Three times a week in the Malvern neighbourhood, young people punch, jab, bob, and weave their way to gaining self-confidence and relieving stress.
They’re body boxing — an alternative take on traditional boxing. The participants hit each other only along the body, reducing the long-term effects of hits to the head.
“Part of boxing is sparring, practice fighting, and when we do that they put on these chest gears that lets them hit each other as hard as they want, but only to the body,” said Daron Laban, coach and creator of Scarborough Body Boxing. “It’s an alternative for youth to learn about boxing without getting injured.”
A former amateur boxer with a winning record, Laban has seen the negative effects of boxing once the glorious days are over. With his own two boys involved in the program, he finds body boxing is a kid-friendly way of being physically active.
“I pretty much grew up in a boxing gym, but the boxing community doesn’t like to talk too much about the after-effects of taking a lot of head blows and I have a problem with that especially dealing with the youth,” Laban said. “We want to give them the skill sets of boxing without the harm.”
Boxing in general tends to carry a negative stigma. In 2011, the Canadian Pediatric Society released a statement asking for a ban on teens and children boxing. They cite head, face, and neck injuries as major reasons.
Laban agrees with the society and believes this program is his compromise to send the safe message to the youth of today.
The group, ages 6 to 13, come into the facility three times a week to work out. There are five levels to body boxing, each with a new skill-set being earned. The first level is iron, which teaches the basics such as skipping and jabbing, followed by copper, silver, gold and platinum. In the last level, the youth are able to combine many combos to the body.
Another group of teens age 14 and up also meet in the facility.
While the fitness of boxing is important, the coaching staff stress the mentorship of the program.
In its infancy three years ago, Laban ran the program alone. But with time, the staff grew and the program’s mission expanded.
“There’s now been an initiative to not just teach the kids but to mentor them. The program is now where the kids get physically fit, they stay healthy and learn self-defence so that they can be confident in life, but we also teach them the basic things,” coach Raza Mohammed said. “We sometimes have sessions where we just sit in a circle and talk.”
In addition to mentoring the kids in the program, Mohammed has also worked for the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre, a jail for youth 18 and under.
He enters the program with an understanding of the daily issues they face.
“I used to get picked on because of my short height, but after joining this program and learning self-defence, I am now more confident to stand up for myself,” two-year participant Mujtaba Fasiullah, 11, said.
“It’s about being young in Canada and not having a positive role model,” Mohammed said. “That’s what I want to offer to these kids, to be able to share my life experiences so that it shows them that someone is listening and someone really cares.”
Mohammed and Laban are looking forward to expand the program, now in its third year, through grants and community help. They also hope to make body boxing an official sport league in Ontario.
But for now, they end their hour of fitness with a game of tug of war.