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Esther Phiri: Zambia's 'Million Dollar Baby'

From Brent Swails, CNN and Catriona Davies for CNN
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From street kid to world champ, Zambian single mum Esther Phiri is making her mark in the boxing ring.
  • Esther Phiri is WIBA Light Welterweight World Champion
  • She grew up in a poor Lusaka township and became a single mother at 16
  • Phiri now lives in a house given to her by Zambia's former president

Lusaka, Zambia (CNN) -- Esther Phiri grew up helping her grandmother sell vegetables in a poor township in the Zambian capital Lusaka.

Today she is a world boxing champion and a household name in Zambia. She lives in a house given to her by her country's former president Levy Mwanawasa and owns a small property empire bought with her prize money.

It is a rags-to-riches tale reminiscent of the Hollywood film Million Dollar Baby, but transported to a country where the average life expectancy is 38 -- the second lowest in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Phiri, 23, began her boxing career seven years ago and still trains at the gym where she started.

A biography of Phiri on the Women's Boxing Archive Network describes how she dropped out of school and became a single mother at the age of 16 after her family fell on hard times.

It said she took up boxing as part of an HIV-awareness sport program run by an international NGO. She was the only girl on the program.

Phiri's trainer Anthony Mwamba told CNN that when he first met Phiri, she was renting a one-room house, sleeping on the bare floor with her daughter.

Gallery: Zambia's Queen of the Ring
I've got that courage to push myself, to say 'let's go Esther.'
--Esther Phiri
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"I wanted to cry. There was no food and I had no money either," he said.

But Mwamba continued to invest in the fledgling boxer, even though his motives came under suspicion in a country where female boxers are not the norm.

Mwamba said: "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."

Despite the rumors, the pair continued to train together and soon they were vindicated when Phiri won the Women's International Boxing Federation's Intercontinental Junior Lightweight title in 2006.

"Wow, I was so happy, I can't even explain. It was a turning point for my life," she said, showing off her title belts," she said.

"I even promised my late president, he said 'Esther, you're not supposed to lose, you need to bring more belts', and I've done it, I've done it."

Today, despite having all the wealth and trappings of an international sports star, Phiri still lives in the community where she grew up and remains friends with the people she knew when she was selling vegetables in the market.

"This is my home township, it's very close. I've got so many friends," Phiri told CNN as passers-by call out to her in the street.

Phiri is currently Women's International Boxing Association Light Welterweight World Champion. Her next fight is in January.

She has worked hard to gain her titles and isn't about to rest on her laurels.

"I've got that courage to push myself, to say 'let's go Esther,' because I don't want to embarrass myself," Phiri said.

Mwamba added: "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."

She can now drive in her car to the gym, a journey that used to take her four bus rides.