Sports - October 30, 2021 | 06:00 am PT

Vietnamese woman rolls with life's punches to claim boxing crown

She sold lottery tickets when she was seven. She worked odd jobs in eateries when she got older. Today, Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi is a world boxing champion.

Nhi’s arduous journey and tenacity peaked as a historic day on October 23, not just for herself, but for Vietnamese boxing itself as she defeated defending champion Etsuko Tada to lift the mini-flyweight WBO World Belt in South Korea. The 25-year-old is the first Vietnamese boxer ever to win a major world title.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi holds the Vietnam flag high after winning the WBO world belt on October 23, 2021. Photo by the World Boxing Organization

Born to a family of farmers in Mekong Delta province of An Giang, poverty forced Nhi to move to Ho Chi Minh City with her grandmother when she was a kid. The tough life that she had to lead as a child, selling lottery tickets and working for restaurants, forged her resilience and tenacity.

Nhi believes that fate took her to boxing. In 2009, she started practicing traditional martial arts at school but her teacher guided her toward boxing and Nhi was in love with the sport by the time she was 13.

"I found great passion when I switched to boxing, so I trained really hard. However, there was a time that I decided to quit because practicing every day affected my work and I needed money to cover my expenses and support my family."

But her passion was too great and she returned to the sport, wanting to keep moving forward and see what the future held for her.

Turning point

The turning point came in 2015, when Nhi met South Korean businessman Kim Sang-bum, owner of the biggest boxing gym in HCMC, the Cocky Buffalo.

"South Korean boxing champion Yuh Myung-woo hosted a pro match here in 2015 and I met Nhi then while helping Yuh. I knew instantly she was gifted. I wanted to sign a contract with her to train under me, but she belonged to an amateur team already so I had to wait three years until she was free," Kim told The Korea Times.

Kim Sang-bum poses with the WBO Asia-Pacific belt in his office at Cocky Buffalo gym, HCMC on March 20, 2020. Photo courtesy of Kim Sang-bum.

At first Kim had difficulties communicating with Nhi and teaching her a better boxing style.

"She had bad eyesight. Then Yuh promised he would pay for her surgery if she came to Korea. I took her to Korea and Yuh kept his promise. This is where we started our journey," Kim said.

Things only went up from there for Nhi. She made headlines after defeating three-time world champion Gretchen Abaniel of the Philippines in the Victory 8 event in 2018. Later, with Kim’s support, she began preparing to turn pro, training at the Cocky Buffalo under the instruction of South Korean coach Park Yong-kyun, a former world champ.

Her perseverance and determination in training helped Nhi notch up continuous success in the domestic youth tournaments.

She finally made her professional debut in August 2019 with a victory over South Korean boxer Chan Mi Lim at HCMC’s District 7 Arena. Three months later, Nhi had her second professional win after knocking out Thailand’s Kannika Bangnara in just six seconds.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi trains at Cocky Buffalo gym in HCMC. Photo courtesy of Cocky Buffalo.

First Asia, then the world

On February 29, 2020, Nhi defeated Kanyarat Yoohanngoh of Thailand in a split decision to claim the vacant WBO Asia-Pacific mini-flyweight belt in Cambodia.

She went into the bout the clear underdog with just three wins in her professional career compared to Yoohanngoh's seven.

But her confidence and relentless attacks forced her opponent to resort to illegal moves, which resulted in a point deduction by the referee.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi throws an accurate left hook at Kanyarat Yoohanngoh in the WBO Asia-Pacific belt fight on February 29, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nam Trung

Next, Nhi challenged Etsuko Tada for the WBO world belt. If it weren’t for Covid-19, she could have fought Tada in February this year in Vietnam instead of going to Ansan in South Korea.

To prepare for "the fight of her life", Nhi went to Uzbekistan and trained in the national team’s boxing center on Yangiabad mountain for two months.

"Because of Covid-19 in Vietnam, I didn’t have any fighter to train with. But in Uzbekistan, I got to fight and practice with many experienced fighters there who had competed in Asian Games and Olympics before. I not only gained more experience, I could also improve my techniques. I think my stamina, pace and strength also improved."

Nhi entered the match with just four professional fights, while Tada was undisputed number one mini-flyweight boxer in Japan and the world. The 41-year-old had 26 fights under her belt, of which she’d won 20, drew three and lost three.

Nhi was shorter and had a smaller arm span than her opponent, but she was younger, faster and more accurate. Although she had a cut above her eye that was bleeding, Nhi kept her composure and stayed on target to edge out Tada 96-94 after 10 rounds.

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi (L) lands a right hook on Etsuko Tada in the WBO World belt fight on October 23, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Trung Nam.

"This is a victory for the Vietnamese martial arts scene," Nhi said after the bout that made her the eighth mini-flyweight champion in the history of WBO.

"Boxing has completely changed my life. It made me more mature and enabled me to provide for my family. When I go outside, people often recognize me as a boxing champion and I’m happy to be known like that."

In the coming time, Nhi said, her plan is to defend the WBO world belt against challengers.

"I will also consider going after other titles as well as moving up to higher weight classes. But I want to do it slowly and step by step. I don’t want to be unrealistic and set the bar too high."

Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi celebrates after winning the WBO World belt on October 23, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Nghia Phu

"I didn’t expect that I’d come this far. But I poured all my passion and strength into my dream."

Story by Hoang Nguyen, Duc Dong