It used to be an old gas station. In the area where car owners once filled their tanks an elevated boxing ring now stands. Fraying rope holds the still sturdy structure together as George Khosi instructs his student on the correct way to dodge and jab. “One two, one two,” he counts. Outside the ring, a bright green punching bag sways gently in response to blows delivered by a little boy with missing teeth and mismatched boxing gloves. The 44-year-old coach does not seem to mind, he would rather the boy box than wander the streets.
Khosi, known in the community as ‘George the Brick’, founded the Hillbrow Boxing Club in 2004. He trains amateurs and professionals, charging R100 (about $10) per one-hour session for those starting out and R100 per month for use of the gym. He opened the club to keep local kids off the streets, the dangers of which he knows all too well.
Khosi grew up in Hillbrow, the most notorious suburb of Johannesburg. Just one square kilometer large the area is known for population density, unemployment and poverty. Police corruption is rife and organized crime thrives. It was a designated ‘whites only’ area during the apartheid era, however the political unrest that came with the 80s saw investors and middle class residents flee to the suburbs of Johannesburg, leaving Hillbrow to slowly decay into an inner city slum.
Dilapidated apartment blocks surround the open-air boxing ring, bordered by a spiked metal fence and barbed wire. The space that once accompanied the petrol station as a convenience store now serves as a dimly lit gym. Sunlight filters through broken windows onto ageing equipment and teenage boys who watch their flexing muscles in shattered mirrors. An elderly man, hat drawn over his eyes, dozes off on a single couch on the far side of the room, his snooze undisturbed by the house music blasting from the speakers beside him. The boys lift to the beat. A young man’s face contorts as the numbers climb, air fills his cheeks large as balloons and he lets out a gush of air as the his weighs clank heavily onto the cement floor.
The sound travels to the area outside, where Khosi sits on the edge of the ring and smiles as he recalls his first fight in Brixton at the age of 15. He knocked out his opponent in the first round. That was back in 1985, when he was well on his way to becoming a professional boxer. All that changed abruptly the night he was shot.
Almost 17 years ago, Khosi was attacked in his home. His assailants shot him in both legs and in the right eye. Believing him to be dead, they took him to a hilltop in Yeoville and left his body in an abandoned concrete structure. He regained consciousness two days later. The traumatic incident left him with and a milky eye, and a limp.
Khosi says he has seen the ‘other side’, but still has work to do before heading to the bright lights. He has his hands full with over 80 students consisting of men, women and children, as well as 12 promising champions. The Hillbrow Boxing Club has become a place where kids can go after school and where those who are serious about their sport can escape the pretentious atmospheres so often found in city fitness centers. From an abandoned gas station in one of the most dangerous suburbs in Johannesburg, Khosi now produces the professionals he once dreamt of becoming.