One is the reigning World Champ,the other a four-time Asian medallist. MC Marykom and L Sarita Devi,state-mates and long-time friends,are due to clash for the first time in the National Games,to earn bragging rights in the 51 kg category for the Olympics. Nitin Sharma profiles their rapidly growing rivalry
For some years now,since womens boxing made the cut for the London Olympics,five-time world champion MC Marykom has been touted to win India a gold medal in the sport in 2012. However,standing in her way of even booking a berth for London now,could be another Indian L Sarita Devi. The state-mates from Manipur might face off against each other for the first time at Jharkhands National Games next month to decide the bragging rights for the coveted 51 kg title,in what will be the biggest attraction of the event.
Marykom though,has more than just a point to prove at the Nationals this time around,as Manipur her home state has chosen Sarita Devi to represent them. While each state can have only one representative per category,Indias most famous female boxer was left homeless,until she decided to pack a punch for the host state Jharkhand. Although their ties havent really been severed during the last few months of being pitted against each other,their equation in and out of the ring used to once be a lot better.
More than a decade has passed since Marykom first watched womens boxing at the 1999 National Games in Imphal,Manipur. A young athletics trainee at the SAI center then,she had come to watch Dingko Singh,but a cursory announcement concerning Sarita Devis show bouts had the then 15-year-old staying put to watch the fledgling discipline. Twelve years on,the 2010 Asian Games bronze medalist is preparing to win back the rights to compete in a category which many believe can bring India its first-ever boxing gold medal in the London Olympics.
In the intervening years,Marykom has become the poster girl of Indian womens boxing on the back of her five world titles,even as her first idol Sarita Devis feats were reduced to footnotes,paling in comparison to her feisty state-mate. However,the original wonder-girl of boxing a pioneer of sorts has emerged from that obscurity.
A series of noiseless events and a greater attention to the nuance of weight categories have in fact,meant that Marykom will have to fight for her right to represent India at London. Theres no foregone conclusions about Marys participation,with Sarita Devi entering the coveted 51 fray and challenging her counterpart. Jharkhand National Games will thus pan out as the perfect primaries ahead of the main selection next year,as the Olympic qualification countdown starts ticking.
Last year,when the International Olympics Committee (IOC) included womens boxing in the 2012 London programme,all of Indias 21 World Championship medal winners had rejoiced over the inclusion of 51 kg,60 kg and 75 kg categories in the event. But with 11 of those medals coming in weight categories below 52 kg,it also meant most of them would compete for a solitary spot in the 51 kg category,which now seems a two-way race between multi-world champion Marykom and four-time Asian Champion Sarita Devi. Before that 1999 show bout,there were very few opportunities for women boxers and Sarita was a pioneer. It made an impact on me as I shifted to boxing soon, says 27-year-old Mary,who has been training at Punes Balewadi Complex.
The diminutive Manipuri,who won her first world title in the 45 kg category,lost in the semi-finals to Chinas Ren Cancan in Guangzhous Asian Games last year,and then took a month long break to spend more time with her family her twin sons demanding more attention than ever. This period saw her missing the state boxing championships (mandatory competition to represent her home state in National Games) and when the Jharkhand Boxing Association approached Mary for the Nationals,the current world champion in 48 kg readily agreed. Sarita has been one of the best boxers in the 51 kg category and it will be a tough contest for both of us, Mary states.
Four of Marys world titles have come in her regular 46 kg category while the fifth was won in 48 kg,a decision taken with an eye on the London Olympics. Its a big challenge for any boxer to compete in a new weight category since that field will already have its winners and when you enter,things are difficult. I have been training with sand bags to increase endurance and my husband Onmer has been helping with football training. Last years World Championships was tough as boxers from China and Turkey were favourites in that category, she adds.
The trials fiasco
Yet,Mary won her fifth world title in the 48 kg category in September last year,a feat which forced the Indian Boxing Federation (IBF) to hold the Asian Games trials again. Marys selection in the 51 kg category in the Asian Games team was followed by protests from Sarita as she met the then Sports Minister MS Gill,threatening to return her Arjuna Award. I was the reigning Asian champion in the 51 kg category as I won the Asian Championship title in May last year at Astana. IBF rescheduled the trials after the World Championships in September,which was unfair, says 28-year-old Sarita.
Both boxers have been training at Pune,and national coach Anoop Kumar known to successfully experiment with weight categories of various boxers believes that interesting days lie ahead. It was his decision to field Sarita in 52 kg instead of her routine 54 kg,which fetched Sarita her first Worlds gold medal. Soon after,Mary shifted to 48 kg on Kumars insistence.
I still rate Sarita as the best boxer in Asia after her four continental gold medals. But she lacks the killer instinct which Mary has. Both are experienced and the competition in each weight category for Olympics is good for Indian boxing. The Olympic qualifiers are six months before the London Olympics and if Sarita can play more attackingly,we will have a tough fight for the 51 kg slot, coach Anoop says.
A lot of critics also forget that Sarita has defeated Ren Cancan,to whom Mary lost in the Asian Games,twice in her career. It is a huge psychological advantage for Sarita, Anoop points out pertinently.
Both pugilists hail from nearby villages in Manipur and have trained under coach Ibomcha Singh during their formative years. While Sarita started under kung-fu coach Ibotombi,Mary began under athletics coach K Kosana Meitei. But it was under Singh that they both learned the nuances of the sport. The one-day trek to their villages meant that both stayed at Soibam Leikai in order to avoid missing practice sessions. Sarita was senior,Mary started two years later. They stayed together and shared meals,kits and gloves, recalls Ibomcha Singh,who incidentally is also Dingkos coach.
Once selected for the national camp,both trained at Bhopal,a time frame which would see them winning seven gold medals between them at the Asian Boxing Championships. Anoop still reminisces their early bonding: In the 2002 World Championships in Antalaya,Turkey,when Sarita lost in the quarters,Mary was furious with her and reminded her of the tactics they used during training. Despite being the senior boxer,Sarita took it positively and when she won the gold medal in World Championship in Delhi in 2006,she thanked Mary for the feat. They have worked in the same department for more than ten years and are very close friends, shares Anoop.
At any other time,if both of them competed in their regular weight categories in Olympics,both of them would have won a medal for India. Its both a positive thing for us and somehow negative too, Anoop adds.
With both not keen to remember the trials fiasco from last year,Mary and Sarita are desperate to show their best form at the National Games. Staying at Pune also means that most weekends are spent training together or sharing memories about Manipur. I am glad that Mary did not take Manipur selecting me in a negative way. I am proud of whatever she has achieved. It will be the first time that we will be fighting each other. Our main target is the Olympic qualifiers and the quota place, says Sarita.
What happened was unfortunate but I dont blame Sarita, Mary says. We both have only one goal,an Olympic gold. At some stage,I had to shift to a higher weight category. And once the weight categories were out,I made the call. Same goes for Sarita,who moved from 57 kg into 52 kg. Our goal is the same but unfortunately we have only one spot to aim at. The coveted 51 spot a 50-50 affair as yet might well turn out to be the loudest rumble to emerge out of the Jharkhand Games jumble.
kicks before punches: the making of Sarita
Just like MC Marykom,L Sarita Devi too was initially drafted into a different discipline to kickstart her career. While Marykom began as an athletics trainee at the SAI Centre in Imphal,Sarita started her career in Taekwondo under coach Ibotombi. A red belt meant that Sarita was in the Manipur team for the junior National Games before a document error saw her name being withdrawn. As coach Ibotombi started giving her boxing lessons,young Sarita was quick to pick up the sport and soon enrolled herself for local bouts at the centre. My father wanted me to be a Taekwondo player. We had a family of six brothers and two sisters and I was the sixth youngest. Once my father died,we had to face many difficulties. I used to stay at Soibam Leikai as my village was far and sometimes we used to eat local herbs as we could not afford three-time meals, says Sarita,the only Indian woman to have won 4 Asian Boxing Championship titles.