(RNS) – The two men are known to wear their faith, if not on their sleeves, then on the biggest platforms they ordered in their respective periods: for Alphonse Halimi, a French bantamweight boxer of the 40s and 50s, it was a Star of David sewn onto his boxing shorts. Fellow and bantamweight compatriot Nordine Oubaali, born more than half a century after Halimi, makes a bigger statement on Instagram, noting his celebration of Ramadan and other Muslim holidays.
The two men made boxing from the margins of French society to international notoriety: Halimi from the Jewish quarters of Constantine, the third largest city in the then French territory of Algeria; Oubaali was born in Lens, in the cold and rainy Pas-de-Calais region in the far north of France, considered the boondock of French popular culture.
It’s been 61 years since Halimi lost his bantamweight crown in California – just as Oubaali did last month in a fourth round knockout delivered by Nonito Donaire, a hugely popular Filipino American fighter and possibly l one of the 50 best fighters of all time.
Halimi died in 2006. Together with Oubaali, the duo form a sort of time capsule of how sport functions as an expression of religious solidarity and as a way to escape the struggle of the popular classes. The glamor of victory on the pitch or in the ring obscures economic, religious and, above all, ethnic disparities in order to redeem lives that would otherwise be lived in the shadows.
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Boxing has long drawn its competition to harsh, predominantly urban environments. At the beginning of the 20th century, several Jewish champions emerged from the ghettos where they were locked up. This was no less true for Algerian Jews than it was for their counterparts born into Russian or Polish families.
âJews were discriminated against and anti-Semitism from settlers in Algeria and were not really accepted socially,â said Joshua Cole, an expert on French history at the University of Michigan. “By the 20th century, the Jews of Constantine had assimilated into French culture – they had adopted European costume and had access to French school if they wanted, but they were seen as different from people of European descent. . ” In 1940, according to Cole, Halimi saw Jewish children expelled from public schools in Algeria by officials of the Vichy regime, who cooperated with the Nazi occupiers of France.
It was not uncommon at the time for a French boxing champion to be from North Africa. Marcel Cerdan, who many consider the country’s greatest boxer (but perhaps best known for his extramarital romance with French singer Edith Piaf), was born to a Pied-Noir family in 1932. Halimi was known to carry a photo de Cerdan with him.
Jewish boxers were also not an anomaly: amateur boxing was one of the founding events of the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish event founded in the year of Halimi’s birth. Halimi would be headlining the first international title fight to take place in Israel, just days before his own homeland gained independence in 1962.
Halimi was one of six Jews to hold the world bantamweight crown from 1901, when Harry “The Human Hairpin” Harris won it, until 1957 when Halimi won the title. Four, including Harris, were Americans; Besides Halimi, Robert Cohen, also from eastern Algeria, won the weight class with a victory over a fighter from his hometown in Thailand in 1954, the year the Algerian War of Independence began. Cohen’s victory inspired an Arabic-language pop song that emphasized his Algerian nationality, as opposed to his French nationality.
The line of Jewish fighters does not include former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, the most prominent fighter of the first half of the 20th century, who, although raised Mormon, was of partially Jewish ancestry.
The 21st century saw its own world champion in super flyweight and bantamweight, with Carolina Duer of Argentina becoming the first person of Jewish descent to win a World Boxing Organization title from that country.
Considering boxing’s history of minority uplifting, it’s no surprise that a French Muslim ultimately stands up to take his titles as Jewish boxers did. Due to discrimination and other factors, many French immigrants find themselves in “suburbs” – shorror for struggling communities outside French cities where unemployment and crime rates are helping to create a poverty trap.
“Xenophobia and racial discrimination are on the rise in France,” said Kamal Moummad, a Franco-Moroccan actor. âSport and the world of boxing have therefore become the main platforms on which minorities can experience success and achievement. “
Like Halimi, who had a dozen siblings, Oubaali came from a large family – in her case, one with 18 children. His father, who died in 2000, encouraged his interest in boxing. âMy parents came from Morocco in the 1960s to give us a better future,â Oubaali told a French interviewer. âMy father worked a lot: the day in a Renault garage, the night at the (coal) mine and, during the holidays, he drove (buses) to go back and forth between France and Morocco.
As an amateur, on his first trip to the United States, Oubaali won a bronze medal at the 2007 AIBA World Boxing Championships in Chicago. In the 2008 and 2012 Olympics he suffered controversial losses, but his 2012 campaign produced a bronze medal. In 2019, he won his World Boxing Council world title in Nevada by beating Rau’shee Warren.
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Oubaali is a close friend of Hollywood actor SaÃ¯d Taghmaoui and Souleymane Cissokho, another Olympic bronze medalist who commented in French on Oubaali’s loss to Donaire. Taghmaoui’s prominent role was in the 1995 French film La Haine, “an ethnographic snapshot of life in the suburbs. Before that he was an amateur boxing star in France.
Few centers are as important to the sport of boxing as Los Angeles. Halimi, in 1959, and Oubaali, in 2021, came to California in search of lucrative fights only to end up with knockout losses.
Halimi, for his part, will fight in the United States three times in his career, all in Los Angeles. He was a favorite of Southern California boxing writers, and his Jewish faith was often noted in the coverage of his fights.
Now dismissed, Oubaali could draw inspiration from his Jewish predecessor. After losing the title in Los Angeles, Halimi was able to win the European Bantamweight Championship, a story that could show Oubaali a path to fulfill his vow to bounce back from his loss.