Bearded men with streaks of white and wide eyes children sit amongst the crowd that has gathered on a chilly late Friday afternoon at the Mt. Hagen City Market. A young man in a hoodie glances towards the lens of my camera pointed at him. He gives a brief smile then turns to the action in front of him.
On the damp, dirt caked pavement, instructor, Enoch Yapoi goes through a set of kicking and punching drills with a kickboxing student. The crowd is growing and the small ‘arena’ is packed to capacity. A man, high on steam, orders people to get out of the area as Enoch’s student punches the pads held up in front of him.
“I am a fighter myself. This sport is a disciplined sport. We brought these kids in and began training them. We don’t want them to drink, smoke or take drugs that’s why we’re training,” Enoch says.
Enoch is a kickboxer inspired by many others before him including former champion, Stanley Nandex. He stops the drills and begins the class.
“Fighting stance!… Bow!”
The students are a ragtag army of boys and young men. Nearly all of them come from broken families and nearly all of them live and work in the Mt. Hagen City Market.
This is the City Rats Kickboxing Association. It doesn’t look like much. They don’t have a gym to train in and the instructors who are kickboxers themselves, use what little equipment they have to train the group. Usually, the matches happen on Sundays. But the boys agreed to run a training class and two short exhibition matches for us to film.
More than a month ago, it wasn’t as organized. The high level of petty crimes in the markets contributed to regular fistfights between the boys who are now part of this club. At one point, two boys fought bare fisted in this market square. It caught the attention of Hagen based kickboxers and officials.
“Previously, they had street fights. But then we, the two instructors and officials, provided equipment and sporting gear to protect them when they are fighting and we provided proper training. We are raising funds to register as part of the PNG Kickboxing Federation. We will announce a time to launch our organization,” kickboxing official, Anderson Koponu says.
For many outside this growing circle of kickboxers and fans, this is nothing more than a group of hooligans and troublemakers who gather here every weekend to fight. On numerous occasions, they have been chased by police. Market officials don’t agree with the Sunday Matches. But the assistant club instructor, Nixon Samson, says this club is slowly changing attitudes. It is giving the boys goals to achieve and it is enforcing discipline.
“They have to get medical checks. I’ve given them letters which have to be signed by a parent who gives them consent to compete,” Nixon explained.
The association has gone further to control bad behavior outside the kickboxing arena.
“Anyone who fights outside the ring is suspended. Anyone who is reported to be involved in petty crimes… if they rob women, I terminate them from the club.”
Nixon and Enoch have become role models the boys look up to. The club has big dreams. The instructors want to start attending inter-provincial kick boxing matches.
“We want them to be good role models in future. We want them to be leaders in the societies they live in,” Nixon says.
It’s a difficult task ahead of them. Mt. Hagen does not have a stellar reputation. There is high unemployment and a high crime rate. The Mt. Hagen City Hospital has one of the highest number of trauma cases in the country. It is against this backdrop that a group of boys are trying to make it big.
I ask Enoch, who wipes a bead of sweat off his brow with his bandaged hands: “What dreams to you have for this group?”
“I dream that maybe one or two or three or four or five… or maybe all of them cam go overseas to compete…maybe in the UFC,” he says. “So yes… It’s the UFC”
We shake hands and part ways as the sun sets over the distant mountains. I leave with a hope that this martial arts club will grow despite the difficulties and the negativity from those who don’t see the efforts being put into combat sport development in Papua New Guinea.