Against All Odds: The Fatuma Zarika Story- The Recap

10th September 2018

The 34-year old mother of two did not have it easy as she battled her way up to attain her World Champion status

Fatuma Zarika (centre) and SportPesa CEO, Captain Ronald Karauri (2nd R) celebrate after the former defended her WBC Women Super Bantamweight title in  Nairobi on Saturday, September 8, 2018. PHOTO/SPN
Fatuma Zarika (centre) and SportPesa CEO, Captain Ronald Karauri (2nd R) celebrate after the former defended her WBC Women Super Bantamweight title in Nairobi on Saturday, September 8, 2018. PHOTO/SPN
  • Fatuma 'Iron Fist' Zarika defeated Mexican Yamileth Mercado to retain her World Boxing Council (WBC) Super Bantamweight title
  • Her attitude, resilience, perseverance, strength both mentally and physically played a key role in enabling her to become the world champion that she is today
  • She dethroned Jamaican Alicia Ashley via split decision to make history as the first Kenyan to win a WBC world title

NAIROBI, Kenya- Fatuma 'Iron Fist' Zarika made every Kenyan proud on Saturday night when she defeated Mexican Yamileth Mercado to retain her World Boxing Council (WBC) Super Bantamweight title.

Zarika outclassed the 20-year old Mexican to win via a split-decision at the Kenyatta International Convention Center (KICC).

It was not always a bed of roses for Kenyan boxer having risen from the crime-infested Mathare North estate of Nairobi to global acclaim through an arduous journey that could have sapped the sprit of any individual.

With a determination cast in iron, Zarika overcame insurmountable odd to ascend to the apex of her sport and SportPesa News recaps the eight part series titled 'Against All Odds' that ran ahead of her memorable bout that capped the festival dubbed 'Nairobi Fight Night' in Nairobi. 


"There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, many of us will have to walk through the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires." 

Those words by the late South African ant-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela speak volumes on what 'Iron Fist' Zarika had to endure in her meteoric rise to the top.

Zarika was born on March 13, 1985 to parents Peter Kang’ethe and Aisha Musa in Satellite, Nairobi and she attended Kabiria Primary School for her formative education and two years into her studies, Hemed Musa, the only sibling she would ever know was added to the family.

When she was barely seven years old, her parents divorced and was solely raised by her Ugandan mother before she terminated schooling after sitting for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination as abject poverty in her single mother's household deprived her of fees to continue.

"I felt really bad I couldn’t go on to the next level of my education. I understood that my mother was trying her best to provide for my brother and I. I had to do what I could to help out and maybe make enough money to put myself through school," Zarika recalled with sadness.

She was left no choice but to look for a means to make money to bail herself and her family out of the jaws of deprivation.


Zarika’s first job was as a housemaid, one which she diligently did for a year before getting yet another year-long gig as an aid to an old, sickly woman in the neighbourhood.

Soon after she left her menial employment and still at a very tender age, the teenage Zarika was blessed with a daughter. Sophia Zarika was brought into this world on the August 12, 1997.

Despite the natural joy and sense of fulfilment that a new-born brings to a mother, a cloud of anxiety engulfed her as she was troubled by thoughts of her ability to provide for her beloved daughter.

"Sophia was a bundle of joy and she was one of the very few things that would put a smile on my face after every long day.

"Though she fell sick quite often and as a mother being unable to help by simply catering for medical expenses, is a feeling that is almost impossible for one to get over,” she decried.

Zarika’s mother Aisha continued to do as much as she could to provide for her family and her daughter followed in her footsteps.

They grafted through the hardships doing any work they could find just to put food on the table at the end of the day.

The then 19-year old Zarika moved to South B with her cousin in an attempt to seek greener pastures for Sophia and herself.

Other than the primary needs that she needed to cater for, another huge struggle that she had to deal with was the regular medical attention that her sickly daughter required.


Zarika attempted to venture into the world of sports starting with football. Things did not pan out for her as she failed to display any sort of prowess in the sport, resulting in the decision to try something else.

She then went to Mathare North in Eastlands where she met Conjestina Achieng’, who later went on to become the first African woman to hold an international title after defeating Ugandan Fiona Tugume to take the vacant WIBF Middleweight crown.

Conjestina mentored Zarika and convinced her to try out boxing. Seeing as she was torn between what to do next, she agreed to start training with her in the hope that this time her efforts would bear fruit

Her decision was followed by an immediate need to take part in intense training that included early morning runs and gym sessions followed by more training.

Zarika began her amateur boxing career with the promise of joining the Kenya Police Service from her trainer.

She would train under him in Mathare North and sometimes- at the police headquarters in the hope that she would soon be able to join the force as promised.

Unfortunately, the dream would never amount to anything as the trainer had no intention to fulfil the pledge he had made to Zarika.

After plenty of hard-work, determination and that ever so evident never say die attitude, Zarika was finally ready for her maiden amateur boxing match and she was up for the challenge as she won by a fine margin.

After all her commendable efforts, she was awarded with a meagre KSh50 in an envelope and even though it was the first money she had made from boxing, it was not an amount that did much to encourage her to enter the ring for another attempt.

Lack of funds would force her to walk from Mathare North to Gikomba, a distance of approximately 14km every day to and from the gym to better her skill and improve on the little boxing knowledge she had already picked up.

Right before she called it quits in her amateur career, she squared up in the ring against her mentor and the person responsible for helping turn her into a boxer, Conjestina.

The fight ended in a draw and it was evident that Zarika had finally found something she could be great at, that could be her family’s way out.


Her first pro fight was against former national champion, Damaris Muthoni with Zarika losing after four rounds.

The bout earned her KSh700, a remarkable improvement from the KSh50 she made from her maiden amateur fight. It was an indication that fortunes could take a turn for the better.

After two months, another fight came her way and she was promised KSh 4,000 if she won the duel. 

The tireless efforts in training and determination she continuously displayed paid off as she saw off her opponent.

The euphoric radiance that came after the victory was short-lived as the fight promoters once again bailed out on her but undeterred, Zarika once again picked herself up and continued to train in the hope of a brighter future.

By this time, she had started training under a new manager in the Pumwani area of Nairobi.

Keeping in mind that she still had not secured a steady income, she still had to walk.

"Waking up every day knowing I had to walk to the gym to seek a brighter future for my family motivated me to want to wake up the following day to do it again.

 "I had a strong sense of belief that it would all pay off one day," Zarika stated.

Her typical day would start at 6am. A 30-minute run would get her day started before she heads back to the house to prepare her kids for school before embarking on the hour-long walk to the gym.

This routine continued until she got invited for yet another professional fight in Mumias.

Having travelled so far to participate in the fight, the discouraging end result was one that was becoming way too familiar. The promoters failed her yet again by not paying her.

"I was very disappointed after I trained so hard for the fight and did my best to win but I was not paid in the end," Zarika lamented.

A profound feeling of satisfaction that she had never felt before came soon after when she registered her first ever knockout win in the ring. Agnes Adonga was the unlucky victim of the 'Iron Fist'. 


The victory enabled her to get noticed by Blue Shield Insurance who wrote her first every paycheck. She penned a one-year contract that entitled her to five professional fights in that duration.

Zarika’s fortunes seemed to be turning for the better as afterwards she was approached by promoter and trainer Kale Osaga, who convinced her to sign another two-year deal, this time with Osaga Promotions.

When the fights began to come, the same old curse of not being paid continued to haunt Zarika. 

She had entrusted Osaga with the task of turning her into one of the best female boxers in the land and the endless promises she would get made her reluctant to pressure him for her dues.

The back and forth with Zarika and promoters not paying her went on for a year and during this time she would participate in fights merely for the sake of breaking records. 

On a good day, she would receive KSh 10,000 for her efforts.

“Even after I left Osaga Promoters, I knew that I had to find a new avenue to make it. I still had to provide for my family, they needed clothes and school fees to pursue an education and that was enough to encourage me,” she underlined.

Time went by and she kept her spirits up until she was fortunate enough to get a well-wisher who took her to America with the conventional promise of turning her boxing career around.

What began as a dream come true, became a dark reality as it did not turn out to be the American dream that she had hoped it would be. She ended up doing house-work for a long period of time and rarely training.


In 2008, Zarika participated in what she believes if one of the toughest fights in her career. 

She squared up against Belinda 'Brown Sugar' Laracuente at the Charter Hall in Nairobi for the interim World International Boxing Federation World Super Bantamweight title.

Though many believed that she did not stand a chance against the Puerto Rican, she proved all her doubters wrong with an astounding victory, sending local fans in attendance into a frenzy.

Another opponent that sent chills down both Zarika and her number one fan, daughter Sophia’s spine was yet another Puerto Rican, Amanda Serrano in 2015.

When the umpire signaled for the start of the fight, both women locked horns from the get go. 

Zarika was on the receiving end as Serrano landed a power punch on her chest sending her sprawling to the canvas in one of the rounds on her way to completing an unanimous decision victory.

Four months later, it was announced that Zarika was to face Serrano yet again, this time in Westbury, New York.

She hit the ground running and stepped up her training as she had her eyes set on getting revenge against the only women's boxer to win world titles in five weight divisions. 

This was not to be as Zarika went down yet again to Serrano on September 10, 2015 in what marks her last defeat to date.

On October 1, 2016, the eminent Kenyan boxer arrived in Flint, Michigan to challenge veteran Alicia Ashley for the WBC World Super Bantamweight crown.

Ashley was expected to make short of the Kenyan who had struggled to raise the air ticket and accommodation to honour the fight, having been offered no purse for the bout. 

Her task was simple, show up, get beaten and add the number of victims to the Jamaican boxing queen's record.

It was a leap of faith that was to define her career, turning her into a journey woman fighter into the global force she is today when she shocked the Jamaican on a split decision to become the first Kenyan to clinch a WBC- the gold standard in the five global boxing promotions- title.

Such was the stunning nature of her victory that local media, who had dismissed her challenge as an exercise in futility, took over 24 hours to announce the news to the nation.

On her return home, Zarika who left without anyone barely taking notice had suddenly become the hottest property on the sporting landscape, her rise against all odds complete. 


Zarika’s children are her biggest source of inspiration and have always been throughout her career.

Despite the countless times that she has been disheartened enough to call it quits, the thought of why she is doing all this, which is her kids – has seen her always pick herself up to soldier.

She has amazing levels of dedication, doing any work that she could find before boxing just to put food on the table at the end of the day.

 "I was really desperate for change in my life and it took all of me not to give up because I had people counting on me.

"Seeing as I had no education and no steady source of income, I deliberated getting married and with that I left home without saying a word to my mother,” Zarika explained.

The hustle of not being able to look for work because of having nobody to look after Sophia continued to be a problem weighing on Zarika’s shoulders as she constantly had to turn to her mother to look after her.

The urge to give her kids a better life than she had or had ever imagined has been the constant source of inspiration in her life.

Many would have chosen to throw in the towel but that was the last thing on Zarika’s mind. She had to keep going.

"My motivation was my kids. I knew that I had to provide food and a roof over their heads, so I couldn’t give up,” she asserted.


Zarika's fortunes changed when she was named a brand ambassador for SportPesa who were captivated by her moving rise from the doldrums to a world champion.

The partnership with Zarika is part of the firm's sports development drive that seeks to leverage on its global partnerships to expose local talent to the international arena.

Under the initiative, Zarika trained for the first time in United States before facing Catherine Phiri and United Kingdom ahead of her fight with Mercado.

“It’s almost two years now as part of the SportPesa family and it has been nothing short of amazing. 

"All they are doing and have done to better my career has been more than anyone or any institution has done since I began boxing 15 years ago and for that I will forever be grateful,” Zarika revealed.

Last year in December Phiri came to Kenya to challenge Zarika for the WBC World Super-bantamweight title fight organised by Las Vegas-based Bigger Than Life Entertainment.

The build-up to that fight saw Zarika travel to America twice where she got to meet boxing icons such as Mike 'Iron' Tyson and on her return home, she went hard to beat Phiri in a bruising battle having seen an earlier planned re-match in New York against Alicia Ashley cancelled in June.

When her fight against Mercado was announced, Zarika packed her bags again, this time to Liverpool to join the 4 Corners Combat and Fitness Gym on the recommendation of former British WBC featherweight champion, Tony Bellew.

Bellew is an ambassador of Everton FC, the English Premier League side where SportPesa are the proud title partners illustrating how leverage on the bookmakers' global portfolio came to benefit a talent born and bred in Kenya. 

Besides footing the huge costs of her training, Zarika has worked with SportPesa to give up to the community she hailed from and in the run-up to the fight, she toured Mathare and donated boxing equipment to the boxing club where it all started for her.

Then, the Mathare Social Hall Boxing Gym was a dilapidated structure with peeling paint but on Tuesday (September 4) when Zarika toured with Tanzanian celebrity and former Big Brother Africa winner, Idriss Sultan, the transformation of the facility was there for all to see.