For the Win: Talk with fourteen-year-old six-time national junior boxing champion Laila Zakirova
Two boxers are facing one another at the weigh-in, each stares down their opponent as the adrenaline pumps through their veins. Both have spent months preparing for the match, hoping to win for themselves, their trainers, their camps, and their families. The victory is a stepping stone to the ultimate goal in their careers. Their team members, too, are holding their breaths as the weights are publicly announced. Everything is a go, tomorrow one of them will become the champion, but until then, they are just two girls chasing one very big dream.
Fourteen-year-old high school freshman Laila Zakirova is a six-time national boxing champion and the #1 rated fighter in her age group. The astounding athlete, driven student, and normal human is trying to find her place in the world as she attempts to balance everything that’s on her plate, and it’s not easy. But, she’s also not alone. Raised by two very loving and dedicated parents, she has an incredible support system that gives her the necessary structure and motivation to reach her potential. But it also gives a family legacy that she strives to protect.
Laila is not the only champion in her immediate family. Her father, Akmal Zakirov, is a two-time kickboxing world champion and the owner of New York City’s Bars Boxing Gym where he is also the head coach. There, students can learn boxing, kickboxing, and muay thai, and it is where Laila got her start at five years old. “I remember going to the gym when I was little,” recalls the young fighter in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine, “my dad brought me there for the first time and I was kind of nervous before I went in.” That changed fast.
Turns out, the kid was a natural. Generally athletic, agile, and curious, she was eager to try new things and didn’t shy away from a challenge. Starting with kickboxing like her dad, Laila progressed quickly, and soon discovered that she had an innate talent that, if cultivated, could grow into a real career. But, and this was most important, it had to be her choice. While her dad knows exactly what she has to do to reach the top and what it takes to do it, her mother, Olga Demonova, can only observe as her daughter takes on challenge after challenge.
“You know, I try to watch,” anxiously reveals her mom when asked about how she feels following her daughter’s fights. “And of course I’m cheering like crazy, but she doesn’t hear me! It’s over the TV. But it’s so nerve wracking.” While she wants her daughter to succeed and is one of her biggest fans, she also wants her daughter safe. The conflicting emotions are a natural feeling. “I’m very nervous when she goes into the ring. I try not to close my eyes, but I’m so happy when she wins,” she shares enthusiastically. “I believe in her!"
But Laila has her eyes on the prize, and with good reason, too. Having been singled out as the Outstanding Junior Female Boxer at the 2021 USA Boxing National Championships, she was also officially accepted into the USA Junior Boxing Team. Considering that only six people, out of nearly 1400, were given special recognition at the event, it’s fair to say that this is a pretty big deal. But the best thing about Laila is not her impressive history of accomplishments, or her insane athleticism, or even her ability to balance life, it’s her ability to enjoy the journey.
ARTpublika Magazine had the rare privilege of speaking to Laila Zakirova about her skills, interests, and goals for the future.
What were your hobbies before you got into sport?
I used to color, I remember. I liked drawing a lot. I [also] liked going to the playground and doing the monkey bars, they are my favorite.
Was your interest in sport encouraged or did it come naturally?
It was natural, because it kind of runs in my family.
What is your favorite physical activity?
I like to jump rope. First I jump normally and then I criss-cross. It’s a style I have.
How did you get into this sport and how did it become a plausible career choice?
My dad brought me to the gym when I was five and when I was about ten, he saw that I was agile and had talent, so he asked if I wanted to go compete and I said: “Sure, why not?” I tried and really liked it.
You started with kickboxing, how long did you do that for?
Like a year.
What made you transition to boxing?
Well, at first — when I was little — I really liked kickboxing because of the multiple things you could do — like the combinations using your legs and arms/hands — but as I grew, I developed a love for boxing. It just kind of happened.
So, how do you start your training sessions?
I go for a run around the gym. Then I do my stretches and jump a little bit of rope. After that I do some shadow boxing and lift some weights. The warm up alone takes about 45 minutes. And then I basically put my gloves on and go spar or to the punching bags.
What is the most important part of your warm up — cardio, stretching, or sparring?
They are all equally important, I think. The warm up is as important as sparring, since you’re warming up all the muscles in your body, trying to wake them up and get them ready. And with sparring, you develop awareness of distance and practice your reflexes, stuff like that.
One of your heroes is Muhammad Ali (1942 - 2016). Why?
He’s just an amazing boxer. He’s one of the boxers who I really look up to. The way he moves — his footwork — is amazing. And I want to be like him.
Do you study his footwork and movements?
I don’t mimic him or anything, I just really look up to him for his speed and how good his footwork is. So I practice and practice and practice.
So he’s an inspiration?
Yes. But so is my dad.
When you’re at the gym, does it feel like you’re there with your dad or your coach or both?
It’s kind of a mixture. I guess I see my dad more. I feel very comfortable with him, he knows what’s best for me, he’s the wisest person I know, and I always listen to him. I try my best to do what I do and bring my talent out there, into the world.
When training with others, how do you feel being part of a team?
I love training with everyone at the gym. I feel like we’re a family and we’ve been through a lot. And I have a very special bond with everyone there.
When you tell other people about what you do, what is the reaction you typically get?
Oh, they’re shocked when I tell them. My teachers, when I tell them, they’re like: “Wow! That’s cra-a-a-zy!”
Do you have a lot in common with other kids in your school?
What kinds of movies do you like to watch?
What do you like to read?
I like fantasy books, like The Hunger Games. I just love strong female characters.
What do you like about them?
I love their confidence and how [the stories] center around them and their point of view. It’s really nice to have women in the lead.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
I like all types of artists and music, but I’d say, pop [is maybe my favorite]. I like Selena Gomez and Arianna Grande. I like Rihanna and Bruno Mars.
How do you relax at home?
Instead of relaxing at home, I’d rather go for a walk outside to really clear my mind. At home, I like to draw, too. I draw a lot of nature.
What do you use?
Watercolor or just draw in black in white. I used to go to drawing classes in Brooklyn for a couple of years and learned how to watercolor there.
You are currently attending Tottenville High School. What’s your favorite subject?
I love math! Math is my favorite subject there.
What do you like about math?
It’s like a puzzle that you have to solve, it’s just so interesting to me. I don’t know, there’s something about it.
What aspect of it do you like? Algebra or geometry or arithmetic?
I like geometry. Geometry is my favorite. It provides a lot of clarity.
When you hang out with your friends, what do you like to do?
We just talk, I guess. I don’t know. We hang out, we talk about school and life. And we like to play UNO.
Aside from boxing, do you enjoy other adrenaline inducing activities?
Yes, skiing! I love skiing and the rush of adrenaline it gives me. We went to Blue Mountain, CamelBack, and we went somewhere in Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago, it was really nice there.
How do mentally prepare for a tournament?
I really like fighting because of the rush of adrenaline. But it’s a thinking game, too. You have to use your brain, you can’t just go out and punch someone. I keep telling myself before the fight: You’ve got this. You’re the best. You’re the strongest. You’re the smartest out there. You can do this! There’s no need to stress or worry about it. It’s normal for everyone to feel a little bit nervous.
What is your first instinct when you enter the ring?
So, my dad and I basically make a game plan before each fight. My dad [learns] how the girl fights, by [watching her fights] online or at an event, and we’ll make a game plan together to beat this girl. We’ll try to identify her weakness, like if she’s short or tall.
Can you elaborate what may go into a game plan?
It’s a strategy for how I have to fight [my opponent]. So, if she’s really tall and I’m shorter than her, then I have to go inside and pressure her — not give her the distance that she needs to get me, because she has long arms and can’t effectively punch me if I’m really close. But if she’s short, then I’m the one who has to keep the distance and throw more straight punches, jabs, and stuff like that, so that she doesn’t get close to me.
Your father appears to really love working with kids.
Yes. He can’t help us in the ring but he tries to help us as much as he can by making us understand exactly how to fight our opponents. He always says: “I can’t help you in the ring but I can help you here, now, so you know what to do tomorrow.” My dad’s been boxing a long time and knows what he’s doing. I have full trust in him. He’s a very good coach and I look up to him, and I wish to someday be like him.
You’re a fourteen-year-old six-time national champion in your age group. For someone so accomplished, what do you still want to achieve?
Well, in the future, I want to go to the Olympics and win gold, and then work as a pro-boxer for a couple of years. After that maybe I’ll become a coach and teach kids, just like my father.
You are rated as the #1 national junior boxer and were accepted into the US Boxing Team for Juniors, weren’t you?
Yes. When I won the nationals for the 6th time. That’s how I knew, they told me straight there.
How did it feel?
That felt really good. I felt so happy! I knew what I was worth, but I was like: Finally, they are actually looking at me now! They saw me, they saw what I am capable of doing.
What do you do when you get hurt in a match?
I try to calm myself down. I try not to get angry. I get up and keep going — it’s not like it’s the end of the world. It’s fine, this is boxing, that’s what happens.
Do you think it’s important for sportsmanship to include respect?
Is it important for you to have the boys’ respect, or is that not a factor at all?
I don’t really care. If they don’t want to respect me, it’s fine, I respect myself. That’s the most important thing.
Do you ever try, for theatrical reasons, to intimidate or trash talk your opponents?
I will keep comments to myself but I will try to intimidate my opponent by looking them straight in the eye at the weigh-in, but after the fight, it’s all just respect. I shake hands, I hug my opponents and tell them: “Great fight, good job, you’re an amazing boxer.” I try to build relationships after my fights.
Wasn’t Muhammad Ali kind of an instigator?
Yeah, he was. But my dad always tells me to respect others and they will respect me, so that’s what I do.
When it comes to your dad, what do you respect most about his approach to teaching?
The way he teaches is so special. He teaches with his heart, you know? He puts all of his effort into it and he just tries so hard.
What’s it like to be the daughter of a two-time world champion?
It feels nice, I guess. I really look up to him, I’m really inspired by him. I try to be like him. And I listen to him, because he has more awareness and experience with this sport. I’m doing what he used to do. So he knows exactly how I feel and how much work I’ve been through.
Is there anything you want people to know about you that has not been addressed?
I mean, some people can train and box. But I have to balance school and boxing and competing. I train seven days per week.
How do you keep your head in the game? How do you stay focused?
I give myself some self-motivation: It’s OK, you’ll get through it. You’ll be someone people will know. And all of this will work-out, the hard work will pay off.
Do you do this because you feel that you have to prove something or is it for the love of the sport?
I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone. The only thing I have to prove to myself is that I’m an amazing boxer and I have talent.
Is there a mantra that you have as a family?
Everything is possible.
When you’re not engaged in sport or preparing for a fight, what do you and your dad do for fun?
We like to go fishing together. We go to Great Kills Park, on Staten Island.
What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever caught?
I think a 32-inch striped bass.
Did you cook it?
What do you like to eat?
I like to eat fish, spaghetti, burgers, and sandwiches. I just like food — all food.
When thinking about college, what’s the plan?
I actually want to be a doctor in the future — that’s what I’m thinking. I’d like to be a pediatrician and work with kids. They’re just so cute, and they always speak the truth. But I also want to box.
Do you have a signature move?
In your opinion, what does the art in martial arts stand for?
In my opinion [it] stands for the beauty and creativity of the sport. Everyone has their own way of fighting and everyone has a style. The punches are the same but the different ways people use them, is the beauty of it.
Note* Images used with permission. Since the date of this interview, Laila has won her seventh title. (Updated on 2.11.2022)