Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tunisian Jewish boxers once pulled no punches

Tunisian Jews were once strongly represented in professional boxing before Tunisia achieved independence. According to, the golden age of Tunisian boxing, which pitched different communities against each other, is now the subject a film by Hichem Ben Ammar:

"Under the glare of overhead neon lights, Jacques Chiche shows fledgling boxers a couple of moves in his lively Parisian boxing club. The world's most famous boxers, Mohamed Ali, Marcel Cerdan, and Mike Tyson stare down from the walls.

"A spritely man with a sharp eye, Chiche, a boxer of Jewish Tunisian origins, left his homeland in the 50s to pursue a boxing career in France.

"Today, his friend and former French champion, Felix Brami, is visiting his club, along with the Tunisian film director Hichem Ben Ammar. Together they flip through photo albums and discuss the golden age of Tunisian boxing.

"Ben Ammar has returned to Paris a year after finishing a documentary about the rise and decline of Tunisian boxing, "J'en ai vu des ├ętoiles," [I have seen the stars]. Before Tunisia gained independence, French colonial settlers, Maltese immigrants, Italians, Muslims, Tunisian Jews – a large community in Tunisia before the 1950's fought each other with their gloves on.

"Chiche recalls how he started boxing at the age of 14 after seeing a film about the Moroccan champion Marcel Cerdan, famous for his tumultuous love story with Edith Piaf. The trainer at a nearby club didn't believe the young Chiche seriously wanted to fight, "But I came back, and look I'm here 60 years later."

"For these boxers, the 30s, 40s and 50s represent the golden age of Tunisian professional boxers. It's an era that saw the country's greatest boxers, from the womanizing world champion "Young" Perez, who later died in the Nazi concentration camps, to Sadok Omrane, Tunisia's "iron-fisted fighter."

"To have a great boxing reunion, you need a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew," Chiche recalls. "Spectators came to support their clan. There were a few brawls but it always ended well. We celebrated, it was marvelous," says Chiche amid the sweat and roar of the club."

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