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On the streets of Ouzai, Lebanon, a beach hamlet on the outskirts of Beirut, Mohammad Ali Fakhreddine could always find trouble.
It didn’t take much to set him or his friends off. A stroll down the street would often end with bloodied fists, or worse.
“Fights over there start for no reason,” Mohammad says from the City Heights apartment he now shares with his parents and two brothers. “You’d be walking down the street, you have a guy looking at you, you don’t like the way he looks at you, and that’s how it goes down.”
That’s how it always went down for Mohammad, the kind, mild-mannered 26-year-old with a grenade tattooed on his neck.
In 2002, he moved here, to an apartment just off of El Cajon Boulevard, looking for change. In Lebanon, he lived in a rough neighborhood and was hanging out with “the wrong crowd, getting in fights, skipping school, fighting in school, drinking, smoking,” he says. “Just, everything bad that a teenager shouldn’t be doing.”
Here, he’s brought the tough skills learned on the streets of Ouzai to a place where they can be refined, controlled and used to build a new life.
His hooks and jabs now have a purpose. He’s quit smoking, replaced booze with protein shakes.
Every morning and every afternoon, he commutes to the Old School Boxing and Fitness Center, a small boxing gym in a strip mall on El Cajon Boulevard, just a few blocks from his house.
It’s a place that comes alive for hours at a time with blaring music, kicks, punches and throngs of young people from all over the world looking for a good fight.
Mohammad trains here, often alongside his two younger brothers and two cousins.
Ernest Johnson, or “Coach” as most people here know him, calls the family “The Fighting Fakhreddines.” Mohammad Ali is the oldest. He quietly gives advice and encouragement to his siblings and hits them just hard enough when they get in the ring to spar.
Fakhreddine’s arrival in San Diego was an escape, not just from the streets, but from the aftermath of a personal tragedy and near-death experience.
In 2001, Fakhreddine says he was on a motorcycle, speeding down a Lebanese highway at 120 miles per hour. He had no helmet. He had no protective gear. He did have a close friend, Tarek, riding on the back of the bike.
Mohammad smashed the motorcycle into the back of a car. He went flying through the air. He pulled himself off the pavement with a dislocated shoulder, dislocated wrists and his head split open.
His friend wasn’t so lucky. Mohammad scrambled up the road to find him lying on the pavement. He was dead. The thought haunts Mohammad.
“I was just a kid, with a big motorcycle, that had no brain,” he says.
The months following the accident were brutal. He didn’t leave Lebanon because of the accident. But the timing couldn’t have been better. His journey here, to El Cajon Boulevard, separated him from the trauma.
“The whole time I was there, bumping into his mom, his brother, his sister,” he says. “That was a terrible feeling,.”
Though outwardly a fighter, Mohammad is a contradiction, too.
Despite the pistol tattooed on his abdomen, seemingly permanently tucked into his waistband, he’s also a calm soul.
He lovingly holds his kitten, Tiger. He wears a huge smile wherever he goes. When he arrives for his workout with his long locks shaved off, he gets ribbed by everyone around and just laughs.
But when he begins his training, a different side comes out.
His calm, subtle smile turns to a quiet, focused intensity. He approaches the punching bag. With every swing of his arms, the chain the bag’s suspended from rattles loudly and the characteristic thunk resonates through the gym.
This isn’t a game for Mohammad. It’s not a petty street fight or a fleeting hobby. Sweat drips heavily from his face onto the blue workout mat below. He’s in the gym twice a day, for a couple of hours at a time. Oftentimes, he’ll run on the track at Mesa College between workouts.
Within a year, he’s planning to join the ranks of professional boxing.
“I want to be a great fighter, a great boxer,” he says. “A legend.”
At 4-2 as an amateur, Mohammad still has a long way to go.
He can become a professional at any point, but both he, and his coach, want it to happen the right way. He needs to get a few more amateur bouts under his belt to bolster his profile. And, more importantly, he needs more time training to improve his technique.
“We’re just trying to do it the right way,” he says. “We don’t want to jump into it too fast.”
Fighting professionally comes with greater opportunity and greater danger. In professional boxing, the headgear comes off and fighters generally go for 10 to 12 rounds, more than twice as long as Mohammad fights for now.
Still, back at his City Heights home, he has a growing collection of trophies and medals atop his dresser — right next to the teddy bear holding a heart.