HÀ NỘI — As a young boy, martial arts were strange and fascinating to Lê Hữu Toàn, and he did not think twice about joining a newly opened vovinam (Vietnamese martial arts) club in his remote village in the central highland province of Đắk Lắk.
Practising traditional martial arts for a decade, he never thought he would become a professional boxing athlete on top of Asia and head out into the world.
On March 20, Toàn won the prestigious World Boxing Association (WBA) Asia belt after defeating Thailand’s Kitidech Hirunsuk in a minimum-weight match in HCM City, a milestone in his boxing career.
“I am still on cloud nine until today. I can’t sleep last night because of my happiness,” Toàn told Việt Nam News a day after his win.
“It is the greatest feeling that I have ever had. So amazing!”
Toàn’s title is Việt Nam’s third such continental win in its history: Trương Đình Hoàng won the WBA Asia’s super-middleweight category in 2020, and Trần Văn Thảo secured the Asian World Boxing Council (WBC) belt in the super flyweight division in 2017.
“My family live in a district which is 20km far from Buôn Mê Thuột City, but it is hard to get there, so there was almost nothing to entertain for the kids. So when a vovinam coach came to open a club, my parents were interested and registered for me. And I was over the moon,” Toàn said.
“Martial arts made me more confident, and I was not scared of being bullied anymore and improved my physical strength.”
Five years later, in 2012, the 19-year-old moved to HCM City, where his vovinam combat skills developed in tournaments around the city.
He also tried different martial art styles, including kickboxing, sanshou and boxing. Gradually, he found that boxing was the most suitable form for his skillset.
Toàn joined the Sài Gòn Sports Club in 2019 to become a professional boxer. He helped sharpen his skills, transforming from a wild-style to an iron-minded and determined fighter.
His diligence paid off when Toàn won the national championship titles in 2020 and 2021 and received the WBA Asia chance to be part of history.
“I was told about the match days after Tết (Lunar New Year). I was surprised and nervous because I am new in professional boxing,” Toàn said.
During the match, Toàn met challenges in the first rounds before coming back to persuasively win a unanimous decision.
“A match for a belt is different compared to the normal one. We have to fight for 12 rounds instead of six. So it is really tough. Many people put their trust in me too. The pressure was pretty high,” Toàn said.
Hirunsuk was younger but a more experienced athlete who had eight wins under his belt and five knock-out victories. The Thai also was taller and had longer arms.
“My coaches and I studied him carefully and made suitable tactics. I had to improve my weaknesses,” said Toàn, who previously won three matches with knockouts.
“It is a career milestone. It is a prestigious belt, and I am honoured to be the third person in the country to hold an Asian title. This is the most important one because it marks my first step into Asia, and I hope I can go further quickly,” he said.
Being the Asian champion, Toàn will soon face challenges and defend his title in three to six months based on the WBA Asia schedule.
“Time does not wait for anyone. I have to prepare myself ready from now because my coming rivals will be powerful,” he said.
More than a boxer
The two-time national champion also hopes to have a chance to make his second tour through the country and raise people’s awareness of organ donation.
Toàn signed a donation certificate after being inspired by a story from an unknown person in 2016.
That man he met, Trần Nguyễn An Khương, was upset that his friend died because of kidney failure while waiting for a healthy one to be donated, so he decided to take a tour of the country to appeal to people to join the organ donation campaign to save lives.
“He could do it, so why couldn’t I?” Toàn asked himself.
He soon began a tour from the South to the North, travelling by bike.
“My main purpose was to discover and experience the beautiful destinations of the country and learn more about the people’s customs and habits. And I would also tell people more about the necessity and humanity of organ donation, which has not been widely accepted,” Toàn said.
“My trip brought me much new knowledge and understanding about friendly people, magnificent landscapes and delicious food.
“Importantly, many people understood my message and strongly supported me throughout the four-month journey of over 4,000km. I grew up on the trip and learnt many things from people on the way.”
Four years after that trip, Toàn said he hopes he can one day make time for a second one.
“I hope my trip and sharing with others can be meaningful to the community. Everyone has one life. We should make our lives worth living, and even after death we can still help people,” he said. — VNS