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.
“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.
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?”
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.
“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.
“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.”