Zambian boxing queen honoured
Harare – Zambian boxing queen Esther Phiri shared the podium with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe at a football stadium in Bulawayo on Sunday, as she was honoured by the African Union Sports Council for her outstanding achievements inside the ring.
It marked a fitting end to a dramatic year in which Phiri has returned to the boxing ring, after two years on the sidelines having retired on medical grounds in 2012, after a wrong medical examination returned a positive result in an HIV and breast cancer test.
A feature film, looking at the life that she has travelled from a poor neighbourhood of Lusaka where she sold vegetables just to scratch a living to having a baby at 15 before turning herself into a two-time continental and world multi-weight boxing champion. ‘Between Rings’, was released at the Helsinki Film Festival in September.
She has been featured on CNN, who called her the Million Dollar Baby in 2010, and on TransWorld Sport, where she described her life as both “difficult” and “interesting”.
“I’m blessed with a big heart and I’ll never ever give up,” she says in her feature on TransWorld Sport, which is available online on the Facebook page dedicated to her.
“I used to hang out on the streets, selling things, but now I have become someone that most Zambians look up to.
“I was born into a poor family but boxing has given me an opportunity. My family used to laugh at me when I told them I wanted to be a boxer.”
“My life has definitely been a difficult one and also an interesting one.”
A difficult life, yes, because she was born into a very poor family, her father died when she was very young, forcing her to pull out of school in her sixth grade, and she used to sell vegetables in her teens, to make a living.
Her trainer, Anthony Mwamba, told CNN that when he first met the boxer, she was renting a one-roomed house, sleeping on the floor with her daughter.
“I wanted to cry. There was no food and I had no money either,” said Mwamba.
“At first when Esther came onto the scene everyone was saying, ‘No, no, he’s just spoiling her or maybe he’s sleeping with Esther’.
“That’s what people were saying, including the officials. But to me, I always had the vision, they didn’t know it, but I saw a champion the first time I saw Esther.
“Some boxers, you can tell them to wake up early and run for 20 km, and some refuse to do it. But Esther Phiri, she has the heart. She will run those 20 km, even 30 and finish.
“She has the heart to do it.
“In a fight, women go for two minutes, but I give her three minutes, just like a man. I treat her just like a man. It’s to her advantage.”
Things, of course, have changed now and the champion boxer owns properties, thanks to some of the rich pickings from the ring and endorsements from Zambian companies who have turned to her popularity, and striking beauty, for an advertising agent.
“I have a house and four cars. Not one car. Four cars,” she told ESPN. “To me, people say, ‘We didn’t think it was possible that a woman could do this.
“We thought all you could do is get a man, get married, be a housewife, maybe go to school.’
“I made a mistake when I was young and had a child. I found something to do in my life. I was looking for something to do in my life and I found it in boxing. I’m keeping my family happy. I’m building a life through boxing.”
Recently, at Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo, she was one of the athletes and administrators who were honoured by the African Union Sports Council, and handed special trophies by President Mugabe, for their contribution to sport in Southern Africa.
President Mugabe even shadow boxed, as she came to collect her trophy, and talked to her briefly, after she had collected it and posed for photographers to capture the moment.
“Someone got an award in Zimbabwe today,” the Facebook page dedicated to Phiri said in a post. “Congrats to Esther Phiri.”
It has been quite a turnaround year for Phiri after she returned to the ring, having spent two years on the sidelines, when her career appeared to have been ended by a positive result in an HIV and breast cancer test.
That changed in May this year.
“The Zambia Professional Boxing and Wrestling Control Board is pleased to announce the granting of a boxing licence to multi-division light welterweight champion Esther Phiri with immediate effect,” ZPBWCB secretary-general Simon Mwale announced in a statement.
“This follows successful medical tests conducted by the doctors and verified by the chairman of the board’s medical sub-committee general Dr Abynoty Mulela on April 9, 2014.”
To commemorate World AIDS Day this year, her Facebook page remembered the ordeal that she went through and, crucially, the millions that live with the virus and the disease.
“Today is World AIDS Day, a disease which affects millions,” her Facebook page said. “Not so long ago, Esther Phiri was told that she was HIV positive and could no longer box, which led to her retirement.
“Today she is back in the ring but there are thousands still affected by the disease.
Do your bit for those affected, stay safe and if in doubt get tested.”