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Shocked by Rape Case, Boxer Comes Out of Retirement to Train Village Girls For Free

Mohammad Saif Khan from Malihabad in Uttar Pradesh founded Josh Academic Samiti, an NGO offering free self-defence training and boxing lessons to girls and boys of the village

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Malihabad town is one of the largest mango belts in Uttar Pradesh and is popular for growing delicious fruit varieties such as Chausa, Dusseri, Safeda, Langda and many more.

But every day during the early mornings and evenings, sounds of punches hurled by youngsters echo from the 2-acre mango orchard of Mohammad Saif Khan.

Once a boxer himself, Saif is seen training girls and boys with gloves throwing punches on bags hung on the branches of mango trees.

“I come from humble beginnings. My father worked as a professor at a college and earned a small income from growing wheat and mustard on the farm. However, he worked his way up and his financial condition improved to the extent that he could pay for my higher education,” the 47-year-old recalls.

Saif says he never intended to become a boxer or pursue sports in his life. But his visit to Lucknow during his teenage years changed his career trajectory.

Boxing For a Cause

women empowerment boxing Saif Khan
Saif training one of the students at Josh Academy Samiti

“I was about 15 years old when I happened to watch a Mike Tyson boxing match on television. He was at the peak of his career, and I was impressed by the sport and his boxing style. I could not get rid of the thought of playing like the boxing legend,” he says.

Saif then joined Naseem Quereshi, a national-level boxing coach. “He agreed to train me with the basics, and later on, I took training from another coach, RS Bisht. The coaching helped me play at the district and state levels. I participated in national boxing events,” he says.

But unable to compete on an international stage, he came to terms with his fate. “I realised that I did not have the potential to compete with international players. I had the physical strength and power to perform but lacked the technical skills required for the game. I decided to quit and take care of the family, farm and other responsibilities,” he informs.

It was around 2007-08 when the menace of the Kachcha Baniyan gang, a criminal group operating in various parts of India, increased in their village. The infamous gangs are known to loot people in underclothes, hence the name.

“In one of the instances, a family in the neighbourhood was looted by one such gang. When inquired the next day about their well-being, the family informed me about losing their belongings and their daughter being raped. I tried to convince them to file a police complaint, but they refused,” he says.

Saif says the family did not want their daughter to face the social stigma that could prevent her from ‘finding a groom’. “The incident pained me, and I felt helpless. A few days later, I thought of sharing my boxing skills to empower girls in self-defence and launched Josh Academy Samiti, a free training institute for girls,” he adds.

He also sought affiliation with the Boxing Association of India and other government bodies. “The girls could be self-independent and become legitimate players in the sport by officially seeking recognition by the government,” he explains.

women empowerment boxing Saif Khan
Shivani Rawat with her gold medal, father and coach Saif.

Saif then started convincing girls and families, offering them coaching. “Belonging to the rural area, the concept of boxing was far from their understanding. The locals did not understand what an NGO meant and why someone would provide free training in sports with food and kits,” he says.

He explained to the parents that the sport could allow their daughters to play for the country and bag a government job through the sports quota.

Beenu Rawat, who agreed to be coached, earned popularity from her winnings at the district level, and inspired by her achievements, other girls started joining the academy.

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“The girls became my ambassadors and started speaking about the quality coaching and effective guidance received. They promoted my work as it gave them self-confidence,” he says, adding that eventually, many boys started requesting him to train them as well.

Over the past 15 years, Saif has trained 87 girls and 18 boys. “Fifteen girls have made it to the national boxing camp and have won gold medals at district and state level. Among them are Kamna Rawat, who has won two district-level gold medals, and Shivani Rawat, who won three gold medals at the district level and silver at national level,” he says.

Kanti Rawat, 16, is one such budding player at Mohammad’s academy taking lessons since 2018. “I was studying in Class 8 when I learned about the coaching nursery from mutual friends and immediately joined the training. I feel glad that my parents were supportive and approved of me to pursue the sport,” she says.

Kanti says that boxing has helped her build a career and deterred men from approaching her with ill intentions. “Earlier, boys used to misbehave with me, but considering my boxing skills, they do not dare eve-tease me any more. I am training to play at the national level and hope to bring back a gold medal.”

Packing A Mean Punch

Saif says that despite the successes, many in the village are still unaware of the sport. “It is far better than when I started the academy. But there is a long way to go. Moreover, finances remain a problem at all times,” he adds.

The coach spends all his earnings from the farm and his small businesses on training the youngsters. “My father gives me Rs 2.5 lakh earned from selling mangoes. He survives on a monthly retirement pension. I have a small business making wallpapers and also work as a real estate broker to meet my living expenses. At times, my brother in Dubai sends money, if required,” he shares.

However, he is still waiting to establish a training centre for the students. “The girls and boys practise in the mango orchard as there is no boxing ring. I am only capable of meeting their food, training and kit expenses. I pay their school fees on some occasions. But a modest boxing ring costs Rs 5 lakh, and I am struggling to raise the money for the same,” he notes.

But all is not lost. Saif has identified 2,000 square feet of land to build a professional academy. Appreciating his contribution, three NGOs are supporting his cause. “The Childline Lucknow, Mother Teresa Foundation and Magic Bus have joined hands with the academy and agreed to offer their support,” he says.

Dr Sangeeta Sharma, director-general at Childline, Lucknow, says, “We were carrying surveys and reaching out to girls in rural parts of the district when we learned about Saif’s work and decided to support him. He was alone and needed help to address the issues faced by girls in terms of finances, health and others.”

Dr Sangeeta says that the NGO helps create awareness on sexual abuse, child marriage and equip them through capacity building. “We are also finding ways to help Saif construct a boxing ring,” she adds.

Saif says that he would continue to train girls despite the odds. “I believe that the girls and boys from my town have the potential and talent to excel. I am confident that their performance will improve tremendously once they get the boxing ring to practise professionally,” he says.

On a parting note, he asserts, “My passion for boxing is what drives me. I am not training anyone to earn money. My ‘profits’ are to see these girls win a competition. I feel happy about their achievements and I can only dream of an Olympic medal from these girls.”

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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