As a young girl, Ayisat Oriyomi had huge dreams of becoming something big in life. Though born under the roof of a polygamist where deprivation was rife, she had her eyes fixed on becoming a lawyer. But as she grew older, her ambition and the reality on the ground stood miles apart. By age 17, she found herself in the boxing ring – unsure of what the years ahead held. Now 25 and married with two children, the Oyo State indigene lives and breathes the sport.
But despite becoming a professional boxer, Oriyomi is far from being fulfilled or reaping the type of rewards she had envisaged at the time of coming into the sport. Her masculine looks and pale skin summarise the hardship she has passed through over the years. She is only managing to get by.
“I started boxing professionally in 2009, after my husband, who is also a boxer, introduced me to the sport,” she said during an encounter with our correspondent. “I am from a polygamous home, so my father did not have any plan to train me through school. I had to leave home to fend for myself.
“When I met my husband, I didn’t have any choice but to accept his proposal of introducing me to boxing. Though I am happy I made that decision, there hasn’t been much to show for all my years in the sport.”
She continued, “Many of the ladies I started boxing with quit after they got married because their husbands didn’t like the sport, especially the suffering and injuries associated with it.
“It wasn’t really easy for me as well when I started but I thank God for the support of my husband. With his help, I have managed to build a good reputation for myself.”
But in spite of becoming a known name within Nigeria’s boxing fraternity, Oriyomi has had to pay a somewhat expensive price for choosing boxing as a career. While most couples enjoy a robust life in the bedroom, it is a different experience for the young woman and her husband. This is different from the other huge sacrifices she’s had to make for the sport.
“My husband makes a lot of sacrifice for my career,” she stated while wrapping a bandage around her right fist. “For example; if I have a fight, we abstain from sex for about three months before that period. Having sex carelessly as a boxer reduces your strength in the ring. It is a huge sacrifice to make, I must say.
“Apart from that, boxing has taken almost all my feminine features away. Many people in fact mistake me for a man because of the way I look.
“Some people in fact ask my husband if he enjoys me in bed because my body is hard. I don’t have time to be touchy or emotional. But the good thing is that my husband is also a boxer, so he understands what I am passing through very well.”
Apart from their uninspiring sex life, Oriyomi attributed her struggles during pregnancy and childbirth to her profession, insisting that her training regimen contributed to making the process quite tough for her.
Narrating her experience, Oriyomi, who currently competes in the 51kg flyweight category, told our correspondent that she passed through “hell” in the process of delivering her second child. According to her, after going into labour for two days, having caesarean section was the only option left for her until things took a different turn. She looks back today with a grateful heart.
“When I was pregnant and went for antenatal classes, the doctors and nurses always expressed concern about my condition because they said my job was affecting my body,” she explained. “So, when it was time for me to deliver the baby, they told me my body was very tight and hard. I had to endure labour pains for two days before I was able to give birth.
“I cried uncontrollably because I couldn’t afford to settle for caesarean section because it is not good for me as a professional boxer.
“The implication is that during a bout, if my opponent knows I had a child by CS, they could target that spot on my stomach where I was cut.
“Because of my profession, after my first child, I had to wait for so long before having the next one. My first child is 11 years old now. Life has been very tough since I came into this sport, I must say.”
Sadly, despite the physical and emotional pains female boxers go through in Nigeria, they, like their male counterparts, have to contend with poor remuneration and sometimes the total lack of it. While athletes competing in other sports like football enjoy massive patronage, especially around major competitions, for Nigeria’s pugilists, especially females like Oriyomi, it is a life of constant struggles and frustration.
“I feel sad that in Nigeria, boxing is not really lucrative,” the mother of two said. “Unlike our counterparts in football, we are treated like lepers and when we have life-threatening injuries, we are left to fight our battle alone.
“This type of treatment is not encouraging many of us to give in our best. It is a very demoralising treatment we get from the authorities.”
While Oriyomi at least have a home to hold on to despite the heavy toll the sport has taken on her body and well-being, Imo State-born Chika, another young woman in the game, has little or nothing to show for her time as a professional boxer.
The 26-year-old has had four failed relationships over the last three years while daily survival has become very critical for her. These two make up only a minute part of the frustration she has to deal with on a daily basis.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s a crime to choose boxing as a career,” the light-complexioned lady, breaking out in a sweat. Breathing heavily as she sank her body weight into a rickety wooden chair, Chika looked forlorn and dejected. For a few seconds, she was deeply lost in thought. When she managed to gather herself, her disappointment became more evident.
“Since going into boxing full-time six years ago, it has been tough maintaining a healthy relationship with any man,” she disclosed painfully, starring into the reporter’s eyes as if searching for solace.
“The last relationship I had with a bank worker was hellish,” she continued. “The guy always told me there was no way he was going to marry me if I had to live by the rules of the sport.
“Apart from him, it was difficult for my other boyfriends in the past to also understand that I could not offer them sex regularly because of the type of sport I was into.
“They always complained that I was not tender enough for them. In fact, to make my last relationship work, I gave most of the money I had at the time to the guy, yet he left me.
“It’s really frustrating because when men approach me and I tell them that I am a professional boxer, they simply walk away. They think I would be violent and could attack them one day. This saddens me a lot.”
As a result of this situation, Chika is already considering leaving the sport for another profession. She told Saturday PUNCH that the pain and frustration she had contended with over the years were too much for her to bear. Though she expressed deep love for the sport, the tough life associated with it has been a huge turn-off for her.
“Our society makes it difficult for boxers, especially females like me to thrive,” she said. “It is just as if the system is designed to frustrate you as a boxer. I don’t think there is any other sport in Nigeria where athletes suffer as much as we do. In fact, many people, including fellow athletes see us as hooligans. There is really nothing I am enjoying as a female boxer in Nigeria and that is why I want to quit.”
‘Wasted years in the sport’
Like Chika, Mutiat Adebayo described her 11 years in boxing as a waste of time and period of frustration. The poor remuneration, dilapidated facilities and health challenges she deals with on a regular basis make life for her as a professional boxer to be tear-filled. She told Saturday PUNCH that except on few occasions when they go for international competitions, getting money to survive is very difficult.
“Boxing in Nigeria is not encouraging at all, especially for a female. I am still in the sport because of the passion I have for it.
“We are currently preparing for the National Sports Festival which has not held for some years. Ideally, it should hold every two years. We need more platforms like this to take place regularly.
“I don’t receive any allowance; I get money from my boyfriend and parents to sustain myself. The welfare and facilities for female boxers is too poor, we feel neglected most of the time. I think the authorities feel it is a sport for underprivileged persons,” she said.
Speaking further, Adebayo revealed how she usually feels each time she goes for a competition outside Nigeria. According to her, the sight of standard and modern facilities coupled with appreciable welfare packages for boxers in those places combine to make her feel sorry for her dear country.
“When I travelled to Botswana, I met other female boxers and saw how they were being pampered by their authorities.
“Meanwhile, the authorities only gave me one kit when I was leaving Nigeria. Those other girls are well taken care of; they had different outfits to change into at intervals and this reflected in their performance. I felt so ashamed of my country.
“I think we need endorsements, we need to be recognised. When I travel for international competitions in other countries, I see how all the female boxers have breast protectors. But in Nigeria, many of us don’t have that.
“When you think about this, there is no way you won’t want to quit this sport. It is very frustrating,” she stated.
In addition to the hardship she had endured as a female boxer, Adebayo has also had to make sacrifices in her sex life as well in order to keep up with the demands of the profession.
“When it comes to abstaining from sex, it depends on the type of body the person has. I had to exercise caution because it could not be regular,” she said.
‘Men don’t want to date us’
Temitope Okunola, another female boxer, is counting the cost of settling for the profession as well. Now in the sport for about two years ago, she told Saturday PUNCH that most of the men that come her way turn back almost immediately after realising what she does for a living.
“The guys I dated in the past always told me to choose between my career and the relationship,” she said. “But I let them know I could never sacrifice my career for a relationship because they could disappoint me at any time.
“This issue has caused me pain but I have had to learn to be strong. Being a boxer has come with more pain than gain for me.
“My parents are not happy with the fact that I am into boxing. In fact, there are people who think that I am crazy for choosing boxing as a career because they see how I have been suffering. It has been very tough for me,” she said.
A private boxing coach, who trains pugilists at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, who only identified himself as Ganiyu, told our correspondent how he had seen many female boxers with potential quit the sport out of frustration. The man, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, feared that if urgent measures were not taken, Nigeria could lose some of her best female boxing talents to other professions.
“Female boxers go through a lot in Nigeria. For example, some of them have been pushed out of their homes by their parents because they chose boxing as a career.
“The truth is that it is not really easy taking boxing as a full-time profession in this country because it is not lucrative.
“In fact, it is also very discouraging for us as coaches because you cannot meet your responsibilities to your family due to cash constraints.
“As a result of this, many of these young female boxers get frustrated and they quit the sport. It hurts me a lot when I see such happen. My fear is that if nothing is done to improve the lot of these female boxers, in future international competitions, we will not have anyone to represent Nigeria,” he said.
Though not as popular as football, basketball, table tennis and athletics in most parts of Nigeria, only few sports have brought as much medal for the country in international competitions over the years as boxing. In fact, Nigeria recorded its first medal at the Olympic Games in boxing. Competing in the Light Middleweight (71kg) category at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, Nojim Maiyegun went home with the bronze medal, laying the foundation for several other huge achievements for boxing in Nigeria. But despite such impressive contributions, boxing and its practitioners are still miles away from the level their counterparts elsewhere are operating at the moment.
Boxing needs help in Nigeria – Experts
The General Secretary of Nigeria Boxing Board of Control, Remi Aboderin, said more promoters were needed to develop the sport in Nigeria.
“We want more promoters to come and invest in boxing and give our home-grown talents the opportunity to show their quality and guide them to stardom,” he said.
Though in recent times a few platforms have given established and aspiring boxers the chance to showcase their talents to the world, more efforts, it appears, must be made to rescue boxing in Nigeria, experts posit.
Veteran boxing coach, Joe Mensah, in a recent interview with Sunday PUNCH, decried the poor state of facilities for boxers in Nigeria. According to him, the situation has to be drastically improved for the country to reclaim its frontline role in boxing on the continent and the world.
“The state of boxing facilities is not what it used to be since the sport began in the country,” he said. “What we had in the past was the effort of some individuals that made that era different from what we have now.
“Right now, Nigeria doesn’t have a boxing gym because the National Stadium gym, as it is now, is not fit to be called a boxing gym. I say so because I have travelled round the world and I have seen a lot of gyms.
“This has to be addressed for Nigeria to again command the type of respect it used to in boxing in the past,” he added.
The Minister of Health, who is also a professor of gynecology and obstetrics, Isaac Adewole, has said an average athlete has the advantage of a good health, because they will have low level of fat in their body due to the daily exercise they do.
Asked whether female boxers could have problem of child birth and infertility, he said, “No, I don’t think it will affect their reproductive health. In fact, female athletes have the advantage of enjoying sound health and this is because they have low fat content in their system and this helps ovulation and child delivery.”
On what female boxers should avoid to enjoy good reproductive health, he said they should not engage in any form of exercise that could make them too thin.
“They should not be too thin because this can affect their ovulation as their system may be short of supply of fat needed for reproductive health,” Adewole said.
He debunked insinuation that punches to their stomach could destroy their reproductive organs, saying female boxers and in fact all athletes should avoid head injury.
“But female boxers and those involve in sports should be very careful during the first three months of their pregnancy because that period is critical if they do not want to lose their pregnancy,” he said.
But despite the gloom surrounding boxing in Nigeria and many females opting out of the sport as a result of frustration, there are some others embracing it and also vowing to continue to engage in the sport regardless of the current situation.
For example, Oriyomi Abass, a Yoruba lady, recently started training at the National Stadium in Lagos. Though she understands that boxers don’t earn much in Nigeria, the 18-year-old told our correspondent that she was determined to remain and continue her development in the game.
“I was approached by a coach at the National Stadium who told me I had the physique of a boxer and invited me to join them,” Abass began. “After thinking about it for a while, I decided to give it a try.
“My first experience left me with severe shoulder pains and injuries, however, I wasn’t discouraged. Now, I have fallen in love with the sport to the extent that I am looking forward to my first international competition. Though, there isn’t money in the sport, I enjoy it a lot.”
Also desperate to make a name for herself in professional boxing is Sadiku Tomiwa, a 62kg female boxer, who recently started training. She told Saturday PUNCH that she was determined to continue despite the fact that many people now mistake her for a man.
“Some people mistake me for a man, but I don’t let it bother me. When I indicated my interest in boxing, my mother was against it. Eventually, I managed to get her on my side.
“During my first training experience, I sustained injury and was almost discouraged. But now, I don’t feel pain again because I am used it.
“I can take many punches in a day. I intend to box for a long time. Though the sport is not very lucrative now, I am hopeful that things will change in future,” she said.