She has fought 45 bouts, won 31, 17 of which were knockouts. She was the first African woman to bring home the coveted World Boxing Council super bantamweight belt, which she has held on to for three consecutive years. She was awarded a Head of State of Commendation last year for representing the country well in the boxing arena worldwide. Fatuma Zarika, 33, is a shujaa we celebrate, NJERI MAINA writes
Boxing is not about might. It is like chess; a mind game. It is all about strategy, how much energy to use, how to trick your opponent and how to score more points while expending minimum energy and with an economy of motion.
Men normally fight in a 12-round match, while women fight for 10 rounds. It is up to you to strategise and make every punch count, as you do not win by the number of punches you throw, rather by the punches that successfully land on your opponent.
We learn this from 33-year-old World Boxing Council (WBC) super bantamweight champion Fatuma ‘Iron Fist’ Zarika, as we discuss her unique boxing style and the industry in general.
The mother of two talks in soft-spoken perfect Swahili, with an infectious laughter that lights up the room. She is shorter in person than I had imagined, but commands the same presence in real life just as in the boxing ring and on screen.
She is as confident outside the ring as she is inside it, with a witty sense of humour that is quite at odds with her aggressive boxing ring persona. While most know her from her recent win against Mexican boxer Mercado Corona during the legendary September match held at KICC, Nairobi, where she defended her WBC super bantamweight belt, she has fought 45 bouts, 17 of which were knockouts, while only two of all the matches she has played ended in draws. Her total wins including the knockouts are 31.
She has held on to the WBC world super bantamweight belt for the last three years, and was awarded a Head of State of Commendation honour in 2017 for representing the country well in the boxing arena worldwide. She has clearly more than earned the moniker ‘Iron Fist’.
Born Zarika Njeri Kang’ethe in Nairobi’s Satellite area, Fatuma comes from a humble background, and has boxed her way to the top. She chanced upon boxing while attending the gym with the aim of learning self defense, when she was in her teens.
The instructors introduced her to amateur boxing, where one would fight and then get paid afterwards.
If you had told her that she would one day be able to train with greats from the UK and the United States, she would have scoffed at you.
If you had told her she would one day have a team, Team Zarika comprised of four, dedicated to managing her schedule and optimising her time, she would have laughed at you. She dreamt of a better life, but hard work and persistent prayer have a way of topping even your wildest dreams, she says.
Back then, she was more than happy to fight, as she saw it as a means of earning bread and butter. She met boxer Conjestina, who to date remains her mentor, with whom they trained at a gym in Mathare North and fought amateur bouts together for a year. They were repeatedly conned by promoters, which prompted them to leave the amateur league and go pro.
“Even after going pro, it took quite some time before I gained popularity and a good enough footing to negotiate good pay. I remember my first paycheck, in 2001, was Sh4,000, having fought the required 10 rounds in the match,” Fatuma recalls.
Malcolm Gladwell, a renowned author, says that for anyone to be able to do something well, they need to devote 10,000 hours or more to the venture. Fatuma believes this and is not bitter about her long road to fame and recognition. She instead uses it to empower others to keep doing their level best.
“I have been boxing for 17 years. I would tell those aspiring to be boxers or struggling to take their art to the next level to keep at it. When the time is right, everything will fall into place. Just keep at it,” the champion advises.
Fatuma enjoys spending time with her family; her mother and her two daughters, Halima, 18 and Sophie, 21. She says her family is what keeps her going. It is what fuels her ambition. “I want my daughters to lead a better life than I did. I also want to inspire them to be great through hard work and discipline,” Fatuma says.
She enjoys quiet time at home and taking the whole family out for a movie. It is the one thing she looks forward to post match. “Since my work takes me away from home quite a lot, I try to spend as much time as I can at home, and indulge in a more relaxed diet while recovering after a match, adds the champion.
As to whether the scars and bruises she gets while boxing bother her, she says they do not. They come with the territory, and it is something every boxer comes prepared for, as it is impossible to garner a win or even a loss without getting bruised. Her daughters are supportive and fully understand the rigours of their mother’s job. “There is a time I could not watch my mother box.
I would be very excited before the match and even garner ringside seats. When the bout would start, I would close my eyes, afraid to see what would happen next,” Sophie, Zarika’s first-born, who is present during our interview, tells us. With time, Sophie can now watch her mother box for an entire match without flinching. She is proud of her and supports her.
“I call her all the time when she is out of the country training, and watch all her matches. I really enjoy her wins. My most memorable match has to be last year at Carnivore where she knocked out her Tanzanian opponent in less than two minutes. It is testament to just how hard she works. She is not just my mother, she is my friend too. She inspires me to be better,” Sophie gushes.
On whether she would consider a career in boxing, Sophie responds with an exuberant ‘yes’. “I have learned a lot about boxing through my mum. I am interested in the planning and logistics part of boxing and would love to work as a promoter,” she explains.
“I feel like the ministry of sports and the government can do more for the boxing industry. For starters, they can help out Conjestina directly as she served this country as best as she could when she was in the ring. If Sportpesa can do so much and it is a private company, imagine how much more the government can do,” says Fatuma.
The ringster acknowledges the fact that unscrupulous promoters also drag the industry through the mud. It is not uncommon to find promoters approaching companies for funding on behalf of boxers, then refusing to pay the boxers even a single cent after the matches are over.
Fatuma remembers days when that used to happen to her, and sympathizes with budding talents, as they might go through the same. This could discourage talented boxers from developing their gift, prompting them to take on new career paths, which is a loss of talent, not just for the individual, but for the boxing industry as well.
“Boxing is not just a part of my life. It is who I am. I will continue boxing even after I retire, as I am intent on nurturing new talent. I plan to do my part through mentoring. But I hope the government does its part too. The Boxing Association of Kenya should also ensure it fulfills its mandate by looking after the boxers’ welfare,” Fatuma concludes.