MARCIANISE, Italy (Reuters) - A three-year-old boy punches a boxing bag with a pair of big gloves. Nearby, his father is training a group of wannabe champions. Out in the street a poster reads: “Marcianise, land of boxers.”
This town of 40,000 people north of Naples -- whose once rural landscape is now scarred by piles of garbage and bleak factories -- has reason to be proud of its boxing tradition.
Half the members of the Italian team which has qualified for the Beijing Olympics were born in this troubled place, where newspapers are dominated by tales of a trash crisis and the Camorra, the local version of mafia.
“The inhabitant of Marcianise is born with a great desire to be in punch-ups. So we have a very easy task,” chief coach Domenico Brillantino told Reuters during a sparring session at the “Excelsior boxe,” the club he founded 30 years ago.
“We prepare them, we try to mould their desire to fight so it’s within sporting rules. And we turn them into champions.”
The “Excelsior,” a Latin name for “higher,” is housed rent-free in an elementary school. Far from the glitzy arenas seen on television, it has a story of self-denial to tell.
“When I see my picture on the cover of a glossy magazine I see a whole life of sacrifices that started when I was 10 years old,” world amateur heavyweight champion Clemente Russo, one of the sport’s most popular athletes, told Reuters during a training session at the “Fiamme Oro” police sports centre outside Rome.
“I was 14 but I was still going to school. I used to wake up at six and go running in the dark, in the cold and rain,” added Russo, his eyes glazing over as he recalled his early training in Marcianise.
Three of the four Italian boxers who have so far qualified for August’s Beijing Games -- heavyweight Russo, lightweight Domenico Valentino and flyweight Vincenzo Picardi -- were born between Naples and Caserta.
Only Roberto Cammarelle -- who claimed the world amateur super heavyweight title in Chicago last year -- comes from Northern Italy, though his parents moved from the southern Basilicata region.
His fellow boxers at the Italian police team say he has “southern blood in his veins.”
“Many of the greatest Italian fighters come from Caserta and Marcianise,” said Italy’s boxing federation president Franco Falcinelli.
“Our fighters are in very good shape,” he added, hoping more would clinch an Olympic berth at the first European qualifying tournament in Pescara at the end of February.
Having become little more than a niche sport compared to the halcyon days of the 1970s and 80s, boxing was surging back on the amateur stage, explained Falcinelli.
The number of athletes joining the Italian boxing federation has been rising every year and, as confirmation of an increasing interest in Italy, the city of Milan will stage the AIBA’s (International Amateur Boxing Association) world championships next year.
No matter if safety regulations, such as the headguards amateur boxers must wear in the ring, have diminished what once was considered the biggest attraction -- sweat and blood.
“I like amateur boxing, it’s one of the fairest sports I know,” Cammarelle told Reuters, before jumping into the ring to spar with his fellow policemen boxers.
Every year, dozens of young fighters from southern Italy join the Italian team. Many of them will have taken up boxing to get into shape but then comes passion, as former Olympic bronze medalist Angelo Musone explained.
“Boxing changed my life forever,” said Musone, 44, now sitting on the Italian federation’s board.
His photo, with those of past and present champions, forms part of “stars’ corner,” a handmade poster decorated with golden stars which hangs on a wall at the Excelsior gym.
The “noble art” of boxing taught them more than hard punching, coach Antonio Santoliquido said as he watched his little son Michele playing around.
“Our mission here is that not everybody will become a champion but all of them have to become real men.”
Editing by Clare Fallon