Hamid Rahimi stops Said Mbelwa at “Fight 4 Peace”

KABUL – A joyous Kabul crowd invaded the ring to celebrate a local victory in Afghanistan’s first professional men’s boxing match, after Hamid Rahimi beat Tanzanian Said Mbelwa in seven rounds.

Afghan fighter Rahimi overcame Mbelwa on Tuesday evening to take the World Boxing Organization Intercontinental middleweight belt in the “Fight 4 Peace” in a city better known for gunfire and insurgent attacks than uppercuts and jabs.

Organisers hope to use the event, which drew around 1,500 people paying at least $100 for a ticket – more than a month’s salary for most Afghans – to promote sport as a unifying force in Afghanistan after decades of conflict.

“This bout will give a lesson to the Taliban and other opposition of the government to stop fighting with weapons and that they can start fighting for power without violence,” said 28-year-old Mohammad Asif Sahibi as he watched.

During their five years of rule in Afghanistan the Taliban, bitterly opposed to sport and entertainment, outlawed boxing as un-Islamic, but later allowed limited-contact fighting which prohibited strikes to the face.

Tuesday’s contest, during which Rahimi’s every swing was roared by a partisan, flag-waving crowd, began after a mullah recited verses from the Koran, a solo footballer showed off ball trickery, and martial artists staged a display of Thai boxing.

“Its aim is to change people’s minds in order to keep them away from war and enmity,” said Rahimi supporter Attah Mohammad Yousufzai, a finance manager for a logistics company in Kabul.

“It aims to show them how to fight and still love each other.”

Rahimi took the belt on a technical knockout which ended a contest of few cleanly-landed punches, staged in a huge tent normally used for national gatherings of tribal elders but rigged with Las Vegas-style lights and a techno-pumping sound system for the bout.

“Today it’s a start,” Rahimi said after the fight. “This belt is not mine, this belt is Afghanistan’s, it’s yours. I love you.”