UAE boxing gym’s female founder in fight to tackle bullying, mental health issues

Michelle Kuehn (L), founder of Dubai’s Real Boxing Only (RBO) gym, with UAE boxer and trainer Fahima Falaknaz. (Real Boxing Only Gym)
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Updated 18 August 2020

UAE boxing gym’s female founder in fight to tackle bullying, mental health issues

  • New campaign aims to deliver knockout blow to cyberbullying of teenagers

DUBAI: In 1954, a seething 12-year-old by the name of Cassius Clay walked into a gym after having his bike stolen. This was not going to happen to him again. In his words, he wanted to “whup” that thief.

What followed remains arguably the greatest sporting story of all time. In and out of the ring, Muhammad Ali would stare down bullies for the rest of his life.

More than six decades on and boxing still provides a sanctuary for bullying victims which is why Michelle Kuehn, who founded Dubai’s Real Boxing Only (RBO) gym three years ago, has launched an anti-bullying campaign in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and resulting lockdown.

“During quarantine, I noticed that online got really loud,” she said from her office at RBO in Al-Quoz. “Everyone took to going online, and the energy was really high. I know that a lot of teenagers were really struggling, they weren’t seeing their friends, and there was a lot of cyberbullying.

“I know that many teens were struggling with depression and mental health was such an issue during lockdown for a lot of people who were not used to being alone, not used to not being able to go out and see friends.”

Just over four years ago, Kuehn took up boxing because she was disillusioned with her career in the media and her lifestyle in general. It changed her life and has made her increasingly sensitive to other people’s mental health problems.

Michelle Kuehn. (Supplied: Real Boxing Only Gym)

“I started thinking that now schools are coming up, kids must be facing a lot of anxiety about seeing their friends, seeing their bullies, just being made fun of,” said the American, who has lived in the UAE since the mid-1990s.

“Weight has been a massive issue online. People talking about gaining weight or making fun of people putting on quarantine weight. It’s so negative, we just survived a pandemic, and the only thing that’s come out of it is they’re talking about how fat you are,” she added.

By calling on the help of friends, colleagues, and professional boxers, Kuehn hopes to raise awareness through a new anti-bullying campaign, #BeBrave, not a bully.

“Boxers are powerful, they have responsibility to stand up for young people who look up to them, and to say, ‘we’re brave, we’re not bullies,’ and to impart that message to everyone,” she said.

“Be brave, not a bully. I’ve gone with that, and every boxer that I’ve messaged, who either trains at our gym or in the UK, such as Jordan Gill, Shakan Pitters, and the coaches at Eastside Boxing Gym. Also, David Coldwell, Hopey Price, Hamzah Sheeraz, Anthony Fowler, Waleed Din, Ryan Kelly, Mohammad Ali Bayat, and Hannah Rankin. They are all behind it.

“Some of them had been bullied themselves when they were younger, and went into boxing to give themselves self-respect, self-confidence, to feel strong,” she added.

(Supplied: Real Boxing Only Gym)

Kuehn pointed out that boxing also helped bullies to change their ways.

“They are just insecure and scared, lashing out and hurting others because of the pain they feel themselves,” she said. “Boxing helps both sides because it teaches you to respect others and gives you self-discipline and confidence.”

Kuehn had been pushing for women’s participation and empowerment long before the launch of the latest campaign.

“It’s not just locally, women’s boxing wasn’t even allowed in the UK until 1998. So, women haven’t really been allowed to box because of the social pressures that are put on them. Which is all about appearances, and when people say hit like a girl, it’s not a compliment. I turn it into a compliment because I can hit, and yes, I am a girl, so bring it.

“But all of these stereotypes that have been impressed upon women for generations, still exist. And that is the same with online bullying. There are a few big female influencers talking about it now as well, about positive body image, about how all bodies are lovable. Who says cellulite isn’t lovable or being overweight isn’t the way it’s supposed to be? Overweight is a term that they use for a person that doesn’t fit what? Who made those measurements?”

(Supplied: Real Boxing Only Gym)

With RBO, Kuehn above all wanted to provide an environment where females felt at home, whether they were uncomfortable around males for cultural reasons, because they wore a hijab, or simply because they lacked confidence.

“I got asked once if there was a reason why I intentionally didn’t create a girly gym,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to create a girly gym to create a safe space. Boxing is for everyone.

“Ask any female client that comes in here and they will say that the moment they walk in the energy is good. They feel safe, even though there’s a giant boxing ring at the entrance. It’s intimidating but it’s glorious at the same time.

(Supplied: Real Boxing Only Gym)

“They feel safe in here because there’s no judgement. They feel safe because they are being taught a skill. That is why I wanted to have ladies-only classes because I understand as someone who has lived here for so long that everyone has the right to a sport, whether their cultural background is different to mine or not,” she added.

That was also one of the reasons why Kuehn decided to hire Fahima Falaknaz, the first female UAE boxer, as part of the training staff; a specific plan to target more Emirati and conservative females.

Fahima Falaknaz, the first female UAE boxer. (Supplied: Real Boxing Only Gym)

“Her story is one that she still struggles daily with family obligations and family expectations. She has chosen the less-travelled path because she knows that is what she was meant to do. Her story is so in line with what I believe in, that I couldn’t think of anyone else more suited for the job.”

Kuehn proudly noted the story of a member whose life had been transformed by boxing.

“When he started coming here, I remember thinking he was so grumpy looking. Did he even want to be here? This was about a year ago. Now he has lost 32 kg. He is not the same man who walked in here. He didn’t come in here to lose weight, he came in because he was searching, he wanted to find happiness. And he found it,” she said.

The change was not just physical. His whole outlook on life altered and his mental health improved beyond recognition, Kuehn added.

“Since he has been here, he also started taking English lessons. I remember he could barely speak any English and that frustrated him. So, he fixed it. His whole dynamic changed, and now he is starting his own company, and he has had a couple of fights with us.

“He told me that when he moves back home to Egypt, he wants to open his own boxing gym to give the gift we gave him to others in his hometown. When he told me that, I sat there thinking, I can’t believe that is a result of what we did here. That makes everything worth it.”

Beijing Guaon pounce on rusty Melbourne in 3-1 victory

Updated 25 November 2020

Beijing Guaon pounce on rusty Melbourne in 3-1 victory

  • The Chinese side have one foot in the last-16 of the Asian Champions League

DOHA: Beijing Guoan have one foot in the last-16 of the Asian Champions League after a convincing 3-1 win against a rusty Melbourne Victory side on Tuesday extended their perfect record in Group E to three from three.

Another Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua also improved their chances of qualification from Group F with their second win in three matches, edging past FC Tokyo 1-0, courtesy of a late penalty.

But it was Bruno Genesio’s Beijing outfit who sent out a strong warning to their rivals in the tournament by following up on their win over FC Seoul last week with another impressive performance in Doha where the tournament’s eastern zone matches are being played after a nine-month break due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beijing clearly looked a class above Melbourne Victory who were largely lackluster both in attack and defense, with even the Australian side’s consolation goal late in the second half coming through a huge deflection from Kim Min-Jae after substitute Gianluca Ianucci’s powerful shot from nearly 25 yards appeared heading straight into the goalkeeper’s arms.

Beijing allowed their Australian rivals only 40 percent ball possession and that worked hugely in their favor as they created chances galore at the Al-Sadd Sports Club.

But once again, it was their Brazilian presence which played a pivotal role, with Renato Augusto and A Lan on target in the 22nd and 34th minutes before Wang Zimin’s brilliant goal in the 74th minute to put the match out of Victory’s reach.

Frenchman Genesio, who has been in charge at Beijing Guoan for almost 16 months, was not in a very celebratory mood despite his team’s 100 percent win record so far.

“In the first half we played really well as we tried high pressing as we trained before the game and were successful in keeping control,” said Genesio.

“The only thing I am disappointed about is that we conceded one goal towards the end. We need to be more serious and cautious towards the end of the game.”

Melbourne Victory, for whom this was their second defeat in three matches — their only win came in February against Chiangrai United — are now third in the standings and would need a herculean comeback to qualify for the knockout phase.

“For us, It’s not the result we wanted,” said Victory’s Steve Kean, whose side had no match practice for several months before heading to Doha. “This was our very first match of any type, we did not even play any friendlies and came against a Beijing side that have played a full season.

2We wanted to win and take points but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”

Meanwhile, Shanghai Shenhua were celebrating their success over Tokyo FC after Yu Hanchao’s successful penalty in the 74th minute proved the decisive moment in the match.

“FC Tokyo is a great team but today we really wanted to limit their opportunities,” said Shenhua coach Choi Kang-hee.

“Our players really overcame their difficulties of fitness and fatigue. They persisted from the first minute until the end and I thank them for that.

“They showed great mental power and spirit and I believe they will get better from here,” he added.

Tokyo FC’s Kenta Hasegawa was clearly upset, although he was not losing hope yet despite his team being in third place in the standings with four points from three matches

“The result is disappointing. This was the first game in the AFC Champions League for many of our young players,” Hasegawa said.

“They were not ready for this game, but I am sure the will be ready for the next.”