In the red corner - why the land of the eagles breeds true raging bulls

Independent on Sunday, Sunday June 6, 2004

Remember the Guinness ad featuring Marco the Olympic swimmer? It’s the one in which an elderly, super-fit man always wins an annual swimming race against the clock. Crowds gather on the harbour walls of his hometown in Italy, as the bald and muscular Marco fights to get round the circuit within the time it takes to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. Shots of Marco powering through the turquoise sea are intercut from black and white footage of Olympic swimmers hurtling through clear water. If he has a little help from his brother, that Marco wins every time is still a tribute to his prowess as an athlete – not to mention his enjoyment of the odd pint of Guinness.

But if the ad’s acclaimed director, Jonathan Glazer, is thinking of ‘The Swimmer, part 2,’ he might perhaps cast his eyes across the Adriatic, to Albania. For in its capital, Tirana, Marco has an elder brother – spiritually, at least. His name is Hysen Shara, he is 70 years old, and he is a legend in ‘The Land of Eagles,’ the Albanians’ name for their rugged and beautiful land.

Shara was recently ranked high in a poll of Albanians’ all-time sporting greats. A huge bear of a man, he has the edge on Marco – in real life, a fisherman from the same Italian port in which the ad was filmed – in having excelled not merely in swimming but also another, more confrontational discipline. Shara won nine medals in swimming, and another nine in a sport that was banned under Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship: boxing.

The calm, granite-faced and unshaven Shara brings a formidable legacy to a country whose boxers are desperate to make the big time. Albania - where the average wage is around £200 a month – is a country where the classic Hollywood portrayal of boxing as way of escaping poverty, crime and ethnic isolation, for its practitioners to reap the rewards of the American Dream, has never been more apt. With rumours that it is about to join the European professional circuit, I went to Albania to meet Shara and ask him what he thought of his country’s hopes as a boxing nation. Perhaps, too, as a sometime pugilist, we would do some sparring. “Only if he takes it easy,” I told Altin, the interpreter for the trip.

Arriving in the dust of Tirana, a city choked by traffic during the day and empty at night, I was struck by the garish colours of its buildings. Bright yellows, lime-greens, salmon pinks and blues adorned high-rise modern developments as well as smaller, Italianate villas. “The mayor, Edi Rama, imposed the colour scheme,” said Altin, deftly negotiating the endless traffic. “It’s his way of saying ‘goodbye’ to Hoxha.”

Hoxha has a lot to answer for – not least in the matter of boxing. His communist regime outlawed boxing in 1963, and only when his successor, Ramiz Alia, had been ousted in 1992 were Albanians permitted to box again. Perhaps boxing is too individualistic a pursuit for Marxist ethics – it was banned by the People’s Republic of China (also in 1963), many former Soviet bloc countries and Cuba (where professional boxing remains illegal today). Now, though, there are 12 boxing clubs in Albania and the government funds promising fighters like middleweight Shkumbi Shatrolli, lightweight Lutfi Gega and welterweight Balkan champion Artur Muhedini.

At least Hysen Shara fought in his prime, between the ages of 20 and 33, before Hoxha banned the sport. A heavyweight, he won a bronze medal at the 1958 Olympics in Leipzig, progressing well until he came up against the champion of the USSR. “I was ahead on points, but was disqualified after three fouls,” says Shara. “All my other fights I won by KO.” He fought for Albania on numerous occasions, often against Hungary, when repeat matches against Janosh Greser saw him prevail each time. “Boxing made me famous,” he agrees, and at a time when most Albanians had trouble crossing the border to Greece, Shara fought as far away as Indonesia, in the Asian championships, again bringing home a bronze medal. He also found time to swim for Albania before joining the army in 1963. Now, he works as a security guard in Tirana.

His is life – and a boxing pedigree – far removed from my own. As I sat talking to Shara, the conversation patiently translated by Altin, the idea of sparring with him started to lose its appeal. He might be 70, but he looked fit as a fiddle and twice as strong as Marco, his televisual brother. On the other hand, I was a 38-year old with one amateur fight under my belt, who, moreover, hadn’t been near a gym for a while. If he was aware of the incongruity, Hysen Shara did not show it. “We go to the gym now?” he asked. There was no choice but to cross my fingers and say ‘yes.’

Altin drove us to Shara’s former club, where he is still welcome whenever he wishes to appear. Now, though, ‘Klubi Sportiv Partizani’ looks like a place that has seen better days. A karate club train there but there is not much by way of boxing equipment. In fact, it was downright disorientating turning up to box at the Partizani club, as the rain sheeted down on the surrounding semi-derelict buildings and curious young Albanians wondered what on earth I was doing there.

Before long, the answer stood before me in form of Hysen Shara. “He says you must do what he does,” said Altin. The next 20 minutes were spent copying exercises, heavy on shoulder and chest work, that Shara has used every day of his life. I had expected him to change into some gym clothes but given that this routine did not produce a bead of sweat – in contrast to the effect it had on me – I could see now why he had stayed in his everyday clothes.

Next, he held two pads in front of my face. “He says you must hit them,” said Altin, to vigorous nods from Shara. I quickly tied wraps around my wrists and slipped on my boxing gloves. Shara gave instructions and we went through a work-out on the pads. Every now and then, Shara would stick out a pad to make me slip or duck. When I was too slow, he would cuff me. He was taking it easy, but it was clear that if he wanted to, if could have knocked me sideways. I got the strong sense that the onlookers in the club – young lads waiting for a shotokan karate session – knew this.

“Mir!” shouted Shara, as I landed a couple of decent rights on his upraised pad. ‘Mir’ is Albanian for ‘good.’ Altin translated further: “He says that with your right, you could knock any man down.” Cool - I hadn’t expected any praise. “But if you keep leaving your left so low, you will get knocked out.” To demonstrate this, Shara banged a huge left of his own at my head. It hurt. At 70 years of age, he still had more power than I was ever likely to muster. That would do for the day. I told Altin that I might come back another time for some sparring. “He says he will train you, whenever you like,” said Altin.

It’s an invitation I have been pondering. Shara reckons that if his countrymen have some way to go to recover technical skills lost through years of not boxing, they have the “heart and determination” to do well on the professional circuit. Meanwhile, I might have another fight one of these days. A stint training with Hysen Shara would be as good a way of preparing as any. And if Jonathan Glazer fancies coming with me to Tirana, I can show him a legend for his next ad.