Punching patriarchy: The Zambian female boxer taking on the world

Inside Africa Zambia WBC gold Catherine Phiri A_00002111
Inside Africa Zambia WBC gold Catherine Phiri A_00002111

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Story highlights

  • Catherine Phiri is the first African woman to win World Boxing Council Gold title

(CNN)Catherine Phiri, 32, is currently Zambia's fiercest boxer -- and she has the accolades to show it. Phiri was the first African woman to win a prestigious World Boxing Council Gold title in 2016.

However, her battles haven't just been in the ring.
    Phiri is from a poor family and she's thrown punches to patriarchy too: "Catherine Phiri has said no to marriage, she has concentrated on her career and education," Malambo Frank, Phiri's headteacher, told CNN.
    "I knew that one day... she was going to make it," said her coach Mike Zulu.

    In the ring

    Zambia's Esther Phiri paved the way for the country's boxing boom.
    Zambia isn't a country that instantly springs to mind when you think of boxing, unlike Cuba, USA and the UK. However, the popularity of the sport is growing fast.
    Esther Phiri, not related to Catherine, is an old-hand (or glove) of Zambian boxing. She's a former-welterweight world champion, and has inspired youngsters in the capital Lusaka to get into the ring.
    Tournaments take place every Saturday for amateurs to fight in. Clubs in the city's poorer neighborhoods, like Exodus International Boxing Promotions which has five girls in the under-20 national team, use these competitions to showcase their best talent.
    Catherine Phiri was no different, and despite initially playing football, once she started throwing punches she didn't want to stop.

    Journey to the top

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    "I was 16 when I started boxing and before I started boxing, my passion was football but I wanted something which was individual," Phiri told CNN.
    Phiri was quickly picked up by boxing coaches who admired her technique and clean fighting abilities.
    "My colleague Chris Mulunga, he was the one who first spotted Catherine Phiri. He came to me and said: 'Mike, there's a female boxer that I think if we bring her here and she's under your tutelage, I think she can go very far,'" said Zulu.
    After achieving success on the amateur circuit, Phiri turned to professional boxing. She joined a boxing club run by Christopher Malunga, and made big gains.
    In 2013, she won her first World Boxing Council title fight in Lusaka, to become the African Boxing Union Bantamweight Champion.
    However her dedication to the sport meant she had previously sidelined education. "I was very determined to become a world champion but by then I had no interest to be in school so that's why I chose boxing over school," said Phiri.
    Education and elite sport don't always make time for each other, but Malunga insisted, and eventually persuaded her to go back to school at the age of 18 on a scholarship.
    Her dedication has paid off, and the hours in school didn't appear to damage her boxing prospects. Phiri is now a legend of Zambian boxing.

    Training to be the best

    Inspiring the next generation of female boxers
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    If you've even seen any boxing film, you'll know the lengths boxers go to to be the best. The sweat, the blood and broken noses, and the hours spent mentally and physically preparing to fight.
    Phiri's training routine is no different.
    "In amateur, I used to train once a day. As a professional boxer, at Oriental (boxing club), we train three times a day when preparing for a big fight," she said. "In the morning we go for a run which is about 10 to 12 kilometers and then in the afternoon it's physical work and then at 5pm it's boxing."
    Phiri has broken new ground in African boxing and is now a global success. However, she wants women's boxing to have more dedicated events.
    "For me, what I desire most is that one day we promote only girls whereby we call it Ladies Night like they do in South Africa and East London where we see only ladies fighting on that same bill. I'm sure it will happen, looking at the girls who are coming up from amateur, it will happen," said Phiri.