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The lady is a champ.

She's in a sport known as the 'sweet science.' But it hasn't been exactly that for female fighter Gretchen Abaniel.

Like many women pro boxers, Abaniel juggles jobs on top of her forays inside the ring to make ends meet. 'It's tough and tiring but I have to do it,' she says in Filipino. 'I have three world titles, but there's really no money in women's boxing.'

Her heroics often come with heartaches. That's why the 5-foot-1 dynamo has learned to hustle-in and out of the ring-just to get her name out there. 'Except for my family and friends, not many know about my accomplishments,' Abaniel admits. 'In the Philippines, women's boxing has yet to be embraced by the masses.'

Despite being a world champion, Abaniel had to lobby to be part of the undercard of Manny Pacquiao's big-time bouts. She finally succeeded last month after a few tries, only to be crushed by news that the eight-division world champion's April 23 slugfest with Briton Amir Khan had been canceled.

But Abaniel continues to hope that the Filipino ring icon will keep her in mind. 'He promised I'd be included,' says the 31-year-old fighter. 'If that happens, it will be a dream come true.'

To stay in top shape-just in case she gets called up to fight World Boxing Organization (WBO) titleholder Nao Ikeyama of Japan in a Pacquiao undercard-Abaniel recently returned to Sydney to train with her Australian coach, Tony del Vecchio of the Bondi Boxing Club. There, the Puerto Princesa amazon works the mitts in the morning and evening, and in between, works as a salon assistant and a private boxing trainer.

It's hard, Abaniel stresses. But she sees no reason to quit boxing just yet.

'I really love this sport,' says Abaniel, who holds the Women's International Boxing Federation (WIBF), Global Boxing Union (GBU) and Women's International Boxing Association (Wiba) minimumweight belts. 'The prize money in women's boxing is very small. It's not like Manny Pacquiao's fights where you get millions. But for me, it's for the honor and glory.'

Abaniel's will to fight faced its biggest test when she suffered a string of losses from 2014 to 2015. 'I felt it was the beginning of the end of my career,' she says of her three straight setbacks. 'I cried a lot.'

But she soldiered on, beating erstwhile undefeated Asiye Ozlem Sahin in her German hometown of Ludwigsburg to bag the GBU crown in 2015, before pinning a loss on Thai Saowaluk

Nareepangsri to reclaim the Wiba title in New South Wales, Australia, in 2016.

'In boxing, you can't be just physically fit,' says Abaniel, who is married to Cesar Zabala, a former athlete. 'It's also a big factor to be mentally and emotionally fit.'

There's really no breaking Abaniel's spirit, even if the sport made her an emotional wreck quite a few times. As she points out: 'Since high school, boxing has been my life.'

Although she tried karate as a teenager, it's boxing that piqued Abaniel's interest after seeing her younger brother try the sport. 'I told my father that if there's women's boxing, I want to join,' she shares. 'That's how I started. Then I joined fiesta boxing in Puerto Princesa.'

As a rising talent known for her speed, Abaniel soon earned a slot on the Philippine boxing team. Her four-year stint resulted in several international triumphs, including a bronze in the 2005 Women's World Amateur Boxing Championships in Russia.

After Abaniel turned pro in 2006, she won her first world title against Thai Buasawan Wisetchat for the vacant Wiba minimunweight title in 2009. Now holding a record of 17 wins, including six knockouts, against eight losses-all with barely decent prize money- Abaniel just feels thankful that she receives support from some local government officials to help her get by.

It's likely she may never hit pay dirt, but Abaniel sees three to four more good years in her before taking the coaching route. 'I'm not dreaming to be a Manny Pacquiao, to have all that fame and fortune,' she says. 'For me, I want to have a legacy. A few years from now, who will be the next champion? I want to train future champions.'

So never mind if her career winds up bereft of big-money bouts. For Abaniel, a legacy will be enough to make it all sweet.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Date:Mar 25, 2017
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