Celebrities & Upcoming Stars, Life Is Such A Wonder!, Motivation, Sports

Esther Phiri : The Real Million Dollar Baby

September 15, 2010
Esther Phiri Women's International Boxing Association (WIBA) welterweight champion

I came across this story of Esther Phiri when surfing the internet and found it to be an inspiration.  This is no Hollywood Million Dollar Baby but a real life African Million Dollar Baby! It inspires you to put massive efforts to realize your dreams and your potential. You can read Esther’s story at ESPN. Most of the photos in this blog article are taken from ESPN’s website.

Esther Phiri’s life 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.

Esther Phiri in action

Impoverished by her father’s death from malaria when she was girl, Phiri left school after the sixth grade and was pregnant at 16. To feed herself and her daughter, Eunice, she sold potatoes, chickens and vegetables in a public market on the crowded streets. She bought the food wholesale in the early morning, then cooked and re-sold it for a modest profit. She lived in a nearby compound — a shantytown — in a shabby, two-room building that rented for $30 a month.

Today she is a currently Women’s International Boxing Association Light Welterweight World 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. She is raising her daughter and the four children of a sister who died of complications from childbirth.

Esther Phiri Women's International Boxing Association (WIBA) welterweight champion

Phiri, 23, took up boxing as part of an HIV-awareness sport program run by an international NGO in 2003. She was the only girl on the program. Phiri began training with Anthony Mwamba. Phiri also had to endure people heckling her and telling her she was wasting her time. A woman boxer? In Zambia? She wasn’t Hilary Swank and this wasn’t some Clint Eastwood movie. Get real. “People used to laugh at me,” Phiri says. “They would say, ‘She’s mad. She’s mad!’ And they said I was just following the men to the gym.”

Mwamba’s nickname is Preacherman, and he says his plan when starting Exodus Stables was to preach the Gospel to boxers. He leads his boxers in prayer each day and brings in Pastor Azili Chirowa for a longer session once a week. Phiri, Chirowa and Mwamba are Pentecostals, and the prayer sessions are lively. Phiri, the hard-hitting champ, helps lead one prayer session by singing hymns, dancing among her fellow boxers, chanting and speaking in tongues. “Boxing is not all about the punching,” Chirowa says. “It needs some spiritual encouragement and strength, as well. The nature of the sport is that of drinking and sex. But the Bible encourages focus.”

Esther Phiri in training with Anthony Mwamba

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.

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.

Esther Phiri in the market where she once sold vegetables

AIDS has decimated her homeland, virtually wiping out a generation and lowering life expectancy to less than 40 years. Half the country is unemployed and nearly 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Yet against all odds, Phiri not only has muscled her way out of that economic statistic — she owns a farm, an apartment building and two houses, one of which she received as a gift from an impressed government — she has inspired women in a country where they rarely enjoy any power at all.

Esther Phiri at her house given to her by her country's former president Levy Mwanawasa

Her face shines down on Lusaka residents from billboards sprinkled around the city by her sponsor, National Milling, the country’s No. 1 producer and distributor of Zambia’s food staple, cornmeal. Phiri endorses the product in return for a $3,000 monthly retainer, a fortune by Zambian standards, plus guaranteed purses for her fights.

Using athletes to sell products is about as old as sports themselves, but a Zambian company sponsoring any athlete, let alone a woman, on this scale is rare, if not unprecedented. Phiri, however, has given National Milling very favorable publicity, and the arrangement has been successful enough that Barclays has signed up as a major sponsor as well.

Phiri’s boxing trunks bear both the name Exodus Stables and “John 10:9,” the Scripture that reads, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”

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