Nidal Foqahaa is the first Palestinian boxer to win bouts at a world competition, and now the young fighter is targeting success at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Last month in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Foqahaa, 19, made history for Palestine by triumphing over two former Olympians in the IBA Men’s Elite World Boxing Championships.
Although he did not claim a medal in the International Boxing Association event, just making it onto the world stage was a hard-fought accomplishment for the pugilist, as it is for many elite boxers.
Living in Ramallah, Foqahaa is no stranger to struggle. Training out of the small Elbario Boxing Club, Foqahaa has been on a rollercoaster ride since he won his first boxing match at 16. Less than 10 months ago, he lost his place on the national team due to poor performances.
Although he earned his spot back through sheer determination, without proper funding he has not been able to rack up the fights and international experience he needs.
The Palestinian Boxing Federation has little funding available, so Foqahaa is reliant on development aid from the IBA and assistance from the Elbario club. Without any corporate sponsors, he must often pay his own way with the money he earns from working in construction.
After losing his spot on the national team, Foqahaa was determined to prove his worth. In February, he won a silver medal at the King’s Championship in Jordan, which took him to the IBA contest in May.
“Unfortunately, we do not have the money like other teams. I was so grateful to the International Boxing Association who sponsored the travel and accommodation of the Palestinian team last month,” he said.
“Right now, I am in Russia for a six-month camp. I was graciously invited by the president of the IBA, Umar Kremlev — providing us, the Palestinian team, with the international experience and facilities we do not have at home or cannot afford to get elsewhere.”
Russia has some of the best boxers in the sport, and is currently ranked third in the world by the IBA. During the camp, Foqahaa hopes to gain the skills he needs to compete in the upcoming Olympic qualifying competitions.
Nader Jayousi, owner of the Elbario gym, said he was confident Foqahaa would make it to France.
“Nidal is putting 100 percent of his time and effort into the goal of Paris 2024. He is completely focused on his training camp now, and the next qualifying events,” said Jayousi.
“At the Arab Games in Algeria, we hope to make it to the finals. The first qualifier for the Olympics is the Asian Games in China this September. We will use it as a KPI (key performance indicator) to gauge his progress.
“Then the Continental Qualifier for Asia will be in January, February,” he added. “The World Qualifier is his final chance to qualify for the Olympics, if we don’t through the continental event.”
Fortunately, the Olympic committee will cover his travel expenses to these qualifying events.
These are the real, daily challenges of being from Palestine, a world away from well-funded teams and personalized kits, which makes Foqahaa more determined than ever.
“Every struggle I face, drives me to achieve more. When I was at the World Championships, I didn’t get distracted and chose to isolate myself, focusing on the task at hand. I didn’t worry about the other teams, maybe they do come from better facilities, more experience, and more funding. But I fight for something more.”
Jayousi highlighted some of the inspirations for the current crop of Palestinian fighters.
“Our boxers are inspired by our local champion, Islam Irshaid. He won a few medals in Odivelas, (and the) Eindhoven Box Cup but nothing continental, or on the world stage,” the coach said.
“Because Islam had literally nothing, there wasn’t any gym then, I trained him in the streets, by himself. No teammate or sparring, but despite those limitations he was a great boxer. Sometimes it isn’t the right time, now he inspires a new generation in the gym. They look up to him, and he offers great support to the future champions of our country.”
No Palestinian athlete has ever qualified for the Olympics, and Foqahaa knows he has a long road ahead of him.
Conflict is part of Palestine’s daily life, and understanding what he is fighting for stokes the fire inside Foqahaa. He believes he can go far in the boxing world, and leave behind an important legacy.
He hopes to have a long and successful career in boxing, and possibly turn professional, so he can support his family and look after his father.
But for now, Foqahaa has only one thing on his mind, which is getting to the Paris Olympics.