A rude shock for the iron-willed Mary Kom

She has defied age to become a legitimate legend of the sport. But this time it is less certain whether the venerable six time world champion will return.

Mary Kom with her left knee tightly bandaged after her injury. - JONATHAN SELVARAJ

“It’s just bad luck.”

As Mary Kom limped out of the boxing hall at the New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi stadium, her left knee packed in ice and tightly bandaged, a relative of another young boxer offered her a few words of support.

The 40-year-old nodded grimly. Just a short while earlier, only a minute into her bout in the trials to select the Indian women’s boxing team for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Kom had withdrawn after suffering a painful knee injury. Now she tried to make sense of it. “I tried so hard for this. I trained so hard. I’ve never ever had a knee injury before. And now this,” she replied blinking away tears before heading to the hospital where the extent of the injury will be diagnosed.

You know enough about the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist to never say never. In the course of a career that’s into it’s third decade, she’s routinely proved multiple generations of doubters wrong, storming back from multiple injuries, extended breaks and childbirth. She’s defied age to become a legitimate legend of the sport. But this time it’s less certain whether the venerable six time world champion will return.

The bout against two time Youth World Champion Nitu Ganghas was her first in the selection trials. It was also her first following the Olympics where she had lost in the quarterfinals. Following that loss, Kom – already in the twilight of her career and due to age restrictions unable to compete at another Games – had focussed all her efforts on the Commonwealth Games. “She’d already decided after the Olympics that the Commonwealth Games was to be the last event. She’d told that it was time for other younger boxers to get a chance,” says her long time coach Chhote Lal Yadav.

No stones left unturned in preparations

Even as she skipped the world championships in order to prepare for that goal – boxing marched on relentlessly. Kom would only watch as would see others – including Nikhat Zareen – once her junior, then her rival, eventually started matching her accomplishment with a gold medal of her own at the World championships.

Still for Kom there remained the Commonwealth Games where she was the defending champion in the women’s 48kg her favoured weight division. A medal here, gold even would be the perfect finish to a glorious career.

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She’d prepared as well as she could. “After the Olympics, she continued to train every day without fail. This year she was training twice a day,” says Yadav. Kom’s tenure as a Rajya Sabha MP ended this year too and after she’d left her government accommodation she’d returned to the single room at the hostel at the Indira Gandhi stadium.

“Her family is everything for her and she was staying away from her family. Just so she could train,” says Yadav. If you watched her train, Yadav says, you wouldn’t believe she was in her forties. She couldn’t train as intensely as when she was younger but she was prepared. She had a dedicated physio and a team to help her work through her limitations. In the ring, she was as fearsome as ever. “She would spar with these kids in the 54kg, 57kg divisions. She was giving it her everything. She was really confident before the trials,” he says.

It wasn’t as if she had an easy bout. Neetu is a two time youth world champion and a boxer who’s making her way up. “In a few years, she’s going to be one of the best,” says chief coach Bhaskar Bhatt. But Kom is still Kom. “Mary is very experienced in the ring. Few are as chalak (smart) as she is. She knows what to do in every situation. It was a good match,” says Bhatt.

The age factor

On Friday, Kom walked up the ring as she often hand and rested her head on the turnbuckle in prayer as she always does. Her movement was still swift as she darted in and out of range against the taller Neetu. Then as the two boxers closed in, Kom leant away to slip a punch. And that’s when her knee gave way.

She let out an audible shriek and fell on the canvas. Though the referee ruled it a slip, Kom didn’t bounce up as she would otherwise have. She gingerly made her way up and then shook her leg as if to will it to work again.

The bout resumed but a second later stopped again as it became clear that Kom wasn’t able to put any weight on her left leg. The referee called an injury time and when it was clear Kom wasn’t going to be able to recover declared Neetu the winner by RSC (I) Referee stops contest due to injury.

“You can’t plan for these things,” says Bhatt when he tries to explain what just happened. “Mary was working really hard. She was really fit and she’s never had an injury to her legs before. But she’s in her 40th year right now. You can have as much discipline and work as hard but after a point of time, age becomes a big factor,” he says. “It wasn’t as if she was boxing badly. It was only one minute into the bout and you can’t say that either fighter was losing. You can’t say Mary lost to Neetu. She lost because of her age,” says Bhatt.

Winning and losing is part of sport of course. But not all losses are final, as Kom’s appears to be. It remains to be seen just how bad her injury is. “We will wait for the swelling to come down and then get the analysis. She won’t be going to the Commonwealth Games but it can’t end like this. We have to see what she wants,” says Yadav.

For now though this is the end. The boxing bouts though continued. Even as Kom limped out of the hall, she wished the girl who’s father had commiserated with her.

“Good luck for your bout,” Kom would say. Then she left.

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