Apart from the members of various national camps, the campus of NIS Patiala is also utilised by a number of local youngsters. While it’s not uncommon to run into one of the more well-known names of Indian sport inside the complex, one little girl was clearly starstruck when she spotted MC Mary Kom among the row of cars parked outside the boxing hall on Friday evening. She rushed up to Mary, and thrust out a notepad and a pen. The girl knew her boxing for she wished Mary all the best for the Commonwealth Games. Mary smiled and signed the paper. The girl skipped away on getting the prized scribble.
Delivered through gritted teeth, the smile had, perhaps, taken every ounce of self-control. Mary was seething. Only minutes before, she had lost a bout to Pinki Jangra, for the women’s 51kg spot in the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games. Defeat is hard for any athlete. What made it harder for Mary was that losses have been rare for her.
In the last ten years, she has lost, perhaps, only five times in international competition even as she earned multiple World Championships, an Asian Games bronze and the 2012 Olympic bronze that made her a household name. In domestic competitions during the same period, only twice have her arms not been held aloft by the referee. The last was in 2009 — also against Jangra, at the Nationals in Jamshedpur.
It’s uncertain whether the 31-year-old’s loss in Patiala was as unexpected for her as it was, clearly, painful. At the culmination of the bout, both Jangra and Mary had gone to their respective corners with arms raised, as if celebrating the win. What added to the drama was that of the three cards chosen at random by the scoring computer, two had the scores level.
It doesn’t take much to get a conspiracy theory going at a boxing competition in India and the delay in announcing the winner was seen to indicate that the bout had been fixed in Mary’s favour. Even Sonia Lather, who had lost to Jangra a day before, started protesting. When the two judges were asked, both chose Jangra.
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The decision didn’t go down well with Mary. She shook her head, muttering something about regional bias. She swore she would quit the sport. She promised she would launch a protest and call a press conference. She stormed off the stage and out of the hall, with husband Onler quietly following at a distance. Her immediate reaction was raw and understandable, if only for its honesty.
For most observers at the trials though, the result was fair. Mary was clearly in poor physical shape. Her ability to attack from angles was not on show. She walked forward with little deception and punched with little power. Breathing heavily, she often clinched. “She isn’t even moving after hitting. It’s as if she is learning to box all over again. I can’t believe this is the same Mary Kom we saw at the Olympics,” remarked a judge.
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In a way, it was unfair to expect the same Mary as at the London Olympics. While she may have been older than most of her competitors even back then, she had been razor sharp after six months of training with Charles Atkinson, the legendary English coach, who has trained multiple professional champions. More importantly, she had been chasing a long-standing dream — an Olympic medal. Now, a couple of years later, it was a miracle that she was at the trials in Patiala. After her proudest professional moment, she had nothing to do with the sport for nearly a year and a half.
In that time, Mary had delivered her third son — Prince — via a C-section. In September last year, she had undergone surgery to remove her gall bladder. There were other distractions too — endorsements, ad shoots and even a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film starring Priyanka Chopra. There is even a boxing academy she oversees in Imphal. After the trials, Mary was to immediately fly to Imphal to be present at the Manipur State Championships, where some of the boxers from her academy were participating.
Mary had returned to active training only in March. Even that was believed to be enough to get her back into shape before the trials, which had been scheduled for April. Atkinson was called, once again, to Pune and she appeared to be set. The competition was, however, postponed to June.
Atkinson returned to the UK while Mary went to Imphal to be with her sons. It was a cruel choice that she has often had to make between family and the game. She would return to compete for the trials in Delhi last month. She appeared out of touch and was lucky to make the final against Jangra — the bout ended in a draw.
“Boxing isn’t a friend. If you keep it at arm’s length, it will forget you. Mary wasn’t as focused on her training as she had been,” admits women’s national coach Anoop Kumar.
Even while it was clear that she was slipping, Mary was unable to refocus on her game. In both Delhi and Patiala, Prince — only a year old — had to travel with his mother. The “soo cuuute” (as Jangra puts it) toddler was an immediate hit with the girls, who constantly fussed over him. Jangra, in particular, seemed to take great delight in playing with him. But while Prince was clearly a distraction for her competitors, he was more so for Mary, despite her mother Akham Kom and husband Onler helping out.
Despite not getting a win in Delhi, Jangra believed she was getting closer to pushing Mary off the top of the mountain. The only previous time Jangra had beaten Mary — in 2009 — was also after the latter had returned after a long layoff.
While a spot at the Commonwealth Games was crucial, that Jangra had beaten her idol was more meaningful to her. It isn’t just little girls who find Mary an inspiration.
“Mary didi has always been my role model. Whenever I had difficulties when boxing, I would think to myself that Mary too faced as many challenges. If she could find ways to succeed, I had no excuse. What I respect the most is her heart. She doesn’t believe in giving up,” says Jangra.
Is it over?
Quitting is, however, exactly what some suggest for Mary and the loss to Jangra may have sharpened some knives. At 31, naysayers say, she is too old to think about the Rio Olympics. Jangra believes that while Mary wasn’t at her physical peak, she has no doubt she will continue. “No boxer wants to stop boxing. But at some point even though you feel you can continue, your body will act otherwise. It isn’t just Mary didi. Even I know I won’t be boxing forever. When I get there, I too will not want to stop,” she says.
It will take all of Mary’s legendary toughness to get her back on track. There are no doubts about her ability. This, after all, is the same boxer who had blocked out news of her son’s heart surgery, won gold at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in 2011 and flown back to be by his side.
There will certainly be some enforced changes in plans. Mary had been so sure of qualifying for the Commonwealth Games, that plans had already been made to start training at the Army Sports Institute in Pune. A couple of male boxers would have been called for sparring. There were to be further training sessions with Atkinson. She was also scheduled to travel to Liverpool to train before heading to Glasgow.
While the Liverpool and Glasgow legs of the schedule will be shelved, Mary will, probably, still head to Pune. The next target will be to qualify for the Asian Games, the trials for which will be in August. For all her threats of quitting the game, she had lost a bit of steam while waiting in the parking lot. “You watch out. I will return for the Asian Games,” she vowed.
If for no other reason, Mary will return to ensure her last bout won’t have a loss marked against her name. No one doubts that. “I have no doubt she will come back hard. You can’t say that she is finished. She has incredible mental toughness. Mary is Mary,” says coach Anoop Kumar.