Hanan Ibrahim Al Zyodi and Fahima Falaknaz became the first female boxers to represent the UAE when they competed at the Asian Women's Boxing Championship in Bangkok in April. Having done so, they paved the way for several others to join them at the UAE Boxing Federation's training centres located in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
UAE national team head coach Mohammed Al Shebli selected Al Zyodi and Falaknaz after the AIBA (International Boxing Association) pressed him to enter a women’s team in the Asian Championship.
"I travelled around Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah visiting private gyms to find Emirati girls who may be interested in boxing, and came across Hanan and Fahima," Al Shebli told The National.
“I had heard about them through contacts from fitness centres. They looked good, and when I spoke to them, they agreed to give it a try.”
Having picked two candidates, the most challenging part for Al Shebli was to get them prepared for a competition in just under two months.
“We had a 20-day camp in Abu Dhabi and another 20 days in Tashkent with the Uzbekistan national team,” added the Emirati.
Al Shebli, who recently travelled to South Korea for his AIBA Level 3 coaching course, believes Al Zyodi and Falaknaz are good prospects for future competitions.
“First we want to provide them with some competitions for them to gain experience before thinking of winning medals,” he said.
“There aren’t any competitions we can fit them in at the moment but we are on the lookout. The long-term objectives are the 2022 Asian Games and the 2024 Olympics.”
Al Shebli expects boxing to get increasingly popular among Emirati girls and he has identified 14-year-old Ayesha Al Nuaimi from Abu Dhabi as a future prospect.
Al Zyodi's story is one of dramatic transformation: she shed 35 kilograms in 700 days to compete in the 60kg weight. The 24 year old was a champion javelin thrower and represented the UAE in basketball when she was at school and college. She gave up sports after leaving school and started to gain weight.
“I visited one of my friends three years ago and her mum took a photo and posted it to me, and that was the time I realised how bad shape I was [in],” Al Zyodi said.
“I was ashamed to see myself in the photo. I was in tears, but I decided to work back into shape. It was very hard at the beginning but I got over that.”
Al Zyodi trained continuously and went on a strict diet until she reduced her weight to 75kg, before losing a further 15kg to get down to her current fighting weight.
“For one year and nine months, I ate the same food: salmon, vegetables and salads,” she said. “I’m 60kg now and everyone wants to know if I underwent surgery.”
Employed by Sharjah Police, Al Zyodi starts her day with a 3-5-kilometre run at 5.30am. She is at work from 9am to 1pm, and trains the Sharjah Police in basketball and fitness from 1-4pm.
“I take the whole Friday off sleeping,” she said laughing.
Al Zyodi has been boxing for only four months but already has her goals set on representing the UAE at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, and perhaps at the Olympics two years later in Paris.
“I’m enjoying the sport as never before,” she said. “I get inspired when I see distance runners from some of the African nations overcome hardships and win Olympic medals.
“Here in the Emirates we have all the luxuries to train in some of the best infrastructures and facilities, and still we are struggling at the international levels. I wish I can bring a change to our girls.”
Falaknaz, a self-confessed fitness fanatic, has been practicing boxing for two and-a-half years. A customer care manager by day, the 35-year-old Emirati is big fan of Bruce Lee films and Shaolin kung fu.
She believes she still has a few years left to pursue her dreams in boxing.
"I have been active all my life and I still feel I'm good enough for another five years," said Falaknaz, who has also competed in distance running, badminton, squash, basketball, volleyball, karate and horse riding.
“I came across boxing in the gym where I went for fitness and joined them. I was the only Emirati in a mixed group.
“I found out my boxing level was getting better and then began taking individual lessons later at Real Gym, which was specialising in boxing.
“I used to train every day even before the national team coach approached me. I had a good idea what to expect at the Asian Championship.”
Falaknaz and Al Zyodi made first-round exits in the 54kg and 60kg divisions, respectively, but said the experience gained was more valuable than any medals.
“We were pushed into the deep end straightaway,” Falaknaz said. “The results didn’t really matter. The experience and to break a cultural barrier was an accomplishment in itself.
“I’m aware of this because during my schooldays, I didn’t have the independence to come out in the open to pursue a career in sports.
“As the eldest girl and second among eight children I was responsible to take care of the house and my younger siblings. My father was over-protective of me just because he loved me so much.
“It was only when I started working that I got the opportunity to do what I wanted. I’m enjoying what I missed during my college days. Better late than never, as they say.”