By Antonio Denti
NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Thwacks and thumps echo through the hallway of the 17th century church in a neglected Naples neighborhood as 21-year-old Nico Rodrigues and 20 other youngsters go through their paces in the boxing ring.
Rodrigues is one of 60 young people who have found an escape from the local area's harsh streets in the boxing project founded a year ago by Father Antonio Loffredo to steer jobless d youths from a potential life of crime.
While he practices his jabs and uppercuts on the hanging punch bag, outside the church's doors young people in hoodies argue and throw punches at each other as police sirens blare - a familiar street scene in the poor Rione Sanita district.
Rodrigues grew up in the neighborhood, north of Naples' historic center, where poverty and high levels of crime mean young people have very few opportunities.
The Naples Campania area is also home to Camorra, one of Italy's three main mafias - including Sicily's Cosa Nostra and Calabria's 'Ndrangheta' - which authorities says lures jobless youths.
Unemployment for 15 to 24-year olds in Campania was 39.7%, according to the statistics office Elabroazione Osservatorio Statistico.
For Rodrigues, and the other 59 young people who join the boxing session three times a week at the Santa Maria della Sanita church, letting out their frustrations on punch bags is a welcome escape from the realities of living in Rione Sanita.
"I practiced different sports but boxing is the only one that makes me feel good both physically and mentally and that allows me to express my emotions, whether it's anger or happiness," Rodrigues told Reuters during a Wednesday night boxing lesson.
In the church hall, built between 1602-1611 and is famous for its bright yellow dome that can be spotted miles away, the 8-22 year-olds are put through their paces by two policemen, a relationship which has helped calm tension between police and youth on the streets.
They are taught the strict rules of the sport - how to focus, not lose a bout - all lessons they are meant to take with them into everyday life.
Local resident Davide Marotta is another regular in the church-turned-gym. After seeing many friends end up in jail, he now focuses his time on helping youngsters falling through the boxing ring's ropes instead of behind bars.
"Unfortunately, when I was a teenager, we did not have these places. If at that time such initiatives had been promoted, perhaps some of my friends would have followed a different path," Marotta said.
In another church some 200 meters away, there is no sound of thwacks and thumps, but instead the calming tones of a French horn.
Rodrigues' fighting spirit turns to music, as he recites a favorite song - The Gladiator soundtrack's "Honor Him" - on his brass instrument. Gaining confidence in the boxing ring may help him to follow his dreams of becoming a professional musician.
(Writing by Emily Roe; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)