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A boxing culture grows in Malta

Fighters Network
Steve Martin (R) punches Graham Earl in August 2014 on the island of Malta. Photo by Charlo Micallef.

Steve Martin (R) punches Graham Earl in August 2014 on the island of Malta. Photo by Charlo Micallef.

The Republic of Malta, which is situated just 50 miles south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, is known more for its historic architecture and beach resorts than prizefighting, but a boxing scene is slowly starting to catch momentum.

This Friday, Malta will see its third pro boxing event of the year when native sons Tyrone Borg and Steve Martin face Hungarian foes at the Ex Triad Fair Grounds in Naxxar. The show, promoted by Demis Tonna’s Prize Boxing Promotion, will feature 12e pro and semi-pro matches and is expected to pull in about 2,000 fans in a country of just over 400,000 people.

Malta mapThe 36-year-old light heavyweight Borg (9-0, 8 knockouts) will have his first eight-round bout against Peter Zsilak (10-13-2, 5 KOs). Demonstrating the scarcity of fighters in the country, Martin (10-4-1, 9 KOs) also trains Borg, and will fight Ferenc Szakallas (22-13-3, 10 KOs) in a scheduled 10-rounder the same night.

Borg, born in the northern city of St. Paul’s Bay, came to boxing five years ago after training in kickboxing, where he won the Malta Kickboxing Championships cruiserweight title. He started dabbling with boxing through classes with local trainer Scott Dixon and had his first pro boxing bout in February 2014. Since then he has won all but one of his fights by knockout, albeit against limited competition.

“The crowd enjoys the show, they love when you are aggressive and they like it when a Maltese achieves his goals,” says the southpaw brawler Borg. “They feel proud with you.

“I am a dedicated person. Striving to achieve more and more gives me the drive to become better and lead by example in Malta that local talent can arrive if properly taken care of.”

Martin, 28, spent time fighting in the U.K., training with Barry Smith at the TRAD TKO Boxing Gym in London before returning to Malta to continue his career domestically and train people out of the Fight Factory Gym in Marsa.

Steve Martin (L) with Tyrone Borg

Steve Martin (L) with Tyrone Borg

In his last fight in August 2014, Martin knocked out former British lightweight champion Graham Earl in the biggest fight on Maltese shores to date. Martin has been out of action since then due to a broken hand suffered in that fight.

“Steve was a massive influence on boxing today, teaching the correct procedure, boxing technique and discipline. He has essentially allowed us to carve a path for all the joined after him,” says Marc James, CEO of the Malta Boxing Association, which was ratified as a provisional member of the European Boxing Union on June 6.

“Malta could act as a central location to intercontinental fights. We do offer the venues, accommodation, and every thing that would attract foreign promoters,” continues James, who had formerly been associated with the Malta Boxing Commission, which also sanctions boxing in the country, with many of its fights taking place in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Only four pro boxers from Malta have been active in the past year, according to Boxrec, though the local ranks could soon get an infusion of fighters as those from the local semi-pro league are eventually turned professional.

“But this is a slow process,” James says.

Friday’s show is the next phase of a boxing culture built from the ground up. Boxing in Malta continues to face challenges, but just as a fighter takes his career one fight at a time, so too does the sport in the small Mediterranean nation.

“Starting from sponsorships to wages, and mind you, professional boxers still have to go to work and train after,” says Borg, before his tone switches optimistically.

“We lack opportunities but with determination and help we can achieve it.”

Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.