Knocking Out Challenges: A Coach’s Impact on At-Risk Athletes

  • September 21, 2023

CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench article series – September 2023

“We keep them occupied, teach them to learn to defend themselves, steer them in the right direction, make friends and keep them safe”

By David Grossman

There have been times when he stood in a boxing ring, either training or just prepping for a bout, and there were flashbacks of his younger years – especially learning about the basics on how to defend himself.

Ibrahim Salah El-Din Kamal has come a long way since then. His journey of remarkable toughness and resilience may very well be a formula for success for others who have dreams and desires to also strive for excellence.

Kamal was born in what was then known as the Toronto suburb of East York. When his dad – a university professor and national swim coach – had a job opportunity in Libya that was too good to turn down, the family moved to Tripoli for what turned out to be about 10 years.

Sports, according to Kamal, were banned in that North African country at the time. As a five-year old, his parents were adamant that he should learn and understand how to defend himself when there was a need for it. So, with a pillow and a piece of plywood used as a punching bag, came his introduction. That first lesson in boxing had started – and with no gloves.

There was an incident in a school in Libya, where Kamal was bullied. But that never happened again.

“I remember it well, I was just a little kid trying to absorb everything including being in a new country,” recalled Kamal, who is from a mixed background of Egyptian and Guyanese parents. “But I also thought about one day having a career that involved working with kids in the sports sector.”

Kamal would return to Canada at the age of nine, grew up in a public housing complex and two years later would join the Scarborough Boxing Academy and later the Unitas Boxing Academy. His first fight, as an 11-year-old, did not go over well. It was a loss, but there was much gained involving strategies and more.

As for his academics at Pringdale Gardens and John McRae Junior Public Schools, Kamal was a very good student. That continued at the high school level where he would go on to graduate from R.H. King Academy.

In the boxing ring, Kamal became a winner in 1998 at the age of 13. It was a gold medal, his first, and it came at the Ontario Winter Games in Peterborough. A realization that hard work would lead to achievements and triumph had hit home.

As a teenager, for him there was very little time, if any, for participation in school sports as Kamal made Canada’s National boxing team at age 16. The Cabbagetown Boxing Club, where his rise to fame really took off, had become his home away from home and people were taking notice of this rising star.

“Looking back, I was a carded athlete while studying sociology at the University of Toronto,” he said. “But I should have taken education more seriously – especially since I had always wanted to become a teacher.”

Strong, both mentally and physically, he was always confident in the ring and often referred to as “Firearm” Kamal because of his hand speed and quickness. He became a Canadian National boxing champ eight times, with the goal of becoming the best boxer in the world. Kamal was once quoted as saying “the ring is where I belong – it’s my destiny. I am in complete control. The outcome is up to me.”

While he was unable to achieve his two primary goals, winning at the Olympics and World championships, he came away with an even bigger prize.

“I was crushed and devastated at not reaching those goals, but for me one door closed, and another had opened resulting in something much greater,” he said. “I got married to a wonderful person and we were committed to helping kids who needed assistance – some who were angry, some might be part of the youth justice system, others might live in foster care and the majority are dealing with systematic barriers. They needed positive reinforcement – and that was us.”

It was also the launching of the boxing-based youth charity called the Mentoring Junior Kids Organization (MJKO) in 2010. His co-partner is his wife (Miranda). A fighter in her day, cut short by a serious injury, she went on to be a Team Canada and International Boxing Association (AIBA) coach, and with her National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) status, became a facilitator and official.

“She is an outstanding woman – and we do our best to motivate and mentor vulnerable young people from marginalized areas of the city,” he said emphasizing their hard work.

“There is no greater award than helping young people. Kids in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, who are often confronted by gangs, poverty, and various forms of bullying. A good coach can change a kid’s life. That is what coaches did for me.”

Programming is free and the club, located in the basement of a Parkdale building, has 200 members – boys and girls between the ages of eight and 18.

“We keep them occupied, teach them to learn to defend themselves, steer them in the right direction, make friends and keep them safe,” said Kamal. “It’s about building a different kind of champion. Saving a life, seeing kids grow and get better, is more than a gold medal.”

Kamal is a member of the Coaching Association of Canada’s professional coach designation program and graduated from the Advanced Coaching program through the NCCP and holds AIBA certification. There’s more. He was inducted to the Ontario Boxing Hall of Fame, is also a Boxing Canada learning facilitator, evaluator and was a mentor for the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) coaching program and a former head Coach of Ontario at the Canada Games.

Kamal was one of the recipients of a 2023 Ontario Coaching Excellence Award, presented by the CAO in partnership with Hydro One. The awards are being presented in September as part of National Coaches Week. Kamal also receives $500 to be used on equipment purchases for the MJKO club from local and Canadian businesses proudly provided by Hydro One.

While Kamal may have his share of accolades and awards, his focus has always been on ways to help athletes find ways to achieve their goals. The CAO’s series “Empowering Coaches from Behind the Bench” shines the spotlight on individuals, like him, with strong coaching fundamentals.


David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

It’s about building a different kind of champion. Saving a life, seeing kids grow and get better, is more than a gold medal.”