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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Don't let looks sucker punch you

Russian steals Japan pro boxing scene by charm, right cross

Staff writer

Daria Abramova is an instant knockout, boasting a stunning combination of dark blonde hair, light brown eyes and candy-colored lips.

News photo
Sweet science: Pro boxer Daria Abramova practices combination punches during a workout at the Saijo Boxing Gym in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, last month. Below, she smiles for a photo during an interview. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO
News photo

But taking this woman lightly could be a deadly mistake.

"My forte is my right cross," Abramova, who in July became the first foreign national to pass Japan's professional women's boxing test, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Weighing in at 46 kg and standing 161 cm tall, the 23-year-old Russian spoke in fluent Japanese as she twirled her wavy hair with her index finger.

"Being hit with a punch isn't that painful, to be honest. I'm not afraid of getting into a slugfest," she said.

Female professional boxing is still in its infancy here. The Japan Boxing Commission held its first licensing test only last February.

But some believe Abramova could blossom into a world-class talent and bring the sport to prominence with her lethal one-two punch of beauty and ferocity.

According to the JBC, 53 female pro boxers have been licensed since instituting the exam. About 80 percent of the candidates, including those who were licensed as professional boxers under different organizations, have met the JBC's standards, a spokesman said.

Born in October 1984 and raised about 900 km east of Moscow in the city of Ulyanovsk, Abramova first began boxing at a local gym for amateurs run by her father. Her four sisters were also athletic, she said, competing in swimming, running and karate.

Abramova was already a prominent figure by the time she set foot in the boxing ring for the license test last month, with some media touting her as a "Maria Sharapova in boxing gloves."

"There were dozens of reporters and cameramen just to see Daria take the pro test," said Tokusuke Warita, who runs the Saijo Boxing Gym in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.

Abramova began practicing at the gym this spring after a friend introduced her to the staff. She quickly won over Warita and the other trainers, including the gym's owner and former WBA featherweight champion, Shozo Saijo.

"The obvious advantage is in her body structure," Warita said. "Daria is about a head taller than Japanese female boxers in the same weight class, which gives her a huge advantage. Her straight punches can hit her opponents cleanly from above."

Abramova had quit boxing while still a teen and moved to Japan when she was 21 to study Japanese and learn hair-styling. Her language ability improved in the span of two years, and she became accustomed to Japanese food, people and culture.

"When I am not boxing, I love shopping in Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku, looking for clothes and cosmetics," she said.

Her glitter-encrusted iPod Nano is filled with Japanese pop hits by Hikaru Utada, Ken Hirai and others.

"I was also hugely moved by 'Ashita no Joe,' " she said, referring to the hugely popular boxing "anime" animation series.

But her friendly smile is quickly replaced by the fierce look of a fighter when she begins warming up for her four-day-a-week workout regimen at the Saijo Gym.

Dressed in a pink Hello Kitty tank top and black shorts, Abramova wraps her own hands with boxing tape and ties her hair up. A rosy whiff obliterates the hot and sticky odor as she begins stretching, positioning herself amid heavily perspiring male boxers.

On this particular day Abramova gets in the ring with Shota Haruyama, a 70-kg pro boxer with a huge tattoo on his left arm. She throws her combination punches into Haruyama's mitt for two rounds, her hair bouncing in harmony with her quick footwork.

Then Abramova hits the sandbag. A smile appears briefly when male boxers chat with her, but she immediately gets back to striking her imaginary enemy with rhythmic jabs, hooks and upper cuts.

Despite her coquettish looks, the boxer says getting a black eye during a bout is no big deal. The bruise can always be covered with makeup, she said, joking that sometimes it even adds to her looks.

"My issue is building stamina. It's tough because I hate to jog," she said.

"She also needs to become patient in the ring," Warita added, giving caution that his apprentice is easily agitated during matches and tends to get in close with her opponent.

"Daria has to learn to keep a certain distance," the trainer said. "She needs to calm down and make use of her long reach."

Abramova said she is grateful to be compared with the statuesque Sharapova, admitting that a career in modeling or acting is "very tempting." But for now her mind is set on winning a world title, a process that will begin in late fall when her debut bout is scheduled.

"I will call my mom when I win the championship," she said, revealing that she hasn't told her mother about her career move out of fear she will object.

Warita said practice could make Abramova a strong candidate for the championship belt, possibly within a couple of years, but the process may be arduous — for him.

"There is a new dimension to my job, which is to stay alert during practices and drive away all the male boxers trying to flirt with Daria. They seem to be having a difficult time concentrating on boxing with this beautiful girl around," Warita laughed.

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