Last weekend, Fatuma Zarika defended her World Boxing Council super-bantamweight title against Zambia’s Catherine Phiri at the Carnivore in Nairobi.
I was happy for her because I know at first-hand what the title and the income that comes with it means to her. She once gave me a lengthy interview where she laid bare the hardships encountered by female professional boxers in Kenya.
In the process, I also got to know that the veins lining those sweat-drenched arms in contours resembling the tributaries of a river masked a delicate fragility and tenderness.
I had thought her system was made of nerves of steel through which ran ice water until she spoke of her daughters, Sophia and Halima, and her fear that the little girls could end up like her because of lack of school fees.
Her eyes, so clear and bright before, turned misty. She lost her words and audibly gasped for breath. Her bosom heaved. And then the looming threat turned real. She started weeping.
Tears rolled down her cheeks in an uncontrollable flow, as if the mention of Sophia and Halima was the signal they had been waiting for. She tried in vain to stop their flow with her hands. But they just meandered through her fingers.
My first reaction was a feeling of gratitude that she had her back to most of the people in the restaurant we were dining in and so she could express her private pain in that public place with dignity.
The ominous fate staring at Sophia and Halima’s future deeply affected Zarika. She wept, and wept and wept. Through that welter of emotions, she told me of deals gone awry, of unscrupulous managers who had fleeced her, of lack of fights, of lack of alternative ways of earning a living because of her limited education, and of family pressures from relatives who believed her fame earned her a lot of money.
She dredged out every last detail of the emptiness of a celebrity life that couldn’t meet basic expenses like food and rent with an eloquence that startled me.
The heartbreak was her constant refrain that she could bear starving or even being kicked out of the house but not lack of school fees for her children.
For them to replicate her life because she couldn’t educate them was asking her to bear the unbearable. The interview became an emotional endurance test and all I could do was to patiently wait for her to regain composure.
Which thankfully came at long last. In such circumstances, nothing said could surpass words of hope and encouragement and the affirmation that the only realistic thing to do is to hang in there because as our Nigerian brothers would say “tomorrow go better.”
Last weekend it did. There were no tears, only screams of joy. I was surprised at the passion of the crowd rooting for her in the arena and in social media. For this once, life felt good.
The camaraderie, the jokes, the exaggerated laughter put that interview deep in the shadow.
And later I thought again about boxing, this sport the underclass tries to use as a way out of the ghetto. It is deeply ingrained in the human psyche to an extent that more than any other sport its rules, jargon and mannerisms have given the English language an array of figures of speech to apply in everyday life. Let’s examine a few:
Punching above your weight: In boxing, weight categories are clearly demarcated. Only bouts between fighters of the same weight category are allowed. A fighter who went against the grain and took on heavier opponents was said to be punching above his weight. In time, this has come to describe people or countries who become more successful and influential than their status would suggest.
For example, when this year five Gulf countries broke diplomatic relations with Qatar which hosts the 2022 Fifa World Cup, the first dispatch I saw on the development read: “Qatar is a tiny, rich country that punches above its weight…”
Hitting below the belt: The most points in boxing are scored when one lands a punch to the head. Lesser ones come from hitting the body. But under no circumstances should one aim for a man’s private parts.
That leads to a straight disqualification. Hitting below the belt now also means any word or action that is unfair to another person.
For example, if you want to criticise this piece and you discover that the people who dug a tunnel and made away with Sh50 million from a bank vault are my close relatives (which they are not, by the way) you must not bring any of that into your criticism. That would be hitting me below the belt.
Throwing in the towel: The person who attends to a boxer from a designated corner of the ring is called a second. If in his opinion his charge is haplessly absorbing blows and risks injury as a result, he can decide to stop the fight. He does that by throwing into the ring the towel he uses to mop his fighter’s sweat between rounds.
Once the referee sees that, he terminates the fight immediately. The second has given up on behalf of his fighter. But in ordinary life, it is you who gives up. For example, if since February 2017 you have been pursuing an election-related tender and all your “contact” has been telling you is “I am expecting something next week” and now you are just staring at another swearing-in, you can throw in the towel. Enough punishment. Game up.
Lightweight/heavyweight: An expert in anything is figuratively called a heavyweight and a person of modest ability a lightweight. Therefore, if I set out to write an exposition on how Kenya’s economy is affecting people like me, few people would read it.
They would with good reason dismiss me as a lightweight in that subject. But if David Ndii did the same, everybody would read it with rapt attention. This is because he is a heavyweight in economics. What puzzles me is how this came about. Lightweight is not the lightest weight in boxing.
The traditional weight categories are: 1. Light flyweight. 2. Flyweight. 3. Bantamweight. 4. Featherweight 5. Lightweight 6. Light welterweight 7. Welterweight. 8. Light middleweight 9. Middleweight 10. Light heavyweight 11. Heavyweight. See where lightweight is? Right in the middle! I don’t understand why people of modest achievements are called lightweights. Why not light flyweights?
Dropping your guard: If you have been to a ringside, you must have heard a second’s frantic cries to his charge: “Guard up! Guard up!” His worry is that his charge is inviting a blow to the head with potentially catastrophic results. Let’s not get into upper cuts, hooks, right hand leads and whatnot today.
Let it suffice that on no account should a boxer drop his guard during a fight. So, too, in life. All members of the Pyramid Schemes Victims Association dropped their guard when asked to pray and hand over their money to snake oil salesmen. If you doze in a matatu with all your salary in your handbag you have dropped your guard.
Knock-out/technical knock-out: In boxing, a fight ends in one of these ways: 1. A judges’ decision. This happens when the fight goes the full distance of the scheduled number of rounds. The judges, always an odd number, award points and the boxer who has attained the higher score is declared the winner. 2. A knock-out. This happens when one boxer is knocked down and fails to beat the referee’s count of one to 10. 3. A technical knockout. This is when one boxer suffers an injury and is unable to continue.
When a referee stops the contest as when a second throws in the towel that is also adjudged a technical knock-out. A knock-out is the highest score in boxing. It never attracts contestation. This is why winners in any keenly contested competition such as an election or a tender bid crow that they won by knock-out. One group of people who love dramatizing life’s contests in this way is cartoonists.
They even draw members of a losing football team sprawling on a ring canvas, with lots of bandages and black eyes, and the beaming winners holding a trophy with their gloved hands.
Being in somebody’s corner:
Two of the four corners of a boxing ring are for the competitors. One is blue and the other red. The other two, both always white, are called neutral corners. They are used by the referee. Intensely partisan cheering and booing is directed at the red and blue corners by charged crowds during boxing contests.
But in everyday life corners have nothing to do with boxing. If the job you desperately needed has gone to your worst enemy despite your moving heaven and earth in a lobbying campaign, you know some key people were never in your corner despite their assurances.
Shadow boxing: Muhammad Ali once quipped: “I saw George Foreman shadow boxing. The shadow won.” Only he could witness such a phenomenon. Shadow boxing is fighting with an imaginary opponent in training but in ordinary life it refers to making a show of dealing with a problem while actually avoiding it.
Punching bag: This is a vital tool in a boxer’s training kit. It is heavy and is usually hung in a corner of the gym. It is filled with sand or saw dust. Boxers pound it to exhaustion.
Figuratively, anybody who suffers a similar fate in being used by others to vent their anger and frustration is called a punching bag. Having reached the end of my space, I don’t want to become the editor’s punching bag for exceeding my limit. I could end up being punch drunk, you know.