At a press conference a couple of days before the start of the IBA women’s boxing world championships in New Delhi, MC Mary Kom’s eyes boggled when she heard of the prize money being awarded for the tournament.
“Twenty crores for one tournament! I don’t think I made that much money over two decades,” marvelled Kom who has won six world championship gold medals and an Olympic bronze over the course of her sporting career.
“I wish I was competing in the team at this tournament,” says Kom who is the ambassador of the 2023 World Championships.
“I’m very upset with (Boxing Federation of India president) Ajay Singh. We should have had this kind of money when I was competing also! ” she said, perhaps only half-joking.
It says something of MC Mary Kom’s longevity as a boxer that she was already a three-time veteran of the women’s boxing world championships and a two-time world champion when she won the gold medal at the 2006 Worlds – the first time the tournament was held in India.
Eleven years later in 2017, she would win a medal of the same colour when the Worlds returned to New Delhi.
While the role of an ambassador is a responsibility she has accepted, it is clear that in terms of priority for Mary, standing in nicely tailored dresses and make-up and waving is a distant second to competing in the blood and grime of the canvas.
So Mary promises she’s going to be back.
“I’m not done. I will return very soon,” she vowed. “My target is to compete at the Asian Games,” she said, doubling down on her promise of a comeback.
While it’s clear at least Mary believes she can, it’s hard to see just how likely that scenario is. Mary’s long and distinguished career that began at the turn of the millennium is all but done.
She is 40 now.
According to international amateur regulations laid down in 2013-- this is the last year she will be allowed to compete at any tournament. When she completes 40 on 24th November she will have to hang up her gloves regardless of how fit and ready she feels.
She herself knows this as well.
“If it were up to me I would never retire. But the official rules say I have to,” she says.
But all this is speculative. Forget competing, Mary isn’t even training.
She hasn’t even stepped in the ring since she suffered a serious injury to her knee during a selection trial bout for the Commonwealth Games in July last year.
At that time, Mary was already 39, hoping to compete at her last Commonwealth Games. The diagnosis was a torn knee ligament which wouldn’t even allow her to walk.
To add insult to injury, Kom’s opponent in the selection trials – Nitu Ganghas – went on to win gold at the Commonwealth Games as did Nikhat Zareen in the next heavier weight class. This means that even if Mary returns, there’s no guarantee of a place in the Indian camp, forget the team.
Indeed since her injury, Kom’s been kept busy in everything apart from boxing.
She is the chairperson of the six-member oversight committee that’s currently running the wrestling federation of India following a protest by top wrestlers in January this year.
But the only thing Mary says she wants to do is box.
“For many weeks I couldn’t even walk,” she told Sportstar a couple of days ago, “But now recovery is going well. It was sad that I missed the Commonwealth Games but I have forgotten about that. I will return very soon. I will be able to run and train. I will try my level best to compete again.”
While Mary is targeting the Asian Games, competing at the continental event will throw up its own complications.
The tournament, which will be held in Hangzhou, China, is expected to be a qualification event for the Paris Olympics. If Mary somehow beats the odds and wins a quota, how exactly would she be able to compete at the Paris Olympics when she would be well over the age of retirement?
While it’s learned that Mary has approached the IBA president Umar Kremlev for a concession on this front, it will be an uphill battle.
Mary acknowledges this while also admitting the challenge she will face against younger, skilled and equally hungry opponents. Her famous bravado softens just a bit.
“There won’t be just one competitor. There might be several good boxers in my category. My main goal will be the Asian Games but if I don’t recover then what can I do?” she admits.
In that scenario, Mary is willing to compromise.
“If not the Asian Games, I want to compete in any tournament. I want to compete in at least one competition before I retire,” she says.
Mary’s desire to have her final boxing memory be a happy one – or at least not the ignominy of clutching her knee in agony – seems to have found favour with the Indian federation chief.
“BFI we will support her recovery process and desire to box again. We will give her a befitting send-off,” BFI president Ajay Singh said.
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