Hailing from one of the most poverty-stricken pockets in Amman, Ihab Darwish Al Matbouli wants to go where no Jordanian athlete has gone before: the ceremony podium at the Olympic Games. For most of his peers, merely carrying the tiny Kingdom’s flag at the opening ceremony in London in July should merit boasting. But Al Matbouli very well knows that the stuff of champions is made of greater and bigger expectations. ‘We are confident that he has what it takes to leave his mark at the games this summer,’ say the staff at the Jordan Amateur Boxing Association (JABA). It is an almost well-rehearsed answer echoed by his coaches and team mates.
He makes it look easy: throwing punches, dodging those from the coach – the boxing ring underneath bopping with every movement despite the flare and agility displayed. Training to doleful Arabic pop songs from the early 1990’s, Al Matbouli smiles, ‘I am a big fan of sad music,’ as he takes a quick breather from the intense training routine.
It doesn’t take much to note the dichotomies of the man: quick and nimble, yet forceful – his nickname is the Bulldozer – fearless, slightly emotional, yet entirely focused and mindful. ‘In matches, I am the first to deliver punches, you need to be forward but also sly about it. I am never satisfied with less than 100 per cent performance,’ he snaps.
Al Matbouli grew up in a family in which boxing was the daily staple dinner conversation. Their home is modest and shabby, their neighbourhood, rough and rugged and the family’s demeanour is dignified, but eerily quiet. His father, a boxing aficionado, took him and his elder brother Faraj, two-time champion at the Arab Games, to matches and training sessions regularly. Although Al Matbouli was initially kicked out of training for his fiery and rebellious temper, he drew inspiration and encouragement from his brother and received his first formal training in 2000.
‘Boxing was my outlet to vent frustration and anger,’ he says. ‘I found calmness, clarity and peace of mind in the sport.’ He also found success – winning the gold medal in Jordan’s national boxing championships for the last 12 years and competing internationally since in 2005.
A year later, he says, he started looking at the ultimate dream – the Olympics. JABA put forth a plan and his coach, Omar Majali sent him to Asia where the competition was tough. ‘In 2011, he was a point away from qualifying having competed in Azerbaijan,’ says Majali in the training gym while Al Matbouli nonchalantly delivers a set of a hundred crunches in a matter of minutes.
To translate this dream into reality, JABA brought in Cuban coach, George Guzman, who is best known for being Vice President at the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA). The coach took him to Cuba for a month-long training camp and he competed against athletes from over 20 countries. ‘Boxing is big in Cuba, you can find opponents in every corner – people breathe, eat and live the sport,’ says Guzman. ‘Ihab had to witness this first-hand in order for him to really become a world-class boxer.’
Al Matbouli’s daily regime involves two-hour training sessions in the morning and evening, with the former focusing on fitness, the latter on technique and strategy. He is expected to train six days a week, even during Ramadan, where only the timings of training shift. JABA assigned him Ammar Sabbah, a physiologist and nutrition scientist who designated a strict diet chock-full of proteins, carbs, liquids and vitamins. ‘I lose two kilograms in each training session…yesterday alone I lost five kilograms,’ Al Matbouli says, explaining the intensity of his workouts.
The clichéd adage of a woman supporting the man in their life to success runs true here. ‘My mother and wife have always been supportive,’ says Al Matbouli, ‘they know that this is for them, and I would even push my son to embrace the sport,’ adds the father of two toddlers. ‘The sport is relatively safe, thanks to rules and regulations that prevent from severe injuries,’ he laments with perhaps a slight whiff of disappointment.
Although there is a strong emotional element to boxing, Al Matbouli alternates between the highly technical and focused persona and another that is volatile. He employs the more grounded version of himself when playing against opponents. ‘When I am in the ring, I hardly notice the referee. The crowd can be intimidating, but I am totally in the zone, fixated on my opponent,’ he fires. ‘I imagine my opponent as someone who is taking something from me, a meal that I could feed my children or something dear to them’.
His fears are technical: losing points or getting hit hard enough to forced to forfeit a match. ‘I don’t fear anyone and always feel that I am stronger than my opponent,’ says Al Matbouli. He admits that he does not even resort to studying his opponents prior to any match, and prefers to fill in that role during the first minutes of his stand-off. ‘His mental agility and dexterity are unparalleled. Boxing is 85 per cent mind and heart, and he has both covered,’ says Nettles Nasser, assistant to coach Guzman.
‘I cannot imagine myself not boxing, or at least in coaching,’ says Al Matbouli regarding his future. He aspires to become a professional boxer after the Olympics – usually a podium for such offers – and after that, he would like to take to the more aggressive and vicious Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) arena. ‘I like the intensity and violent nature of the sport,’ he concludes.
Photography: Ghassan Aqel