Mary Kom fights Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk in London on Sunday. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 5: Hers isn’t the household name it should be in a country where few have seen her in action and the region she comes from stays largely under the radar.
But Mary Kom of Manipur today stepped into the boxing ring as the first Indian in the country’s 92-year-old Games history to start an Olympic campaign as one of the favourites for an individual gold, and thanked the “whole country” for praying for her.
The five-time world champion had just beaten Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk 19-14 to enter the quarter-finals of the flyweight (51kg) event, leaving her one victory away from a guaranteed medal.
“The whole country was praying for this win. There were a lot of people of all religions who were praying for me and I am happy to have crossed the first hurdle,” the 29-year-old mother of two said.
Her rivals at the Games — past and current world and European champions — knew her well. So, for what was surely the first time, the global media heard a defeated European opponent complain about her Indian adversary’s staggering reputation influencing the Olympic judges.
Karolina was in tears. “The judges gave her lots of points on sheer reputation,” the World No. 5 and former world and European bantamweight champion said bitterly. “After all, she is a five-time world championů.”
The feeling of slightly malicious pride that these remarks evoked would have taken veteran Indian sports journalists’ minds back to 1978 when a debutant Kapil Dev — from a country that didn’t bowl fast — forced Pakistani opener Sadiq Mohammed to signal to the dressing room for a helmet.
“The Polish girl is very strong,” said gracious Mary, “but she is a little bit weak technically. If she was good technically, no one could beat her. I beat her because of my experience.”
Karolina said: “Everyone knows her; everyone in the stadium wants to see her as the winner.”
Boxing fans from other nations had joined Indians in giving the 5-foot-two Mary a rousing ovation when she emerged from the tunnel. If more confirmation of her status in the sport was needed, the throng of foreign journalists around her after the bout provided it.
Mary could not hold her tears back. “Today is very emotional; today is my twins’ birthday, their fifth birthday,” she said. “I’m not there to celebrate because I’m fighting in the ring.”
In her eagerness to attack, Mary tripped and fell once in each of the first two rounds, which ended 3-3 and 5-4. In the third, a couple of good left-right hook combinations and a brilliant left upper cut gave her a 7-3 lead and she comfortably closed down a sedate fourth round.
Slipping in the ring isn’t a big deal, boxing experts told The Telegraph. “She lost her balance after her opponent landed a jaw punch — a blow on one side of the chin — which caused her head to spin,” said Sanjib Banerjee, assistant secretary of the West Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation and a former national champion.
“It happens in boxing. If a player manages to get a grip on herself, it doesn’t affect the outcome.”
Lifting herself off the floor and fighting back comes naturally to Mary, who says that when she started boxing, she couldn’t afford meat more than once a month. Born to a poor family in rural Manipur, she had moved to Imphal as a teenager by herself to make it as an athlete. When, inspired by Manipuri boxer Dingko Singh’s 1998 Asiad gold, a 15-year-old Mary decided to be a boxer, she was told boxing was not for girls.
She heard it again after her marriage — married women can’t win — and after she delivered twin boys in 2007 — moms can’t compete. She retired for a while four years ago, as she had almost done after militants shot her father-in-law dead on Christmas Day in 2006. In 2010, she changed her category from 48kg to 51kg, where she has yet to win a major title.
Her next opponent, Tunisia’s Maroua Rahali, is not expected to pose problems but in the semis she could face European champion Nicola Adams, the Briton who beat her 13-11 in the world championship quarter-finals in China in May.
Named by the BBC as one of six promising Britons to watch in London, Adams said in a recent newspaper column: “In the semi-finals, I’m likely to meet the Indian five-time world champion Mary Kom. I fought her at the world championships and she was just as good as I expected.... If we meet again, you can bet your money she is going to be coming for me.”
If she makes the final, Mary could meet Chinese world No. 1 and three-time world champion Ren Cancan. In the 2010 Guangzhou Asiad, Ren won the 51kg gold while Mary had to settle for the bronze.
But today was special in another way. “I have been boxing for 12 years; I have been trying to play in the Olympics,” Mary said, wiping her tears.
She couldn’t because till three years ago, the Olympic bosses believed what people in Imphal had told Mary in the past century: boxing is not for women. Amateur boxing powerhouse Cuba even now refuses to allow its women to fight.
But today, for the first time in their 116-year history, the Games saw women take the boxing ring. Mary’s bout was the day’s third.
Former Olympic champions Lennox Lewis and Oscar De La Hoya lent their support on Twitter and International Boxing Association chief Wu Ching-kuo called it “a proud day for the Olympic movement”.
“Having never really watched women’s boxing before, I found it really enjoyable, really fast and entertaining,” said fan David Coleman, 30. “It’s certainly as entertaining as the men’s.”