Outside the Ring: Luke Dowdney

By Jill Diamond on November 1, 2014
Outside the Ring: Luke Dowdney
“Hagler’s no compromise style is the way I've tried to live my life outside the ropes.”

“Brazil is an amazing place. Unfortunately, as well as being an amazing place and my home of 20 years, Brazil is also a champion at gun death…”

Sports and Philanthropy: A series of articles dedicated to those who’ve given their all and still give more. Each article will feature a different community champion; no belts, no medals, no ratings… just good people passing it on.

I had to wait until the World Cup was over to wrangle Luke Dowdney for this interview. It was worth the wait. To my pestering he simply replied, “Come on, Jill! I live in Brazil!” I could hear his frustrated sigh across through the internet. With all he does, he hasn’t lost his perspective, or dark sense of humor.

Luke first traveled to Brazil while studying for his Master’s Degree in social anthropology at Edinburgh University. He was appalled by the violence effected against street children; the filth and exploitation common to their lives. With a background in boxing (1995 British Universities Light Middleweight Champion) and passion for social activism, Luke was not comfortable being another horrified bystander. At that moment, he decided to not observe the problem, but to participate in the solution. A short time later, Fight For Peace was born, and it’s grown in impact and influence ever since.

I first met Luke in a place far from Rio’s beauties and beasts. It was at the Beyond Sports Conference in Chicago. For those who are unfamiliar with Beyond Sports, basically, it’s composed of NGOs and Non Profits which use their various Sports to try and solve humanitarian issues. Some groups are more effective than others, and some social conditions they attack, more heinous. What is collectively true is that sports are an effective and universal weapon against despair. Even the transient pleasure a child feels throwing a ball or punching a bag can evoke a sense of joy and control; sometimes even hope.

I was at the conference representing WBC Cares and astounded at the number of athletes and organizations that were dedicated to change. At that time, Luke’s organization, Fight for Peace, was relatively young. It embraced children in crime ridden areas of Brazil, teaching Boxing and Marital Arts while bringing education and social values into the mix. FFP has now grown internationally and its basic program and philosophy emulated worldwide. Not enough? Then, in 2007, Luke, used his business savvy, and founded Luta, a sports performance clothing line that gives 50% of its profits to Fight for Peace. During and since that time, Luke was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for “service to the prevention of child exploitation and violence in Brazil”; became an honored Ashhoka Fellow; and won the prestigious ‘Sport for Good Award’ at the Laureus World Sports Award in Barcelona. And I’m sure, more to come. But that’s not why he does it. Luke will tell you his greatest award is the gratification and, more recently, his young son.

Luke Dowdney puts his sport where his heart is. It’s not simply what he’s accomplished; it’s the lives he’s changed, the children he’s saved, and safety net he’s provided – and all this started with Boxing. Be proud. He doesn’t shine a light on the problem, he is the light. Be real proud.

Please tell me about your first time in the ring? What brought you there?

The first time I walked into a boxing club in 1989 I was put straight in the ring with a (somewhat larger) novice and told to battle it out. These days there aren’t many gyms that would do that! I don’t remember much as it was head down and punches flying but I gave the other guy – a corporal in the army – a black eye and left on my feet so I guess I did something right! I started boxing as I’d been bullied at school and I wanted to harden myself, test myself, make sure I was never subjugated to someone else’s will again. It worked. I won my first fight via a disqualification in the third, not very glorious and again I don’t remember much about the actual bout, other than my opponent kept trying (and succeeding) to hit me low. But a victory is a victory I guess!

Is there something in your personal history that inspired you to create Fight for Peace?

Probably in part to do with the elite school I won a scholarship to and was bullied at by the privileged and wealthy, combined with my mother’s teachings – she was from a working class family from the East End of London and left school at 14 to work and support her family before going on to become a Doctor of Psychology – I can’t stand class distinction and injustice in any format. FFP has always been about not accepting the system that forces people into a life of suffering because of where they were born, and treating those same people as the heroes they are rather than poor “hand out” victims – boxing teaches you that, in the ring we’re all equal regardless of how much money or status we have – the best man/woman, he/she who trains hardest, wins.

Some say combat sports are bad for children. That it promotes aggression. What do you say?

I say people who say that have never been in a ring or on a tatame. Boxing and martial arts correctly taught are about teaching discipline and control in all facets of life. Of course there are bad coaches who don’t understand this and teach the wrong way, but thankfully this is rare and when it happens it’s about the coach rather than the disciple itself. When I started FIGHT FOR PEACE people outside of boxing thought this was a juxtaposition – those within boxing never questioned the name. I always say people who criticize these sports should try them first. The proof is in the doing.

Why Brazil?

Go to Brazil for a couple of weeks and then see if you still ask the question – it’s an amazing place. Unfortunately, as well as being an amazing place and my home of 20 years, Brazil is also a champion at gun death – an average of 45,000 people die every year from firearm related violence – mostly young people between 15-24 years of age so there is a great need for FFP and other similar projects.

What is a typical day like?

There isn’t one. FFP is now in 22 countries worldwide so I’m on planes a lot meeting amazing people all over the world. I also founded LUTA (http://luta.us) the world’s first ethical fightwear company which produces high performance sports and fightwear and gives 50% of profits to Fight for Peace. The brand is like nothing else out there and is doing really well – fighters now know they can buy the best training gear at a competitive price and help to keep kids growing up in communities plagued with violence all over the world in boxing, martial arts and education programs. For anyone from the boxing and martial arts world it’s a no-brainer. We have great ambassadors like Anthony Joshua, Luis Collazo and Lee Selby to name but a few. So between FFP and LUTA I’m kept busy, raising funds, overseeing programs and even traveling to the Far East to our production factories. But my base when I’m not traveling is our headquarters in the Mare favela in Rio – last Friday I got caught in a machine gun battle between the army and drug traffickers in our community, it was car reversing, head down and everyone on the floor type of stuff, so really there is no day the same. I’m sad to say I’ve lost count of the amount of times this has happened – last July an unplanned police operation in our community left 10 dead in one day. Life is precious, every day counts.

Tell me about a moment you’re proud of?

Every one of our young people is an inspiration. That and the birth of my son five months ago, he is simply amazing, all fathers say that no doubt!

A regret or disappointment?

Mostly the stuff I haven’t done, but I’m working on that.

Who inspires you? Who are your role models?

In boxing Marvin Hagler is someone I’ve got to know and have great respect for what he achieved in the ring. His no compromise style is kind of the way I’ve tried to live my life outside the ropes. Similar to Nigel Benn’s fighting style although I’ve never met him – what a fighter. I also got to know Wladimir Klitschko too – also an amazing and smart person I respect a lot. I wouldn’t say Anthony Joshua is a role model exactly as he’s half my age (!) but he’s exceptional, not only will he be the undisputed world heavyweight champion one day, but he is mature well beyond his years – I think he’ll transcend the sport of boxing in the future, become something bigger somehow. I hope I still know him when he does. Outside of boxing, my mother in first place, what’s she has done in her life shows you don’t need a silver spoon to make it. But above all of these dear people is God – there is nothing else.

Awards?

Yes I’ve been blessed to receive loads of awards etc., but none as important as my five month old son Joao smiling and making the most high pitched screech I ever heard when I walked in my apartment yesterday – priceless.

What is the philosophy behind your organization?

Hard work gets results. No excuses. Help those who need it with humility. We’re all equal.

How important is education and why?

It creates the platform for growth and you can never stop learning. We focus on this a lot at FFP offering formal education classes for those who’ve dropped out of school so they can catch up quickly.

What do you do with a child who isn’t responding and perhaps, using their combat skills outside the group?

Work out how they communicate, everyone does somehow, and don’t pressure. We all have our time and place.

Tell me about your Team? Who fuels it?

I try to lead by example, sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t.

Who supports your work?

A mixture of corporate, foundations and government. A different mix in each of the countries we work in.

Do your corporate funders place limitations on your methods?

Thankfully not.

How can the public help?

Buy LUTA

How would a child join your group?

Walk through the door.

What is “your” Olympic Gold?

Olympic and World Champions from Fight for Peace within five to seven years, not getting shot, and finding time to learn to sail. I’ve always wanted to spend my twilight years closer to the ocean.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

Hopefully leave the world a little better than when I came into it. But I’m a realist, so as long as FFP continues with the same values it has now after I’m gone, I’ll be (dead) happy.

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  1. Clarence George 06:44am, 11/01/2014

    The teaching of marital arts, is it?  If that doesn’t speak volumes about the collapse of the Church in what had once been Catholic Brazil, I don’t know what does.

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