A struggle all the way

Cheering Mary... Ibomcha Singh and others gather at the SAI complex in Imphal to watch the Olympic women's semifinal bout between Mary Kom and Nicola Adams of Britain on television.-AP

With little infrastructure and not much support forthcoming, it is incredible that Manipur has been able to produce a number of world champions in the sport. By Divya Trivedi.

Manipur pursues its boxing dreams despite poverty and trouble. Inspired by the likes of Mary Kom and Dingko Singh, teenaged boxers from villages travel to the capital city of Imphal at the crack of dawn to train for a few hours at one of the three government-run institutions before their schools begin.

With little infrastructure and not much support forthcoming, it is incredible that the state has been able to produce a number of world champions in the sport. The state’s apathy towards promotion of the sport was highlighted recently when the Manipur Government hurriedly announced after Mary Kom’s bronze medal win at the Olympics in the 51 kg (flyweight) category that it would fulfil its long-standing promise to her — of promoting her to the post of Additional Superintendent of Police and granting two acres of land for her academy. Around 18 students live and train free of cost in Mary’s academy. At present, the academy operates from within the same compound as her house.

In many ways, the struggle of Mary, who rose from poverty to become the face of Indian women’s boxing at the international level, is the story of Manipur’s outlook towards the sport.

Though boxing existed in Manipur from 1936, it never quite managed to capture the imagination of the public at large. In 1954, it was unofficially banned and in the danger of dying a decisive death. When boxers from West Bengal came for an exhibition bout and defeated every boxer who represented Manipur, the public felt humiliated and angrily descended on the Polo Grounds in the heart of the city. Well-built persons, who knew nothing about the sport, challenged the Bengal contingent and the situation ran out of control.

The shame on losing the match was such and the public outcry so great that an unofficial ban was imposed on boxing. Nobody ventured into the sport for some time, at least not until 1980, when a group of 20 boxing lovers, coming under the Manipur Amateur Boxing Association, revived the sport.

The Association soon decided to conduct a competition and this was announced in the local newspapers. But with only a couple of boxers responding, the event had to be cancelled, recalled Ibomcha Singh, who has gained popularity for having coached international boxers such as Mary Kom, Devendro Singh and Dingko Singh.

Ibomcha was introduced to the sport while serving in the Indian Army. He dreamed of becoming an international champion one day, but when his employers did not support him, Ibomcha quit the Army in 1980 and joined an amateur club.

The following year, the first ever free coaching camp was held at the Polo Grounds and the first state-level competition took place. For the first time, seven boxers from Manipur, including Ibomcha (who won a bronze) travelled outside the state to Jamshedpur to participate in a competition. Boxing was being revived slowly in the state. However, the state was so impoverished that it didn’t have the requisite funds to participate in the 1982 Asian Games trials despite being invited, rued Ibomcha.

In 1986, when he came close to realising his dream of becoming an international champion, Ibomcha was barred from participating in the President’s Cup in Jakarta. He was at the airport then to board his flight. “I was so shaken that I locked myself in a room and cried for hours. That time, I decided that if I could not do it, I will train so many people who (will) win international medals that the country will recognise and appreciate me,” Ibomcha said.

Sure enough, more than 50 boxers under him went on to win international medals and he won the Dronacharya Award. But according to Ibomcha his task is far from over; he wants to put India even more firmly on the global map of boxing. “But for that to happen, our state should also have facilities like those in Bangalore and Patiala,” he said.

Currently, Ibomcha trains more than 350 aspiring boxers and is also the advisor at Mary Kom’s academy.

* * * 'Mary has nothing more to prove'"

Charles Atkinson was always with Mary Kom — at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune and later in Liverpool — helping the Indian in her preparations for the London Olympics. The boxing coach, who helped Mary move up from the 48 kg to the 51 kg category so that she could take part in the London Olympics, is quite open about what one needs to become a champion. “You’ve got to beat the best to be the best. You can’t look for an easy route (to winning),” he says.

Mary registered two victories at the ExCel Arena in London to finish with a bronze medal on her Olympic debut. Atkinson, however, couldn’t be in her corner as he doesn’t possess the International Boxing Association (AIBA) 3-Star Certification, which is necessary for a coach to get accreditation for the Olympics. But he was in touch with Mary over the telephone from home.

In a chat with Sportstar, the Englishman talked about Mary’s heart for battle, the club culture in boxing in England and much more.

Excerpts:

Question: How would you describe Mary Kom the Olympian?

Answer: Mary is now more of a thinking fighter. She is more methodical and more unpredictable.

What particular aspect about her as a person and as a fighter struck you the first time?

Her heart, actually. The determination and desire to do well was there. She was crying out for guidance, that is all.

Moving base from Pune to Liverpool with Mary Kom at a critical time before the London Olympics was for reasons connected with boxing. Can you tell us more about Liverpool?

Liverpool is a boxing city. There are boxing gyms, boxing clubs for amateurs. Young kids, some only 10 years old, go in and develop skills to make it to the England team. Everywhere in the country, such boxing clubs keep children off the streets. People volunteer to train them. Team GB (Great Britain) is formed with street kids who learn to box as juniors in inter-club competitions.

Have you been to Manipur, Mary Kom’s place, for first-hand experience of how she came up?

I haven’t been to her place, but spent 20 years in Thailand and know exactly where she is coming from. I had groomed seven WBC champions at one time. Thailand has gone off the boil now. Ten years ago, they were a power in world boxing. I have travelled around that country and know how hard life is for young kids wanting to learn boxing. Mary Kom comes from exactly that background.

Thailand was once a force in the lightweight categories at the Asian and world level. Can Indian boxing become so?

Thailand had Mary Koms and also professional boxers. All those not making it to amateur boxing had an alternative. The Indian federation is taking good care of the 40 to 50 top boxers in the country. A lot of them could be diverted to professional boxing. Manny Pacquiao (professional boxer from the Philippines, who is rated world’s best in eight divisions) came from a similar background as Mary. He makes a fortune with each fight.

What is your assessment of Indian boxing talent?

India reminds me of Cuba a little bit. It is all about natural ability. They are loose-limbed, have timing and a strong heart. You have the talent, I don’t need to look around. I have seen Mary Kom, I have seen her sparring partners. I have watched Suranjoy Singh. They have the abilities, so have many others. I see enough talent here that is not making it to the top group. International-style boxing is big money. You will draw crowds in this country if you get the right kind of personality, like a Pacquiao. In no time, India will have a Commonwealth champion, then a world champion.

In the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the male boxers are likely to compete without headgear. Your view?

Without headguards, there will be more knockouts. The sport will become quite a spectacle.

What next for Mary Kom? Should she look at pro boxing?

Mary has nothing else to aim for; she has won everything expected of her. I don’t handle her, the Olympic Gold Quest does that. There is no point in Mary pursuing pro boxing. She has done everything for India, put the country before self. The first Indian female boxer to compete at the Olympics, she has another first in the bronze medal that she won. She has nothing more to prove to anybody.

Nandakumar Marar