Chidi Obineche and Monica Iheagwam
Gone are the days when boxing was the exclusive preserve of men. Today, more and more women are embracing the art of boxing in droves. And the men are awed. Not even the strict regimen and Spartan rules that spell total abstinence from sex, smoking and drinking can deter them. At the National stadium Surulere, Lagos, scores of them can be seen most evenings prancing about menacingly, before or after training, with their budding recruits in tow. They dare and take on their male counterparts with ferocity and boundless passion. Daily Sun visited the Brai Ayonote boxing gym at the Stadium on a late Tuesday afternoon and witnessed a galaxy of about twenty women on showcase. Decked in shiny boxing gears, they kick their feet in the air in short sharp thrusts; head the air as part of their training schemes. They chatter and swing their bodies adroitly with mounds of sweat dripping down their bodies. They sprint and halt in jerks and leaps. No exhibition of feminine fecundity, no leisurely movements. They work out every day for four hours, from 7am to 9am and 4pm to 6 pm. They shadow – box, skip, run and spar. The women are here. Here to put some sparks into Nigerian boxing.
Since women started boxing in Nigeria in the 1980’s, attitudes towards women who engage in the sport have changed astronomically dwarfing pristine practices of gender equality in the country. Blessing Onoko, a boxing trainer lends steam to the growing trend when she said that “Women can do many things nowadays. Before, people would say: What are you doing, woman? Are you a man?” Yobbo Stephen a pioneer female boxer who is now a coach made giant strides in the punching sport in the 1980’s . She speaks on how she began to box:” In 1986, just after I had finished secondary school, I was playing football, but I knew I wanted to box. There were no women boxing at the time.” She was roundly seen as a weird, aberrant and crazy fellow, but she persevered. In 1989, she had her first competitive tournament, when she fought in a national competition called ALL STARS. She continues: “ I weighed 48kg at the time. My opponent was weighing 58kg, so much heavier than me. This means I lost”.
Female Boxing in Nigeria did not come cheap and easy. It was not served a la carte. It went through several crucibles before attaining the height it is now. The first boxing match approved by a professional association took place in Sweden in 1988. The first boxing world championship for women was held in 2001 and women boxing was only accepted as an Olympic sport in 2012.
In 2010, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) introduced skirts – yes skirts- to help “ the female fighters from the men distinct”, as if the audience couldn’t see the difference. Female boxers, like their male counterparts, are mostly underpaid in Nigeria, abandoned by the authorities until a tournament is in the horizon. The likes of Helen Joseph and Ijeoma Egbunine found fame fighting abroad. While there seems to be no difference between the men and the women at the boxing gym, attitude, towards female boxers in the country is still reserved. Of paramount importance is the decision to turn professional or not. Turning professional debars them from participation at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. The Olympics represents one of the few major competitions where women win a globally recognized award and get the recognition that comes with it.
Hope was rekindled for women boxing in Nigeria with the arrival of Flykite productions, organizers of GOtv Boxing Night. Gotv Boxing Night Birth heralded a new era in the promotion and showcasing of the raw strength of the women pugilists when the likes of Mariam Yusuf, Rodiat Yusuf, Cynthia “ Bobby Girl” Ogunsemilore and Abiodun” Lady Crusher” Adedeji were selected to join the group of professional male boxers billed to fight at the event.
Punching for a living
Here are some Nigerian women whose means of livelihood depends on punches.
Helen Joseph is not called “iron lady” for nothing. In 2013,, she defeated Hungarian, Marianna Gulias to become the IBF International female featherweight title holder. Before going international, she won a gold medal for Ondo State at Gateway Games in 2006. Based in Ghana,, she has won 13 of her games, lost 3 and drew 1. The Rivers State born boxer had three different boxing titles: WBF,IBF,GBU, but has confessed that her opponents were afraid to come out to fight her. She ranks among the top in the world of female boxing and has five weight classes – flyweight 115, bantamweight 118, Super Bantam112, featherweight 116 and super featherweight 129.
Also called “The Praise”, Ijeoma Egbunine started out as a field athlete before receiving a prophecy that she was destined to be a boxer. She went professional in 2005, the same year she won a fight against USA’s Alexandra Malcy. She was once the World Boxing Entertainment (WBE) light heavyweight world champion. She lives in the USA.
For this All Africa Games silver medalist in the fly weight category, the politics, juju and tibalism prevalent in the sport has robbed her of many chances to represent Nigeria at the major international stage. Her grouse is that choosing boxers on merit has been on the altar of connections. “Boxing in Nigeria has died. The politics is on another level. Coaches are not allowed to do their job because of the incessant and undue interference on their duties by officials. When those that come second at national trials are the preferred athletes to represent the country, it is a pathetic situation. This has truncated the dreams of most of the female boxers.
A mother of two from a broken home, Ayisat found succour in boxing. Abandoned by her mother, maltreated by her step mother, having a baby at 13, to finding redemption at 15, her life is one long, brutish story of pain. At a chance meeting in a school sports programme, Ayisat met her future husband and personal coach, Michael Oriyomi who introduced her to the sport in 2010. The Oyo state indigene, now 25, dreams of Olympic glory and international recognition in a sport that not long ago, was considered not ideal for women.
She is an 18 year old upcoming boxer. She is not into boxing for the money, but for the ultimate goal of going to the Olympics. Oyeleye, who comes from a sports family made up of six boxers and one handball player is tutored by her dad,Coach Elijah Oyeleye and has remained dogged in her quest to actualize her dreams. “ I am not boxing for money , I am boxing because of records, and I want to follow my dreams. Being at the Olympics is my target.”
Being a Lance- Corporal in the Nigerian Army has not stopped Kehinde Obareh from pursuing a career in boxing. She has been successful so far – taking home a gold medal at 2015 All Africa Games in Congo and also won one on technical ground when her opponent failed to show up for a fight.
Pains, regrets and losses
Despite her status as a professional boxer, Oriyomi is far from fulfilled or happy with the kind of rewards she had envisaged at the initial time of contemplation. Her masculine looks and pale skin says it all.
“I started boxing professionally in 2009, after my husband, who is also a boxer introduced me to it. Though I am happy I made the decision, there hasn’t been much to show for all the years in the sport.”
She speaks more: Many of the ladies I started boxing with quit after they got married, because their husbands didn’t like the sport, especially the sufferings and injuries associated with it. My husband makes a lot of sacrifice for my career. For example, if I have a fight, we abstain from sex for about three months before that period. Having sex carelessly as a boxer reduces your strength in the ring. Apart from that, boxing has taken almost all my feminine features away. Many people in fact mistake me for a man because of the way I look. Some people, in fact some ask my husband if he enjoys me in bed because my body is hard.”
Apart from the uninspiring sex life, she attributes her struggles during pregnancy and childbirth to her profession, maintaining that her tough training regimen is responsible for making it tough for her as well.
For Imo state born Chika, another young woman in the sport, she claims she has nothing to show for her being in boxing. The 27 years old has had four broken relationships in the last three years. Daily survival is a battle.
“Sometimes, I wonder if it’s a crime to choose boxing as a career. It’s really frustrating, because when men approach me and I tell them I am a professional boxer, they simply walk away. They think I would be violent and could attack them one day. They always complained that I was not tender enough for them. In fact, to make the last relationship work, I gave most of the mony I had at that time to him to the guy, yet he left me.”
Female Boxing in Nigeria has attained international recognition and is developing every day. They can rule the world , given the necessary attention.
In Africa, we are number one. In fact , these women have picked up more than the men. At the last All Africa Games in Morrocco, the only Gold in boxing was from the women. What is needed is more exposure to regular competitions and sponsorship from corporate bodies.
Our women always rise to the occasion whenever they are called upon to represent the country. There are a lot of untapped potentials in female boxing, but sadly, the limitations far outweigh the gains. Among the coaches, the inner wrangling associated with training the girls is a minus to what we have achieved and can still achieve.
Male Perception of female Boxers
Though the women are making our country super proud in the boxing arena, it hasn’t in any way reduced their feminine composition, or made them any less female than they already are. While there seems to be no difference between the men and the women at the boxing gym, attitude towards female boxers in the country is still reserved.
The average Nigerian man wants a woman’s face to be admired and not to be punched. Most of them believe that a woman boxer can beat up her husband or boyfriend, a scenario which they term as an abomination. “ I should be able to lift my woman, and not the other way round. Just imagine if we have a misunderstanding, the boxer in her , will turn me into a punching bag. This is the submission of Innocent Oye, an IT consultant.
For Mr Felix Asor, a business man , “ I don’t like masculine looking women because, female boxers are like men. There are millions of smooth looking women everywhere. So, dating, or marrying a boxer is a no no for me (Laughs)
Chijioke Mbah, an undergraduate, attaches conditions to his readiness to date a female pugilist. “ I can’t date a female boxer, unless I am a big boy. But if she is very rich, I will give it a shot.”