For Kom, bring out the pom-poms!

As Mary Kom rightly pointed out, her latest world crown was the most difficult one.

Mary Kom (in Blue) lands a punch on Ukraine's Hanna Okhota during the final of the women’s light flyweight 45-48 kg bout at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships, New Delhi, on November 24, 2018. Mary finished on top.   -  AP

In the dazzling light of Mary Kom’s aura, her early toil for recognition remains in the dark.

Those initial days laid the foundation on which now stands the towering career of the six-time world champion. When women’s boxing itself was in its infancy, Mary’s first two world titles understandably got lukewarm response in the country.

It was a reflection of the status of the sport and its practitioners at large.

“At that time no one knew about women’s boxing. The national camp used to be held at smaller Sports Authority of India centres and there were not many facilities for the boxers. No one cared for the sport,” said former national coach Anoop Kumar, remembering the early 2000s.

“In 2006, when we hosted the world championships and eight of our girls got medals, including four golds, the national federation felicitated the boxers. Before that hardly anyone knew about Mary.”

Even when Mary returned from Ningbo City with her fourth world crown in 2008, the reception was organised by a group of Manipuri students at a Delhi University canteen. Only a handful of journalists attended that meet.

However, a massive jump in Mary’s popularity was witnessed following her fifth gold medal feat in Bridgetown in 2010. It was in sync with the mood in the country because of the hosting of the Commonwealth Games and a large hall of a five-star hotel, booked to honour Mary in Delhi, was packed with mediapersons.

Eight years later, the legendary boxer — who has leapt several steps in terms of stature by securing other important medals, including an Olympics bronze — picked up an unprecedented sixth World title in an electrifying atmosphere in front of her home crowd. The country realised that, after the great Dhyan Chand, it had found a true international sporting icon in an Olympic discipline.

Mary with her gold medal, her sixth in the championships over the years.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

As Mary rightly pointed out, her latest World crown was the most difficult one. Here are the reasons. First, the level of competition in women’s boxing has gone up manifold following the sport’s entry into the Olympics in 2012. Second, the championships, hosted in the National capital, put tremendous pressure on the legend, who could not afford to dishearten her die-hard fans in the stands.

By crying inconsolably like a baby, the 35-year-old Mary — who had spent sleepless nights before the final — allowed her emotions, which she had corked inside for so many days, to flow profusely.

Boxing-wise, Mary had made a strategic switch to her favourite 48 kg category after tasting success in the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Asian Games in 51 kg, the lowest class in these mega events, amidst great odds.

The competition in 48 kg was not easy, as the mother of three got past tough rivals — Aigerim Kassenayeva of Kazakhstan, Yu Wu of China and Hyang Mi Kim of North Korea — before taming Hanna Okhota of Ukraine in the final and standing atop the podium. In the process, she became the first woman boxer to claim seven Worlds medals and equalled the record of the all-time great amateur boxer Felix Savon of Cuba.

“Mary’s maturity can be seen in her boxing. Now she is aware what her opponents will do and how she should respond. She knows how to do her training and what to do inside the ring,” said Anoop.

Mary’s lone gold medal helped India improve its showing. The country bettered its lot from one silver in the previous edition to four medals — including one gold, one silver and two bronze — to finish third in the overall tally. India’s foreign coach Raffael Bergamasco likens Mary to football great Maradona for her singular impact on the sport. Christened ‘Magnificent Mary’ by the International Boxing Association (AIBA), which has selected the Indian as its representative in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) athletes’ forum, Mary Kom is an idol for overseas boxers as well.

“She (Mary) is an Indian star and a women’s boxing legend. I am glad to have had a fight with her in the final,” said Hanna.

For young Indian boxers, who were in their early 20s and posed with Mary with medals wrapped around their necks in their debut World championships, competing in a big event alongside a huge star was real education.

“We learn a lot by training with such a big boxer. The noteworthy point about her training is that she enjoys every moment of it and never misses training,” said Simranjit Kaur, who claimed a 64 kg bronze medal.

The Union Minister for Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram, felicitates the six-time World Champion and Brand Ambassador of Tribes India, Mary Kom, at a function in New Delhi, on November 30, 2018.   -  PTI

 

Sonia Chahal, who was only five when Mary picked up her maiden Worlds medal, agreed. “We were fortunate that we could train and box alongside her. Just watching her train was a learning experience for me,” said Sonia, who took a silver in 57 kg.

Lovlina Borgohain, who got a bronze in 69 kg, also gathered valuable experience. “I learnt a lot during my training with the best boxer and my fights with some of the best in the world. It gives me a lot of confidence,” said Lovlina. Mary had a word of advice for the promising bunch. “You have to be smart as a boxer. In my early days I have fought with a lot of energy. Now if you compare my old and recent fights then you will notice a big difference. I used to perform like a bull fighter. Now I have become better. You people have to learn and improve as well. Otherwise, no one can help you.

“You should not be disheartened even if you lose. The next time you go out into the ring, apply your mind and try to win. I also lose but I don’t give up. You have to be mentally strong to take lessons from a defeat and move ahead. Life is full of challenges and my next challenge is the Olympics.”

Mary knows that she has to again go up to 51 kg to participate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifiers. She understands that the task is arduous as she has to clash with younger, taller and stronger boxers in order to chase her dream of being an Olympic champion. Still, she sticks to her life mantra — ‘Never give up!’

Having achieved everything in life, Mary — the most successful Indian boxer, a Rajya Sabha member, the subject of a book and a movie — does not need to do the backbreaking work any more.

But the fire in her belly has enabled her to take the punishment her body has received for nearly two decades. Such a fire, which burns inside great champions, urges her to push for greater glory.