Credit: leonahui/Instagram

Boxer and SEA Games medallist Leona Hui may have retired as a Team Singapore boxer, but she’s just getting started. Previously, she made her mark in the sport representing the country locally and regionally in the SEA Games and more. Now, Leona is a fixture in the local boxing scene as a trainer at two gyms and the founder and president of the Singapore Women’s Boxing Community, which aims to increase visibility for women in boxing. 

The Singapore Women’s Boxing Community is the brainchild of Leona and another prominent ex-Team Singapore boxer, Muhamad Ridhwan, who is the Head Boxing Coach there. Born out of their love for boxing and a desire to elevate the sport here, the community connects women and provides a space for them to train together regardless of gym affiliation. It has grown significantly over the years, starting out with just a handful of women to over 40 members now.

Outside of boxing, Leona works in events, so between juggling her work and her boxing pursuits, she has quite a bit on her plate. But the grind never stops.

Just last month, the inaugural Legacy Women’s Boxing Championship jointly organised by the Singapore Women’s Boxing Community and Legends Fight Sport debuted at Legends Fight Sport (Tampines), pitting local boxers against regional boxers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.

It was Singapore’s first all-female boxing tournament that saw local names — including national champions — up against decorated boxers from the region.

We catch up with the SEA Games medallist to chat about her boxing pursuits and how she’s paving the way for other female boxers in Singapore.

How did your boxing journey begin, and what made you want to get into boxing?

I consider the start of my boxing journey serendipitous because it all started when Singapore hosted the Singapore Youth Olympic Games back in 2010. As I work in events, the company I worked for organised a related event where the public could try out different sports, one of which was boxing.

The coach at the boxing booth saw me and randomly told me to put on a pair of gloves and try hitting pads with him. We hit pads for a few minutes and I thought to myself, oh this seems fun! He proceeded to give me his name card afterwards and told me to join his classes. Well, the rest is history…

What do you love about boxing?

Where do I even begin? To me, boxing is both a beautiful art, and an extreme sport all at once. It’s addictive!

It is probably one of the hardest, most challenging things I’ve ever done, but has taught me so many great lessons about life. You start learning that consistent hard work is the only way to improve, but even when you’re at the top, someone else out there is working even harder than you. Boxing is a constant pursuit of progress, not perfection. And amongst the many things I’ve mentioned, boxing also teaches you commitment, discipline, respect, and humility. The list is endless!

In the ring, boxing truly reveals who you are and what you’re made of, and forces you to handle pressure and confront your fears and anxieties head-on. And at the end of the day, you’re aware of the holes in your game and it’s back to the drawing board to improve and progress from there. It’s a never-ending process of wanting to get better, and much akin to life — you just always have to get back up no matter how many times you fall or fail.

What spurred you to set up the Singapore Women’s Boxing Community (SGWBC), and what do you hope to achieve with this community?

The idea of setting up a group like the SGWBC was actually discussed between my then-teammates Danisha, Rafhana and Sabrina (all three are still competing today) and myself back in early 2020. We were only a small competitive group back then and wanted to get more training partners and help organise sparring and training sessions for like-minded ladies.

We figured from our own individual gyms that there were a handful of ladies here and there who were keen to spar with more partners, so why not gather everyone together at a go?

We put the word out there and organised a few informal sparring and training sessions. The turnout was surprising — close to 20 ladies from different gyms in Singapore turned up. But shortly after, the pandemic hit and our plans had to be shelved. However, I knew from the two joint-training sessions we organised that there was a huge pool of women boxers in Singapore who could benefit and learn from each other if we could get more training sessions in together.

So, I contacted Ridhwan and proposed the idea of setting up a training programme where we could gather these ladies weekly and build their skills.

It started with that small goal in mind, but the overall aim was always to increase the visibility of the sport and search for talented boxers who could eventually potentially represent Singapore.

When I was still competing, I remember saying many times how I wished we could have more girls in training, and how I wished we could have more sparring and training partners. When I made the decision to retire from competitive boxing after the 2019 SEA Games, I realised I was now in a better position to help manage everything behind the scenes and push for the changes I wanted to see.

With the SGWBC, I hope more women will realise that boxing is for everyone, no matter what age or background, and have the courage to try it and see for themselves what a wonderful sport it is. I also hope with the support of a strong community that we’re able to build the next generation of competitive women boxers who will go on to represent our country well and fly our flag high!

What are some challenges you have faced as a woman in a male-dominated sport, and how did you overcome them?

I think it’s quite a common occurrence for females in a male-dominated sport to have to “prove” themselves more as an athlete, but I’ve been quite fortunate to receive encouraging support from everyone in the community so far. In fact, people seem to be more in awe of a female taking part in a combat striking sport and doing something different, because this isn’t common especially in Singapore — I guess there is the general perception that it takes a lot more out of us than a male counterpart to participate in a combat sport.

There will, however, be the random naysayers and attention-seeking keyboard warriors who make irrelevant comments about females and not the sport itself, but the key is always just to ignore them and rise above.

Are there any women in the sport that you look up to, and why?

Honestly, any woman who steps through the ropes and gives it a hundred percent in the ring has my respect and admiration! But a group that will always be special to me is the women’s boxing team that I had the honour of sharing my training and competition days with, and the current Women’s Development Team that we have just formed this year.

Boxing is not an easy sport and doing it day in and out without the promise of anything can be difficult – but these girls have showed so much commitment, dedication and hard work despite all these, that I can’t help but feel inspired by them and hope to be able to help them achieve all their goals as much as possible. I believe with a good team and system in place, progress can be achieved as a group even in an individual sport.

I hope with the support of a strong community that we’re able to build the next generation of competitive women boxers who will go on to represent our country well and fly our flag high!

Leona Hui

Any tips for women out there looking to pick up boxing? Any advice if they feel intimidated?

I would suggest trying out different gyms to get a general vibe of the environment, and perhaps chat with other gym members and ask them questions regarding the training provided and classes that are run. A good boxing gym will focus on getting your basic techniques right and have a good mix of cardio and skills sessions, and not just throwing 10-punch combinations without much thought.

These days there are also many gyms that offer ladies-only classes too! For example, at Legends Fight Sport where I am currently teaching, the ladies who attend class are all of different experience levels and ages, but come in with no egos and are willing to help each other.

In fact, most of our ladies who started off attending the ladies-only class ended up joining the other class types too. You will be surprised at how friendly and welcoming everyone at the boxing gym actually is!

What are some restrictions you faced when boxing in Singapore? For example, finding resources, coaches or a gym that suited your needs?

Quite a large part of my training days happened when boxing was still quite an uncommon sport amongst women, so one of the challenges was actually getting adequate training partners and competition. The boys had consistent tournaments, but I could train for weeks and months and prepare for competitions only to find out that there’s no opponent, or an opponent in a few weight classes above me.

So to me, having something like the SGWBC and Legacy Women’s Boxing Championship where so many girls are participating and boxing at very competitive levels, is something I’m extremely excited for and proud of. I can’t wait to see women’s boxing in Singapore grow — the future is looking bright!