Ibrahim Emsallak is the director of the Flemish boxing league alongside the Vlaamse Trainersschool. Ibrahim has grown up in a harsh environment which has made him the sports industry success he is today. Throughout this exclusive interview, Ibrahim discusses where his passion for sport began, his opinion on the direction that combat sports are heading in alongside how you can convert losses into wins!
Q1) Ibrahim, it’s my pleasure to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Can you knock this off by sharing how your sports industry journey began?
Thank you for having me. I grew up in a low-income neighbourhood, where a lot of bad influences were present. My parents invested a lot in education, but the temptation to participate in sinful behaviour was very present in our environment. To prevent us from falling into these negative behaviours, my parents also invested a lot in sports. I played basketball as a kid and at the same time volleyball. By doing so by my parents, I barely had time outside of school to hang out. So sports played a significant role in our daily lives. Our love for martial arts was also from day one present because we were a huge family and we occasionally organised some pseudo fighting championships as kids between the cousins. These “venue’s” took place at our aunts or uncles house when we visited family. We went to a separate room, put some cushions our something to break our fall on the ground and of we go. We could not scream too much, because else our parents would spot us and a real whooping would take place. Every move we saw in a Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Karate Kid movie was tested and we all chose a character. We might have inspired the UFC in those sessions.
From the age of 16, I started “officially” Boxing in a registered boxing gym. This was a gym that worked with vulnerable youth but was open for everybody. Hence, you had all layers of society present, and this gym was an example boxing gym for the world from the perspective of inclusion and social work. In this gym, my love for the noble art of self-defence, the sweet science began. I was talented and started competing and became a national champion in my country and started to participate in a high-performance circuit. My parents nurtured the love of sports and education in us, and this inspired me to do my higher education in sport sciences at the University of Brussels. My parents demanded from me to focus on my higher education when I started my master’s program, and I had to stop competing. During my boxing career, I was spotted by the board of the federation, and they were aware of my academic background. When I finished my master’s degree, I was invited by the federation and offered a position. I accepted this unique offer, and I am very grateful for this opportunity. Since 2017 I’m active within the federation.
Q2) It would be excellent to hear more about your role as the Flemish Boxing League’s General Director. What does your role consist of, and what are the ambitions for its contributions towards the Belgiums boxing profile?
As a general director of the federation, I have to enhance our work and activities in its broad meaning. I have five main objectives, and those are:
- Providing a recreational and competition offer of Boxing in Belgium of high quality in line with the regulations in Belgium.
- Guaranteeing quality of Boxing through educational programs:
- Trainer educational program
- Cutman educational program
- Injury prevention program
- Agent/manager program
- Referee program
- Promotion of the boxing sport.
- Providing a quality helpdesk for our clubs and guide them through local policies to start and develop their boxing club.
- Informing the affiliated members.
I’m also responsible for innovation and work together with my colleagues for High Performance in Belgium.
Q3) I understand you’re also the director of the Vlaamse Trainersschool. Could you share more information on what this venture is about, how it provides impact on the sports industry and how your role at the Flemish Boxing League supports your ability for this position?
I specialised in sport sciences and therefore also training. I’m active in a school specialised in educating trainers in Flanders (Belgium). They are recognised by the government and have high-quality programs for trainers in different sports. We as a federation are included in the creation of the program of boxing trainers. My function is creating a vision, programs and policies within the boxing section, attracting teachers and also organising the educational program.
Q4) I’m fascinated with the development boxing has made to reach new audiences, particularly with the YouTube boxing extravaganza that took place last year. What is your perspective on Boxing experimenting with ventures like this? Plus, has this influenced the strategy the Flemish Boxing League adopts to expand its brand?
I have been following this movement to the last years. I have mixed feelings about it. From a marketing perspective, I can only encourage it. Through these stars or youtube influencers, new segments of society are being reached that before were not attracted to the sport through traditional means. You have KSI vs Logan Paul for example. Their fanbase of millions will tune in to see the fight. People that are not interested in Boxing but merely in the rivalry between these people. They could catch the boxing germs and start participating in our sport or follow it as a fan through these Youtube-stars. So marketing wise a good development! These platforms are the future, and the youth (also other generations) are very active on these platforms, we should therefore invest in gaining leverage within these new opportunities.
On the other hand, we must say that these are developments, meaning they are not yet mature. The regulations are not consolidated nor well thought through. The participants are being rushed in the boxing gym, and this brings certain dangers with it. From a coaching perspective and health perspective, these developments are not the ones I would stimulate. We do see that the participant is being prepared, but this is not sufficient. You have boxers preparing years and years, going through the amateur ranks and by doing so, end being well prepared for a fight with a team of educated trainers, before entering the squared circle. If we could provide a road for these stars where they have to participate in a minimum one year program and do some tune-up fights and in a separate competition with separate rules, adapted to the reality where they participate in, we could eliminate a lot of dangers and controversy. We, as a federation, have organised “Boxing Stars”. This is a different platform where famous people can enrol in a program. They are obliged to affiliate with our federation and a recognised club. They get a top-notch trainer appointed, and they are being trained for a minimum fixed time of training hours. They can only participate in the amateur ranks, and the amateur rules are being enforced. Finally, they will box a match against another famous Belgian. This program was a big success, but I did express my concerns. So we are keeping in an eye on this development for future possibilities.
Video boxing stars:
Q5) Boxing and MMA have had an intense rivalry for several years to become the front-face of combat sport. What do you feel Boxing has done differently to MMA to keep ahead of the curve and remain dominant in the fight game?
Boxing has a rich history. The UFC is relatively young as an organisation. We (Boxing) have created a great legacy and big institutions that the UFC has not YET realised. Boxing is the sweet sciences and always will differentiate itself from other sports like MMA and kickboxing. The UFC has done a great job in recent years, and the different boxing federations can learn from them marketing-wise and innovation wise. The UFC will also continue to grow, and this will benefit all martial arts, but I think Boxing will always have the edge due to its legacy and this for the coming decade.
I also believe that the Reebok deal was very harmful to the sport. The UFC is very dominant when it comes to sponsors. By being more liberal in this aspect, more resources will go to the athlete, and this will benefit them and the sport as a whole and will help them become more robust.
Q6) The sports industry is full of ups and downs. I’m sure you’ve experienced a mixture; however, how have the adversities encouraged you to remain resilient in such a competitive sector?
It is a unique world, indeed! We are now facing the coronavirus that is devastating for our industry, AIBA (amateur federation) is in a big crisis and discussions are going on concerning the Olympic recognition, in the pro ranks federations pop up like mushrooms, …. We live in a very volatile world, and flexibility and a livelong learning mentality are essential to staying competitive. As a person, you need to be able to handle a lot of stress and have an excellent knowledge of human psychology so you can be vital in negotiating and guiding people in the right direction. And sometimes you need to take an “L”. You can’t always get the “W”. But realising this and going back to the drawing board, you will keep improving.
Q7) Ibrahim, reflecting throughout your career thus far, what advice can you provide for the readers who are keen to follow your sports industry career?
Invest in yourself through sports participation and education. A job in the sports industry is a privilege, so go the extra mile and come out of your comfort zone. I was active in sports from when I was a kid. I participated in Boxing, was very busy inside our boxing club as a volunteer, I did my thesis concerning Boxing, and when I stopped competing, I started teaching Boxing at the university. So be pro-active in setting your career and you will be spotted!
Wow, this was an extraordinary interview with Ibrahim. I resonated with how his career began from a deprived community, and he did not let this hold him back. When we’re presented with a challenge through our careers and lifestyles, it easy to put our guards up and remain hesitant about jumping over those next hurdles, instead, Ibrahim did the opposite.