and promoter of boxing in South Africa, and has the letters of commendation to prove it - all that is missing are students.

Rakoff says that at the very least, he can promise his students the dream of incredible riches. Getting rich and hitting people? What could be more Israeli than that?

"I've been in the boxing business for 50 years," says Rakoff. "I even had a Jewish trainer at the beginning - Bernie Rubin. He taught me many things, but most importantly, he taught me never to give up. And that's what I am saying now: don't give up."

Why do you think Israeli boxing is so underdeveloped?

"Boxing has been neglected in Israel for years. We didn't have a single boxer at the Athens Olympics. I understand that everything here is about football and basketball, but it's very disappointing. A huge talent like Roman Greenberg - who is Jewish - is training abroad. If I was in the business, he would not have left. And what about the Arab boy from Shfraram? What's his name - Kasisi? Why is he thinking about retiring? Because no one is investing in them. I have contacts in the Israel Boxing Association, and they tell me, `If you've got professional trainers, they're welcome to come any time.' So I'm going to build the first boxing school in Jerusalem. There are some boxing clubs in Israel, but they don't have any facilities. I'm talking about the real thing. I want to establish the first club here where people fight for money, and that's where we'll find the talents to take to Beijing. It's a huge challenge, but it'll be okay. Four years is a long time. I know that football and basketball are the most popular sports here, but others sports can flourish. I'm looking for talented boxers from all over the country. I've been in this business a long time, and I can feel it: there are a lot of undiscovered talents in this country."

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