From her youth spent earning a living on the streets, Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi fought poverty and gender bias to become Vietnam’s first world boxing champion.
The 25-year-old scored a huge upset against defending champion Etsuko Tada of Japan in October to win the World Boxing Organization mini-flyweight belt in just her fifth professional fight.
It was a remarkable triumph for an athlete who had humble beginnings in a conservative society where women’s participation in sport – especially combat events – is often looked down upon.
Nhi’s journey began when she turned to boxing at the age of 13, struggling with her grades in school.
Spotting the raw talent, a coach told Nhi she had the potential to make the city team.
Living in a small house with nine members of her family in a tough neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh City, Nhi devoted herself entirely to her education, desperate to find a way out of her harsh surroundings.
“I wanted to earn more money, so I tried to train hard,” she told AFP.
“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 only pennies 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 everything that could earn me money to help my family,” Nhi said after a session at the National Sports Training Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic capital.
Her unanimous points victory to dethrone the taller and much more experienced Tada – the Japanese fighter has a professional record of 20 wins, four losses and three draws – was a shock even for Nhi.
“I couldn’t believe I won. I stayed up all night with the championship belt next to me in my bed,” she said.
In Vietnam, where communism intertwines with traditional Confucian beliefs, misogynistic attitudes towards women in sport persist and Nhi had to endure taunts as she walked her path.
“My neighbors used to constantly ask my grandmother why she let me box as boys,” Nhi said.
“I had to do my best to show them that the path I had chosen was right for me. I earned my living by my passion for boxing. I was better than them.
Nhi said the challenges she faced made her all the more determined to succeed.
“I’ve always done my best and pushed my body to the limit since I was a little girl. I always think I’m weaker than men, despite the fact that I’ve always had to show that I’m tough “, she said.
Six months after her triumph, Nhi’s boxing career is at a crossroads as she seeks to juggle professional fights and amateur events.
Vietnamese athletes face the delicate task of balancing commitments to professional promoters with obligations to the national sports management authority.
Nhi told AFP that the WBO had to strip her of her belt for not defending it within a mandatory 180-day deadline, after she chose to represent her country at the International Boxing Association Women’s World Amateur Championships. from Monday in Turkey.
She said she was not sad to lose the belt and after pulling out of the Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam, which also start next week, she was fully focused on the championships of the world.
“My goal now is to win a medal in Turkey, to prove to everyone that I can go both ways, amateur and professional,” Nhi said.
Whatever direction her career took, boxing transformed Nhi’s life – from earning next to nothing, she now has a stable income from the state as a professional athlete, supplemented by television appearances and in entertainment shows.
“My goal,” she says, “is to save enough to afford a small apartment or a house of my own.”