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Page last updated at 06:59 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 07:59 UK

Fight for Peace, create champions

By Ben Dirs

Wladimir Klitschko
Klitschko, the IBF and WBO heavyweight champion, holds court in Woolwich

"Every day we tried to get these kids to put down their glue bottles and they never would. It didn't matter what you gave them - pens, paper, nothing worked. Then one of them heard I was a boxer.

"I said, 'do you want me to show you a few moves?' Suddenly, I had five or six of them around me and they'd all left their glue bottles in the corner. That was when Fight for Peace was born."
Luke Dowdney, Fight for Peace founder

Wladimir Klitschko hovering in the doorway of a battered old boozer in North Woolwich is one of the strangest things anyone is likely to see this year. But a burning passion allied with plenty of clout can make the seemingly impossible happen.

Luke Dowdney, always passionate and now possessing clout in spades courtesy of a Laureus Sport for Good Award and an MBE, is the man responsible for bringing the world heavyweight champion to this unfashionable part of East London.

The Ukrainian is a Laureus Sport for Good ambassador, and he was in town to attend the official launch of Dowdney's Fight for Peace project, a charity transferred from Complexo da Mare, one of the most crime-ridden and poverty-stricken favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

Dowdney, a former light-middleweight universities champion with a degree in anthropology, travelled to Brazil to write his dissertation in 1995 and soon saw how boxing, allied with more orthodox youth work, could provide an alternative to a life of drugs and guns.

Luke Dowdney
Fight for Peace founder Luke Dowdney at the official London launch

"I founded Fight for Peace back in 2000 having become increasingly concerned with the involvement of young people in drug factions and crime as a whole through a lack of options," Dowdney tells BBC Sport.

"About a million people in Rio live in favelas, or shanty towns, and increasingly the drug factions have become a way out for people with pretty much nothing.

"I started a small boxing club where I could make contact with the young people, as a way in. Then we could use more traditional youth work strategies - education, both informal and formal, access to the work market, youth leadership.

"It grew over time and in 2005 we built the Fight for Peace Sports and Education Centre in the favela of Mare. We had 800 kids through it last year and over 2000 since it all began."

While some might struggle to see the parallels between the favelas of Rio and inner-city London, Dowdney is adamant the second branch of his charity will be every bit as relevant as the first.

"Over the years I was coming back to the UK visiting family and friends and it became clear that kids were increasingly dying from knife violence and gun violence on the streets," says Dowdney.

Kids have difficulties dealing with their teenage years and how to vent their spleen in a positive way. But they can do that through the tough sport of boxing

Barry McGuigan, Fight for Peace patron

"There's levels of extremity which you're not going to see [in London]. We've had six kids killed on the project in Brazil in the last four years from gun violence. You don't have the same levels of violence here, but you do have life or death situations.

"The kids are carrying weapons and killing each other on an increasing level. Crime is down in the UK, but youth on youth crime is up, and youth knife and gun crime is up.

"The basic problems are the same: marginalised young people, looking for identity, looking to belong and looking to be part of something in society.

"Kids on the fringe of mainstream society often look for other ways to define themselves, and increasingly street culture has become important.

"We'd spent so much time working with kids in extreme situations in Brazil we thought maybe we had something we could offer and the methodology we'd developed over the years seemed to fit.

"I started meeting with organisations in London, specifically Newham because it's an Olympic borough and a borough with its fair share of problems - of the 27 youth on youth murders in London last year, four of them were in Newham, more than any other borough.

Barry McGuigan
Boxing legend Barry McGuigan is a Fight for Peace patron

"So I met with [East London charity] Community Links and agreed to partner up and set it up over here. We've had over 450 kids sign up in just over three months which is huge, and we've got 50-80 kids a night coming down.

"A lot of the kids we have here have been expelled or excluded from school or have tags on because they've been involved in offending behaviour.

"But this club is open to kids from all walks of life and the vast majority of young people here aren't involved in offending behaviour at all.

"We start with boxing because that's the key, it gets young people interested and through the door. It's an Olympic sport, an exciting sport, a tough sport.

"But it's also about saying, 'if you work hard and train hard, then you'll get results'. If you don't, you won't.

"Boxing by its very nature is a social project. You go to any boxing gym around the world and you'll find kids who've lost their way who find their way through their relationship through their coach. We just have a more holistic package, but using boxing as a platform."

One man with an acute understanding of the social benefits of boxing is former featherweight world champion Barry McGuigan, a Fight for Peace patron who, as a fighter, managed to transcend the sectarian divide in his native Ulster.

McGuigan tells BBC Sport: "I was involved with a guy called Gerry Storey at the Holy Family club in Belfast, with green, white and gold slogans on the wall and whatever.

We want success in the ring, because what that says is, 'if Roberto from my community has just won Golden Gloves, I can do that too'

Luke Dowdney

"But it was filled with Protestants because we wouldn't allow bad language or politics to be spoken about. It saved thousands of lives, I promise you.

"In a way, Gerry's been doing Fight for Peace for 50 years by bringing kids across the religious divide together. Fight for Peace can do the same for these kids. This is going to become another family for them.

"Kids have difficulties dealing with their teenage years and how to vent their spleen in a positive way. But they can do that through the tough sport of boxing.

"They like the fact it's a tough sport, that it gives them discipline and the chance to feel good about themselves, a chance to set goals and achieve their goals, the chance to go and meet people and travel."

The Rio branch if Fight for Peace has already produced a Brazilian Golden Gloves champion, and Dowdney has high hopes that some of his London pupils will go on to produce similar feats.

But he is keen to emphasise that Fight for Peace is about "life champions and world champions" and that churning out talented fighters is, while not a secondary consideration, certainly "the icing on the cake".

"Being an ex-boxer myself, I love to see my kids win fights!" says Dowdney, who hopes to roll his programme out in South Africa next year, before targeting Colombia and perhaps even Angola and Mozambique.

"We want success out of the ring, and a lot of them are just here for fitness and don't even spar. But we want success in the ring, because what that says is, 'if Roberto from my community has just won Golden Gloves, I can do that too'.

"However, the majority might realise their goals in other realms, be it finishing secondary school, getting to university, getting a solid job or looking after their kids. Being a champion doesn't just mean in the ring."

In Klitschko, a dab hand at chess, with a PhD to his name and who was good enough to take a chunk out of his training to lend his support to such a worthy cause, Dowdney would appear to have the perfect ambassador.

see also
Fight for Peace photos
29 Apr 08 |  Boxing
Laureus Sports Awards photos
03 Apr 07 |  Photo Galleries
Federer wins third Laureus prize
02 Apr 07 |  Sport Homepage
Rio slums blighted by gun crime
21 Oct 05 |  Americas
Rare drop in gun deaths in Brazil
03 Sep 05 |  Americas
UN highlights Brazil gun crisis
27 Jun 05 |  Americas
Brazilians march for gun control
14 Sep 03 |  Americas
Rio 'worse than a war zone'
09 Sep 02 |  Americas

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