Godfather of boxing

Izzet “Easy” Mafratoglu has a dream: to build up a new generation of amateur fighters. He is taking up the challenge at IsiGym Boxsport in Schöneberg.

Image for Godfather of boxing
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

The Schöneberger Kiez is not the prettiest part of Berlin. In fact, you could say it’s downright ugly. The streets are full of betting shops, all-night Köfte joints and Döner Kebab restaurants. On Kurfürstenstraße, prostitutes ply their trade day and night. Sex shops stand next to pawnshops. Outside the Turkish supermarkets, hawkers sing the praises of their produce: “Strawberries, strawberries, €1. Tasty, tasty strawberries. Ladies and gentlemen, only €1.” This is the Schöneberg ‘ghetto’.

And right in the thick of it, on Potsdamer Straße near Bülowstraße, is IsiGym Boxsport Berlin, one of the city’s most famous boxing clubs – the hangout of such renowned pros as Oktay Urkal and Cengiz Koç, and the breeding ground for a new generation of Berlin boxers.

Inside, the boxing ring stands at the center of a hall the size of a garage. This is where young Turks, Arabs and Germans slug it out to the thumping beats of old school hip hop, Turkish Black Sea folk music or everyone’s favourite, The Best of Rocky.

In a reflection of this multikulti flavor, the walls are hung with the flags of at least two dozen nations: boxers from around the Kiez and across the world come here to train. Next to posters for bygone fights, there are black-and-white photographs of the gym’s owner Izzet Mafratoglu (photo) – otherwise known as “Easy” – fists held high, in his boxing prime. In one, Easy is posing next to the legendary American boxing promoter Don King.

“The Boxing Godfather”

Easy calls himself “The Boxing Godfather” or, sometimes, “The Pastor of Schöneberg”. You can tell from his flattened nose that he’s been the target of a jab or two: Easy started out as a fighter. Born on Turkey’s Black Sea coast 44 years ago, he came to Berlin at the age of two and since then has never strayed far from Schöneberg. At the age of 10, he went to work, selling fruit at a Turkish market – two days a week for DM10 a day. He started boxing at Schöneberger Boxfreunde, the legendary club that the likes of Oktay Urkal, as well as the controversial German fighter Graciano Rocchigiani.

Easy became an amateur boxer, fighting for the Bundeswehr for a while, and then around Germany and internationally. He won a lot of medals; he was Berlin champion and German champion in his weight classes (lightweight and welterweight). Altogether, Easy fought 240 amateur bouts. He is proud of his craft and his accomplishments. “It was great in Berlin back then,” he says. “Top clubs. And boxing was fun – for the boxers and for the public. People liked to come and watch boxing. Personalities didn’t play a big role. Athletes were regarded as athletes… Then, after the fall of the Wall, it all went to shit.”

“Now, it’s only about money”

The Wende rang in the end for amateur boxing in Berlin. The good boxers were taken up by the (mainly Ossi) trainers and turned into pros. “Everyone was just out for his own goal – even trainers paid for by the Olympische Sportbund. They saw who they were interested in and boom! They turned professional. And Berlin was left broke.” The amateur scene got short shrift and suffered from lack of funding. Easy says the city has become swamped by ‘import boxers’: “From Cuba. A lot of east Europeans. They’re taken in for a season, under contract – paid. But before, Berlin had its own people.”

Darko, a trainer at IsiGym, blames the system. “Thirty or 40 years ago, it was more difficult to become Berlin champion [an amateur title] than it is today to become world champion in the pros,” says the wiry, fifty-something Croatian, who boxed as an amateur for a Spandau club in the 1970s. “Today, what they put on with people like Nikolai Valuev – you can forget about it. It’s a circus. It’s only about money. It isn’t sport. You can only be world champion when you have a hard punch: if you have a hard punch, then you can take out a better man. Before, boxing had a whole different value system. Now, only the second rate amateurs go pro. They only want money.”

Finding the next Urkal

One of Berlin’s top amateurs – who did go pro, and is a regular fixture at IsiGym – is Oktay Urkal. Urkal was silver medal winner at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996; after that he fought professionally for 12 years. His last bout took place two years ago, at the age of 37, with Miguel Angel Cotto in front of 18,000 Puerto Rican spectators: he lost, but it was a good fight. Everyone at IsiGym knows Urkal as the “Ali of Kreuzberg”. “At the Olympics, they asked me, ‘How well known are you?,” Urkal recalls. “‘As well known as Muhammad Ali in America, but in Kreuzberg,’ I said.” Urkal takes no small pride in the comparison. One of six children, he was born near S-Bahnhof Yorckstraße – the part of Kreuzberg that borders on Schöneberg. His father, a wrestler from Turkey, got him and his brothers started at Schöneberg Boxfreunde at the age of 10.

Today, Easy is a pastor with a mission: to discover the next Urkal. “I’ll tell you honestly: it’s a vision. It would be a very big honor for us if we could build up the level again. We’re working on the next generation…” Many of the youths he works with are from the neighborhood and come from a disadvantaged background. As Darko says, “Most of the kids who come to boxing are kids who spent their time on the streets. Tough kids. But we’re also looking for well brought-up kids. Those are the kids we’re looking to groom.”

Everyone’s equal in the ring

But IsiGym is not just for champs in the making: it is also popular among adult hobby-boxers looking to vent the daily stress of their professional lives. “Doctors, lawyers, police officers – everyone feels at home in here,” says Easy. “We don’t stick up our noses at anyone. We grew up in the Kiez and we have our roots in the Kiez. We don’t care if someone is poor or rich: everyone’s the same. We have athletes from so many different countries, from so many different religions. The only thing that counts in this club is that everyone is on the same level. That’s why everyone feels at home here.” He sees sport in general and the boxing ring in particular as a place for boundary-crossing fraternity: “There aren’t any political conflicts here. None whatsoever. I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.”

At IsiGym, the thumping rap music has given way to the Rocky soundtrack, and the boxers make savage cries as they pound the punching bags. Two men of south-east European extraction offload some cheap Handys. Stolen? One wonders. The owner of a nearby pawnshop strolls in and looks on, and the Turkish grocers outside continue to cry out the virtues of their produce: “Erdbeeren, erdbeeren, €1., Meine Damen und Herren, leckere Erdbeeren. Nur €1...” Isigym is a true street boxing gym: gritty, tough, comfy. A place for kids from the Schöneberger Kiez to work out their aggressions, and – who knows – maybe achieve a bit of fame in the ring.

There will be Bundesliga fights with boxers from IsiGym on April 10 (19:00) and April 11 (11:00) at the Bruno Gehrke Halle, Neuendorferstr. 67, Spandau.