When boxers come into the gym, they reach a sanctuary. Even more than a protective shield against violence and hardship, female boxers encounter a place for empowerment, where they can build their mind, body and soul. Be it a couple of punch bags and tyres hanging on Bariga’s dust, or a ring tucked within a 9-storey building in Victoria Island – the gym works as a school of morality. Hard work, dedication, endurance and focus are the core values of boxing practice. But it is also a game of confidence and love, a place where one can find sisterhood. Alongside individual perseverance, the shared experience of training, sparring and competing produces one as a worthy fighter.

Even though pioneer Nigerian sportswomen partook in sports in the 1940s, today, boxing remains closely intertwined with masculinity and virility. Thus, Nigerian female boxers are truly transgressive, throwing a timely punch at sports patriarchy. The six women at the core of this exhibition all train and fight in Lagos. Coming from different social backgrounds, some enter high-ranked national championships, while others practice to build self-confidence or overcome their past. Witnessing their strength allows one to get a glimpse of the countless possibilities opened by women, in Nigeria and abroad.

Texts by Claire Nicolas 

Read publication here on Guardian UK

Portrait of Abosede Olamide in her training centre, February 22, 2022. Lekki, Nigeria. Olamide is an 18-year-old boxer, she got interested in boxing since childhood by watching TV game shows. In 2019, she got lucky to have a coach to train her amongst watching and learning from YouTube. In Olamide’s words, “Boxing is good, some people only think it’s about the gloves but it’s not, it’s about the feeling. Boxing can lead a person to become a champion, you’ll be recognized by the whole world, even at your gym too. I love winning. Also, boxing can be a very demanding sport, you’re feeling the pain and you’re gaining, no pain, no gain!”. Olamide is focused on being a successful boxer, she trains day and night.

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Portrait of Esther Oni in the backyard of her training gym centre, February 24, 2022, Lagos Nigeria. For Esther, Boxing is a found talent, she discovered it just two years ago when she was learning self-defence. Esther experienced abuse and bullying at her younger age so she thought getting the power to defend herself will be helpful to her, that’s how she got into boxing. As she practised gradually, she was commended by her friends on how excellent she boxes. It’s indeed a hidden talent to her. Yes, yes. Then I used to be shy, I used to be shy. I used to be scared because of memories of the past. But now, I have self-confidence. Yes. That upped me a lot. I feel stronger, amongst friends, I feel like I am the strongest among my friends now! [smiling] When we go out, I am the only one that can stand up and talk to maybe if a guy is trying to talk to us in a manner that we don’t like, I can stand up and talk to the guy: ‘Please can you step out from here, we don’t like this.’ So I have that confidence. I am the warrior among them!

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Portrait of Oluwadamilola Adigun in her training gym centre, February 26, 2022, Lagos Nigeria. She started boxing to loose weight then she later got inspired watching another lady box in a game. Damilola loves sport generally, but boxing is special to me. “I feel very happy going to the gym, whenever I want to give up, people encourage me, that keeps me going” - Damilola. Damilola is a student of Yaba school of Technology and also a make up artist. For Dami, it’s not easy to combine her work and boxing, but her love for it helps her pushing.

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 Portrait of Tomiwa Sodiq in her training centre at Bariga, Lagos, Nigeria.February 23, 2022. Tomiwa is a 21-year-old boxer, she started in 2010, at a very young age. She got introduced to boxing by her brother, following him to the gym daily made her love the game more, so she learnt it from her brother.

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Portrait of Abosede Obisanya in her training centre at Briga. February 23, 2022. Abosede,19, started boxing in 2015 for many reasons, losing weight was one of her major reasons. Then she started working with boxing as she entered several games which earned her money. Abosede is now a professional boxer, she won a national title; National Champion of Nigeria. “When I started boxing, I started to control my anger. Before I started boxing, any time I got angry, I misbehave. But when I started boxing, my coach told me that boxing is a game of love. So I don’t have the right to fight outside. Except in the ring. So I started controlling my anger anytime I’m on the move, because I know I don’t have any right to do. Boxing is a game of discipline”

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Portrait of Eniola Taiwo in the backyard of her training gym centre, February 25, 2022, Lagos Nigeria. Eniola’s mother is a Karaketa, that was her foundation. Eniola learnt kickboxing from her mother, she followed her mum every day to her training centre, then she became very interested in the game since then. Eniola mentioned that “boxing is a game, is a love game. It is a very, very, love game. And the reason why I love it is that it makes me a reason to focus. It makes me know what I’m doing. Because, it’s through this that makes me finish my study”. Eniola is now a trainer and a kickboxer.

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Coach hugs Olamide after a soaring session, this helps her to relax for a few minutes. February 22, 2022. Lekki, Nigeria. Coach is like a father figure to Olamide, she relies on him for everything in her boxing career.

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Sisterhood. Abosede and Tomiwa playing with each other immediately after their training session. They train occasionally in the same place. Bariga, Lagos, Nigeria.February 23, 2022.

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Damilola’s punching bag. February 26, 2022, Lagos Nigeria.

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Esther’s hands before she wears her gloves. Unlike the rest of the boxers, Esther appears to be a fashionista and I found this contrasting and so interesting. Lagos Nigeria, February 24, 2022

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Esther Oni during her workout session, February 22, 2022, Lagos, Nigeria. “I see boxing as the only exercise that gives focus, balance and calculation. When you are boxing, you have to make a lot of mathematics. It makes me think less. Like after boxing, after sweating out, you feel relieved of somebody, I think it is the only exercise that can do that. Yes, it is the only form of exercise that can do that. When you’re boxing you think you conceptualize. But when you are done, you feel relieved, you feel like something has left you. Probably now something gets you angry. After boxing, after you’re done with your session you feel relieved. It helps, it helps, it helps, it’s a mental help. So you feel ok, you’ll be glad you did it, you’ll be glad.” says Esther.

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