When Esther Oni joined a boxing gym just over a year ago, she had no idea it would change her life. Being abused as a child had shattered her self-esteem and left her feeling isolated and anxious. Today, she has her sights set on boxing professionally, competing against the best in the world.
“I’m a different person to the one I was before boxing,” she says. “I feel relieved, like something has left me. I feel free.”
Oni was introduced to boxing when a university friend invited her to watch a women’s match. “I saw how confident the girls were, so I started reading about boxing, got a job as an administrator at EliteBox, and started training.
“It was tough at first. I couldn’t walk the day after my first session but now I feel sick if I don’t train.”
It soon became clear she had a talent for the sport. Encouraged by friends and her coach at EliteBox fitness gym on Victoria Island in Lagos, she now trains four times a week.
Oni, 25, is one of six female boxers photographed at EliteBox by documentary photographer and film-maker Taiwo Aina. Some train for fitness and self-defence, others, like Abosede Obisanya, are professional boxers. All of them credit the sport with improving their mental health as well as their physical strength.
“I used to be scared because of memories of the past,” says Oni. “Now I feel like I am the strongest of my friends. If a guy is trying to talk to us in a manner we don’t like, I am the only one that can stand up [to him]. I am the warrior among them!”
Obisanya, 19, says boxing has helped her deal with anger she felt as a teenager. “Boxing is a game of discipline. Before I started boxing, I would misbehave but my coach told me that I don’t have the right to fight outside. Only in the ring.”
As a photographer, Aina is drawn to “human experiences and the societal issues that affect them”, but this was the first time she had ever visited a boxing gym. The women’s experiences and the way their passion for the sport has transformed their lives resonated with her. “Even though I’m not a boxer, I understood how they felt. Whenever I have my camera, I’m more confident too,” says Aina.
The most rewarding part of the project for Aina and the boxers was an exhibition of the photos at Alliance Française, which supported the project. “All the female boxers came to the exhibition and brought their families too,” says Aina.
Oni says that seeing the smile on her mother’s face when she saw the photos at the exhibition was a moment to cherish. “My mum is proud of me now, but at first she was against [the idea of me boxing]. She said I would turn myself into a man, and no one wants to marry a woman like that. But her words made me want to box even more.
“When I saw the photos, I knew boxing would take me a long way, and I knew I made the right decision choosing it.”