Many African men choose boxing as a profession, but few women take this career path. One of the few females who have done so–and is successful–is Esther Phiri, who lives in a poor township in Zambia´s capital city, Lusaka. At 23, she is a champion and a household name in Zambia. Former president Levy Mwanawasa even gave her a home. She has been called Zambia’s own “Million Dollar Baby”.
A single, teenage mother, Phiri started boxing seven years ago. She became interested in boxing at an HIV-awareness sport program run by an international NGO. Not surprisingly, Phiri was the only girl in the program. At the time she was working with her grandmother selling vegetables and living in a one-room house where she slept on the floor with her daughter.
Although women still earn a lot less than men in boxing, the sport has made Phiri a comfortable living by the average earnings in Zambia. She has two houses, a car and is more than able to provide for her daughter. Typically the purse earnings are low for women boxers, especially for high-profile fights, including world title fights.
Then she met her trainer, Anthony Mwamba. “Well, boxing is my career. I haven’t done anything in life apart from boxing. I was an amateur star representing Zambia in many tournaments. I had ten medals: five gold, two silver ones and three bronze ones. I reached a quarter final of the Olympics in 1988,” he says. “After retiring from boxing, I formed a boxing stable called Exodus stables where I was training young stars. That’s how Esther came in and I had a vision for her, but no financial support.”
In 2006, Phiri won the Women’s International Boxing Federation’s Intercontinental Junior Lightweight title. Today, she is the Women’s International Boxing Association Light Welterweight World Champion.
While she has not fought in the U.S. yet, she trains in Florida under Bonnie Canino. Canino is a well-known fighter herself.
“I love boxing,” says Phiri. “It is my career.” She fights Lui Luz Florez from Colombia next for the unification title WOMEN’S INTERNATIONAL BOXING ASSOCIATION and World Boxing Organization. “I am proud to be an African role model,” she says. “I’m proud to be a role model for women to take a different career path.”