By Nneka Chile
LAGOS (Reuters) – Skipping from one foot to the other in the tropical heat of Lagos, teenage boxer Tijani Abdulazeez dreams of greatness as he trains in the open air on a patch of dusty ground.
Known to family, friends and fans as TJ, the 15-year-old’s trophies already adorn the living room of his modest home in Alagbado, a ramshackle neighbourhood on the megacity’s outskirts.
TJ’s dream is to be spotted by a scout, preferably someone from the Nigerian diaspora, who could whisk him away to a country where he could train at a proper indoor boxing gym and compete with the best.
“I want to become a professional fighter, international fighter like Anthony Joshua, Mike Tyson, Tyson Fury, and I want to represent Nigeria,” he said.
His father, timber merchant Abdulfathi Abdulazeez, founded the Owonikoko boxing club where TJ boxes. Abdulazeez spends his free time coaching, arranging transport for tournaments and securing donations for gloves and other kit.
He too dreams of success and financial gain for his young charges.
“They can use the sport to feed their parents, to help their future,” he said.
In the meantime, he says boxing improves their behaviour.
“We discover some children play with hard objects, dangerous objects and so we take up the child and introduce sports to them so they don’t become a nuisance,” he said.
The boys skip, lunge and perform press-ups on the ground in an open area between houses as there is no indoor facility. For sparring practice, they lay down rubber mats in the shape of a boxing ring. Passing residents stop to encourage the boys.
At a recent open-air tournament in a different part of Lagos, an elevated ring with ropes offered a more professional set-up, and a sizable crowd cheered the young fighters.
TJ had a good day and won another trophy for the family display. Among the onlookers, amateur boxer Akeem Kilani was impressed.
“TJ is a talented boxer,” he said. “Even watching the fight now, you can tell he is our champion and he will be Nigeria’s champion tomorrow.”
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon, Editing by Libby George and Alison Williams)