Ho Chi Minh City – From her youth spent earning a living on the street, Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi battled poverty and sexist prejudice to become Vietnam’s first world boxing champion.
The 25-year-old marked a huge upheaval for reigning Japan champion Etsuko Tada in October to claim the World Boxing Organization mini flyweight belt in her fifth professional bout.
It was an extraordinary triumph for an athlete born from humble beginnings in a conservative society where women’s participation in sports, especially combat events, is often derided.
Nhi’s journey began when she dedicated herself to boxing at 13 struggling with her grades in school.
Spotting raw talent, a coach told Nhi he had the potential to make the city squad.
Living in a tiny house with nine family members in a tough area of Ho Chi Minh City, Nhi has devoted herself completely to her education, desperate for a way out of her difficult environment.
“I wanted to earn more, so I tried to train hard,” he said.
“I didn’t have time to go out and have fun. I trained almost every day of the week. “
Nhi didn’t know where boxing would take her, but she knew what she wanted: to escape a life of desperate toil, earning just a few cents a day on the streets to help feed the family.
“I made money selling lottery tickets on the street, serving noodles in restaurants. I did anything that could bring me money to help my family, ”Nhi said after a session at the National Sports Training Center in Ho Chi Minh City, the business capital of Vietnam.
Her unanimous points win to dethrone the tallest and by far the most experienced Tada – the Japanese fighter has a professional record of 20 wins, four losses and three draws – was a shock to Nhi too.
“I couldn’t believe I had won. I stayed up all night with the championship belt next to me in bed, “she said.
In Vietnam, where communism mixes with traditional Confucian beliefs, misogynistic attitudes towards women in sports persist and Nhi had to endure insults as she walked in her path.
“My neighbors were constantly asking my grandmother why she would let me box like kids,” Nhi said.
“I had to do my best to show them that the path I had chosen was the right one for me. I made a living from my passion for boxing. I was better than them. “
Nhi said the challenges she faced made her even more determined to succeed.
“I’ve always done my best and pushed my body to the limit ever since I was a little girl. I still think I’m weaker than men, despite the fact that she has always had to prove that she is tough, “she said.
Six months after his triumph, Nhi’s boxing career is at a crossroads as he tries to juggle professional matches and amateur events.
Vietnamese athletes face the delicate task of balancing commitments to professional promoters with obligations to the state sports management authority.
Nhi said the WBO plans to take off the title belt for failing to defend it within a mandatory 180-day window, after choosing instead to represent her country at the International Boxing Association Women’s Amateur World Championships starting Monday in Turkey.
She said she wasn’t sad about losing her belt and, after retiring from the Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam, which will also start next week, she was completely focused on worlds.
“My goal now is to win a medal in Turkey, to show everyone that I can go both ways, amateur and professional,” said Nhi.
Wherever his career goes, boxing has transformed Nhi’s life: he once made almost nothing, now has a steady income from the state as a professional athlete, complemented by TV appearances and entertainment shows.
“My goal,” he said, “is to save enough to afford a small apartment or a house of my own.”
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