By Rubén Rosario
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
It is Wednesday and the Circle of Discipline gym in South Minneapolis is packed with the usual throng of pugilists, from tykes to wiry teens and muscular young men punching bags, skipping rope or running on treadmills.
On this night, a 112-pound wisp of a young lady, fully clothed and wearing a hijab under the headgear, is sparring with a considerably larger and beefier male opponent in the gym’s main boxing ring.
“Keep your head up, keep your head up,” Sierra Samuels, a longtime gym fixture and the mother of local pro welterweight fighter Jamal “Shango” James, yells out to Amaiya Zafar during the session.
Uppercuts do love bowed, unguarded chins. Zafar heeds the advice and responds with a sequence of nifty combinations.
“She’s good,” Samuels told me during a brief break overseeing the sparring match. “She’s dedicated. If she keeps focused and keeps training, she can go far.”
Zafar, 18, of Oakdale, is a devout Muslim. She is also much more than that girl boxer who wears a hijab. She’s studying nursing at Metro State University in St. Paul. She holds down a job at the school. For fun, she likes hanging out with friends and cousins.
But her nearly three-year fight to compete while wearing traditional religious garments attracted national and international attention and made her a game changer of sorts.
Citing safety reasons, USA Boxing initially banned her from competitive boxing. The main objection publicly cited by officials was that the hijab as well as the leggings and long sleeves she wears could disguise serious injuries from referees during a fight.
She was disqualified from the Sugar Bert National Boxing Championship in Florida three years ago in spite of protests from the boxing promoter and the girl she was slated to fight.
“It’s just not right,” her 15-year-old opponent, who gave the championship belt to Zafar, told reporters at the time. “It’s not really a distraction for me what she’s wearing. She still had on gloves and headgear. I felt really bad for her. They didn’t give her a chance to fight.”
Zafar, bolstered by support from her opponent, her father, Mohammad Zafar, a former Marine, and from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, did not give up.
“She’s been wearing the hijab since the age of 6,” her father said. “It’s become part of her identity.”
The persistence worked. Two years ago, USA Boxing modified its rules, allowing boxers to file for a religious waiver before a bout. Zafar became the first woman in America to compete in a boxing match wearing a hijab two years ago at an event in Minneapolis.
On Feb. 25, the International Boxing Association upped the ante. It instituted a new rule that now allows the wearing of hijabs and “full body form fitting uniforms” if required for religious reasons.
“The new athlete clothing offers new uniforms that do not compromise the competition and therefore the health of the boxers, which has always been the priority for the AIBA,” the group said in a statement.
“We are very proud of her because she stuck to what she believes,” Mohammad Zafar said.
Amaiya Zafar is aware of Zeina Nassar, another hijab-wearing boxer from Germany and five-time champion who is sponsored by Nike. Nassar wears a close-fitting sports hijab with the Nike logo.
“I’ve seen it, but it’s too expensive,” she said.
Samuels, who first brought her son to Circle of Discipline 25 years ago and stayed working and helping to run the place, has seen the virtual United Nations of both genders come through the gym’s doors. Flags from the U.S. and several other countries hang from the ceiling.
“People are coming here from many places, and boxing is becoming more diverse,” Samuels told me. “I’m glad she’s now able to compete. We need more women in boxing.
“In Minnesota, there aren’t many, if any, she can fight,” Samuels added, referring to Zafar, “but there are quite a few at the national level with more experience. That’s why she’s working with the guys down here.”
Zafar went back to Florida last year and won the Sugar Bert title in her weight class, as well as another championship held in Kansas City, MO. Zafar is training to compete in the women’s flyweight division at the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves championship tournament in Minnesota at the end of April. Her long-range goal? To represent Minnesota and the U.S. in the 2024 Olympics.
“Watch out for my name,” she said confidently.
She drew strength from words of inspiration that James shared with her and a group of other young boxers during a meeting in a gym hallway after the sparring session.
“If you don’t keep goals fresh in your head, then they are nothing but dreams,” he said. “Keep them fresh and keep them attainable. Get them done. But it takes time and energy and sacrifice and determination. You have to want it …”
“He’s right,” Zafar said. “You have to have heart. I have it. Boxing is my life.”
She’s feisty, has tons of moxie and drive, but she’s also her toughest critic.
“Please don’t use those pictures — I did not do too well,” she told me moments after the sparring session ended.
No, kid. You did all right.