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Watch: Youth boxing at Naples church keeps boys from life of crime

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Watch: Youth boxing at Naples church keeps boys from life of crime
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Reuters
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In a neglected Naples neighbourhood, this church has been transformed into a boxing gym.

There is 40 per cent youth unemployment in the Rione Sanita area, and one of the few organisations with jobs on offer is the mafia.

Boxing for these young men is cathartic and keeps them away from a life of crime – young men such as 21-year-old Nico Rodrigues.

While Rodrigues practises his jabs and uppercuts on a hanging punchbag inside the 17th-century church, outside its doors young people throw punches at each other as police sirens blare.

Rodrigues grew up in the neighbourhood, north of Naples' historic centre, where poverty and high levels of crime mean young people have very few opportunities.

Of Italy's three main mafias, including Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta, the Naples area is home to the Camorra, which encourages youth into its grip by being one of the area's biggest employers. Unemployment among 15-24-year-olds in Campania, the region where Naples is found, was 39.7 per cent last year, according to the statistics office Elabroazione Osservatorio Statistico.

Rodrigues' mother moved from Cape Verde to Italy 28 years ago. He has not seen his father since he was a child. For Rodrigues, and the other 59 young people who join the boxing session three times a week at the Santa Maria della Sanita church, letting out their frustrations on punch bags and being saved by the bell is a welcome escape from the realities of living in Rione Sanita.

"I practised different sports but boxing is the only one that makes me feel good both physically and mentally and that allows me to express my emotions, whether it's anger or happiness," Rodrigues said.

The class, of 8 to 22-year-olds, is taught by two policemen, a relationship which has helped calm tension between police and local youths.

They are taught the strict rules of the sport – how to focus, follow rules, not lose a bout – all lessons they take with them into everyday life.

"With boxing you can express anger or freedom. You don't think about anything, you are only focused on training and you have fun because you are among friends. We make jokes, we have fun. Boxing combines everything," Rodrigues said.

A regular in the church-turned-gym is local resident Davide Marotta. After seeing many friends end up in jail, he now focuses his time on helping youngsters fall through the ropes instead of the cracks.

"Unfortunately, when I was a teenager, we did not have these places. If at that time such initiatives had been promoted, perhaps some of my friends would have followed a different path," Marotta said.

In another church 200 metres away, there is no sound of thwacks and thumps, but instead the calming tones of a French horn.

Rodrigues has played the French horn for 10 years, and has been studying at a specialist music institute in central Naples where he hopes to become good enough to join an orchestra after graduating. He says the confidence gained in the boxing ring has helped him to follow his dreams of becoming a professional musician.

Father Antonio Loffredo has been in charge of the church since 2001 and began the boxing project around a year ago. He has initiated a wide range of activities for the young people of the neighbourhood.

"Educating young people to resistance, to resilience, in a neighbourhood where often there is no future is really difficult," he said.

Loffredo believes that if an area as troubled as Rione Sanita can give its youth hope for a brighter future, anywhere can.

"Here, in the Rione Sanita, we say: if we can do it here in Rione Sanita, you can do it anywhere. This is the message."

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