Against all odds and her family's disapproval, Zenfira Magomedalieva's passion for boxing leads to medal at Tokyo

The 33-year old boxer had to fight just to be allowed to compete, but has justified her decision by reaching the Olympics and a place on the podium.

By Marina Dmukhovskaya
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

As the referee raised her hand to announce her quarter-final win at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Zenfira Magomedalieva burst into tears. Her emotions were clear for all to see, but came as no surprise to anyone who knew what she had gone through even to make it to the Olympic boxing ring.

At 23, Magomedalieva put on boxing gloves for the first time in her life. A recent university graduate back then, she was trying to lose weight and get in shape, and the first gym she found near her house just happened to be a boxing studio.

Ten years on, at the Games in 2021, she had guaranteed an Olympic medal for herself and the ROC team, the bronze medal validating her decision to take up the sport, and proving a point to those who didn't support her at the start of an incredible journey.

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Picture by James Chance

Latest boxing success from Dagestan, but with a difference

Magomedalieva comes from Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region of Russia, known for its conservative way of life and traditional family values. Boxing and wrestling are big in Dagestan (three boxers from the area made it to finals or semi-finals of Tokyo 2020), but when girls or women participate in these sports, they often experience barriers in their local communities.

During her studies at Dagestan pedagogical university, Magomedalieva was on a regional athletics team in shot put. However she didn't like this sport, and decided to try something else.

"I started learning how to punch, and soon enough, it drew me. Boxing is very interesting sport. It's fun," the Two-time world champion shared with the RBF about her first steps in boxing,

Parents approval?

Not everyone approved of her choice. In an interview with a local Dagestan paper, the boxer admitted to having to cut her hair short, and lost weight, in the hope of not being recognised by her parents when bouts were broadcast on television. She was afraid that her father would not allow her to pursue her boxing dream.

"My parents still recognised me," she said. "And when I got back to my village, I had to convince them."

"My mom didn't mind. When she was watching the fights, she was worried for me and for my competitor. It was my father who was against me doing boxing".

A boxing brain

Magomedalieva did manage to convince her father.

The more wins she had, the more arguments she had on her side. Success as an amateur boxer meant she was quickly on the brink of becoming a full-time athlete.

It all started with making the national team, then standing on national competitions podiums, before an unbelievable win at the world championships in Jeju, South Korea in 2014.

People back home in Dagestan started talking proudly about her signature speed and tactics in the ring.

Her fans reassessed the nickname they had given her, changing "boxer ring bride" to "the boxing ring master" when Magomedalieva won the world champion title again in 2019, beating the Turkish boxer Elif Guneri.

Having qualified for Tokyo Olympics, she wrote on her Instagram.

"The way to success is hard, but when everything works out, you understand that this was worth it".

Magomedalieva's win over Rady Adosinda Gramane of Mozambique in the quarter-final, guaranteed her an Olympic medal in Tokyo.

She eventually took bronze, after being beaten in the semi-final by Li Qian from China, a bronze medalist from Rio.

Her run to the podium earned her a lot of attention. Local celebrities and influencers have been congratulating her on their social media accounts, and her exploits could well inspire other girls in Dagestan to follow into her footsteps. She has spoken of a desire to train girls how to box once she retires from the ring, perhaps even helping create more history for women from Dagestan.