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Esther Phiri
copyrighted photo courtesy JabJab Promotions


5'6" junior welterweight Esther Phiri was born in Lusaka, Zambia on January 1 1987, the fourth of eight children – she has three brothers and four sisters. Her father was a businessman and her mother stayed at home. Her father died when Esther was in grade 6 and the family fell on hard times without his income. Esther lived with her grandmother in the low-income urban township of Mtendere and joined her selling groceries and second hand clothes in the market. She dropped out of school and became a single mother at age 16.

A turning point in Esther's life came about when the international NGO Africa Directions started a youth-centered HIV-awareness project in the area, combining health education and sport. Esther was the only girl in a physical training program that focused on boxing.  She had been a tomboy from an early age was also motivated by boxing videos so she took the training seriously despite the negative reaction of some of the young males around her. Her talent for boxing soon became obvious and she was referred for further training to former Zambian amateur champion Anthony Mwamba, who had made it to the quarter finals of the 1988 Olympics. Mwamba has since prepared Phiri at his Independence Boxing Gym.

Esther's pro career did not start winningly, however.

She made her pro debut at Mindolo Dam, Kitwe, Zambia on July 23, 2005 against Jota Sumaili of Zambia, fighting her to a four-round draw.  Sumaili had won both of her previous bouts on points, against debut boxers.

On August 21, 2005 at Moi International Sport Centre in Nairobi, Kasarani, Kenya, Esther lost a four-round decision to the well experienced Zarika Njeri of Nairobi, who improved her own record to 9-1-1 with the win. Zarika had fought Sweden's Frida Wallberg for the WIBF Intercontinental Junior Lightweight title in Denmark just two months earlier, losing by a unanimous decision.

Esther was not discouraged. In October 2005 she went to Zimbabwe, where she twice took on Monalisa Sibanda, retiring after the first round in the first contest on October 15 and losing by TKO in the second round of their second bout two weeks later.

Training continued on her return, and then she took on pro debut boxer Patience Master from Zimbabwe at the Nchanga Mine Club in Chingola, Zambia on May 6 2006, winning by a four-round split decision – her first win in the ring.

On May 27, 2006 she returned to Zimbabwe for a rematch with Patience Master at the International Convention Centre in Harare. This time she knocked Master out in the second round of their scheduled four-rounder.

On October 22, 2006 at the National Sports Development Center in Lusaka, Zambia, Phiri won a six-round decision over Patience Master in their third encounter of the year.

Esther was then picked to participate in the six-bout all-female "Fists of Steel" Africa vs. USA event at the Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi, Kenya on December 2, 2006. 

When Esther's original opponent - Michelle Linden - failed to turn up, she was matched against Kelli Cofer of Ohio at the last moment for the WIBF Intercontinental Junior Lightweight title . Cofer had previously fought in several full world title bouts but was returning to the ring after surgery for a broken hand sustained in her last match. The late pairing meant Esther was over-weight for the bout with Cofer and she spent a few grueling hours in the gym before weighing in to shed 2 kg and meet the target of 60.2 kg.

Esther Phiri vs Kelli Cofer in Nairobi
Copyrighted photo courtesy JabJab Promotions

Esther (132 lbs) went on to win an eight-round majority (79-78,77-75,77-77) decision over Cofer (132 lbs) who dropped to 13-4-4 (3 KO's).  

“I was surprised, I didn’t expect I was going to win the fight. I was feeling like I was dreaming,” Phiri said, adding  “Maybe I didn’t know that I am talented.” 

On March 18, 2007 at Mulungushi Conference Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, Esther won an eight-round unanimous decision over Monika Petrova of Sofia, Bulgaria to retain the WIBF Intercontinental Junior Lightweight title. Petrova, who has been a regular (if often over-matched) opponent for top fighters in Europe at bantamweight or featherweight (including Anita Christensen, Esther Schouten, Bettina Csabi, Iwona Guzowska and Cathy Brown) fell to 1-10-0 with this loss while Phiri improved to 5-3-1 (1 KO).

Writer Hone Liwanga reported that "Zambia's Esther Phiri showed that women can compete in spheres most people think least likely when she traded explosive punches with Bulgarian Monica Petrova in an international boxing tournament in Lusaka. Attracting over 8,000 impressed spectators, Zambia's first ever international female boxing bout challenged gender stereotypes as the two exhibited professional boxing skills rivaling that of male counterparts. The staging of the prestigious event on 18 March was not only good for the two female boxer or Zambia, but for gender activists as well. Boxing is known to be the men's sport in Zambia, and indeed most of the world. The two women put that myth to rest as they competed in an action-packed 8-round bout. With each blow, one could just imagine how many people watching could never imagine a woman in a boxing ring. Ms Phiri, who was in a class of her own, delivered vicious punches against her challenger Ms Petrova, whom she defeated to retain her title as the Women International Boxing Federation (WIBF) super featherweight champion."

"In the ring, I felt very fit and fitness is the only secret", said Phiri after the bout. "I knew I was going to win; I had no fear of Monika as we fought because of my adequate preparation for the fight. But I was afraid of the final decision in case the points did not go in my favour."

The publicity following Phiri's wins made her  a household name in Zambia. Billboards with her picture line streets and she is now rich by Zambian standards, Phiri, her daughter, and her mother are able to live in a middle-class Lusaka neighborhood, and Esther, previously illiterate, is being sponsored to finish her education.

On June 30, 2007 at Woodlands Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia, Esther TKO'd winless Radostina Valcheva of Bulgaria in the second round.  Valcheva fell to 0-1-1 after an obvious mismatch.

On December 1, 2007 at Woodlands Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia, Esther won a controversial eight-round split decision over Belinda Laracuente of New York to retain the GBU Intercontinental Junior Lightweight title. The Lusaka Times  reported that “few may agree that the verdict was fair as America’s Belinda Laracuente was a trifle better and could claim the glory as well.”  They reported that Phiri was slower and could hardly match the technique and power of Laracuente, described Laracuente as “sharper, cleverer, and more aggressive” and opined that “an ordinary eye” could have given her at least five out of the eight rounds. A rematch was reported to be in the works. Laracuente fell to 23-19-3 (9 KOs).

On April 26, 2008 at Woodlands Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia,
Esther (59 kg)  won a ten-round unanimous decision over 21-year-old Elina Tissen (57 kg) of Warendorf, Germany for the GBU Inter-continental Junior Lightweight title.
 Tissen dropped to 6-2 (3 KO's)

On October 4, 2008 at Woodlands Stadium in Lusaka, Zambia
Esther Phiri won by a fifth round TKO over Hondi Hernandez of Chandler, Arizona, USA in a scheduled ten-rounder for the GBU Junior Lightweight title.
 Hernandez dropped to 5-4 (3 KO's)

On April 25, 2009 at Hood Restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, Esther Phiri won by a fourth round TKO over an "unknown" boxer whose name was variously given as Ratree Kreakae of Thailand or Filipina Viparat Lasuwan of the Philippines, who appeared to have little boxing experience and was knocked down in the second, third and fourth rounds. The promoter and local media such as the Lusaka Times initially reported that Phiri was fighting for a WIBA title but WIBA President Ryan Wissow told WBAN that his organization had nothing to do with this bout or its promoter. The promoters subsequently stated that the fight was for a GBC title. 

On November 28, 2009 at the Mulungushi Conference Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, Terri Blair of Louisville, Kentucky, USA fought to a 10-round draw (98-96,96-96, 94-96) with Esther Phiri for the vacant WIBA Junior Welterweight title. Blair, who had pressured Phiri for the whole fight, stated after the fight “If you want to know the winner of this fight, give us another two rounds just now and see what I am gonna do to her. I have been cheated. I'm ready to fight her again any time, anywhere including now."  Phiri's right eyebrow was cut and the fight was halted temporarily in the sixth round to clean the blood. Phiri appeared to be in difficulty for several rounds in mid-fight but later rallied. Blair moved her record to 11-14-3 (6 KO's). The WIBA is reported to have sought a title match between Phiri and Duda Yankovich, not a rematch with Blair, because Yankovich had been the intended opponent for Phiri until her nose was broken in a loss to Holly Holm.

On May 29, 2010 at the Mulungushi Conference Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, Esther Phiri (137 lbs) won a ten-round unaimous (100-91,100-95,100-92) decision over  Duda Yankovich (139 lbs) of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the vacant WIBA Junior Welterweight title. Yankovich fell to 11-2-0 (5 KO's) with her second straight title loss.  

On January 29, 2011 at the Mulungushi Conference Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, Esther Phiri (140 lbs) won a 10-round unanimous (97-90,97-93,100-91) decision over Lely Luz Florez (136 lbs) of Monteria, Colombia for the WIBA and WIBO Junior Welterweight titles.  Florez fell to 15-5-0 with the loss while Phiri improved to 12-3-2 (4 KO's). 

While Phiri has yet to be tested at the top level outside Africa, her progress is sending new messages about gender issues and sport equity to her countrywomen. President Levy Mwanawasa praised Esther for demonstrating her capability to succeed regardless of the many challenges and obstacles that are currently prevailing in the area of sport in Zambia and also announced that Phiri would be given a fully furnished three bedroom house for retaining her title against Petrova.

Phiri has encouraged adolescent Zambian women to engage in sports not only to guard against unplanned pregnancies and have sexually transmitted disease but to become disciplined and focused. ”I would advise my fellow young Zambians to engage in sports as it would take up most of their time which they would spend drinking and engaging in many antisocial vices”, she says.

Phiri says that she enjoys boxing, and "gets a buzz" out of being fit. Her new-found success has brought added pressures as she is now the main breadwinner in her family.  

Mwamba says that Phiri trains every day, running 21 km and then working on her boxing skills in the gym. She also tries to eat a healthy diet with Zambian staple nshima - a corn flour porridge - and boiled chicken. Mwamba is now hoping to raise sponsorship to further Esther's career.

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Page last updated: Saturday December 15, 2012


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