In theory, Sonia Chahal’s World Championship final should have been her easiest fight. Throughout the tournament, the 5’5 Chahal had depended on her lanky frame to pick opponents off from a distance and counter rushers while back-pedalling. German Gabrielle Wahner, placed 10th at this year’s European competition, stood three inches shorter and constantly moved forward.
But on Saturday, Wahner’s technical proficiency exposed the frailties of debutante Chahal, who lost the 57kg final by a 4-1 decision. Right from the crouched stance to her solid high guard, Wahner was the superior boxer. On the other hand, Chahal, by her own admission, can’t stand and trade and has to be moving backwards to throw counters.
“Coaches ask me to go forward and attack, but I freeze up and can’t throw punches like that,” said Chahal on the eve of her final.
Against the seasoned Wahner, she could neither go back nor forward. The German swarmed Chahal, often opening combinations with a body shot or a step-in jab. The chasm in technique was evident from the opening bell, but Wahner furthered the momentum in her favour with a blow to the chest that sent Chahal tumbling. While ruled a slip and not a knockdown, the moment set the tone for the rest of the contest. At various junctures of the fight, Chahal found herself pinned in the corner with no way out. And while the verdict was a split decision, Chahal was handily defeated.
“There’s a lot to learn in defeats as well,” said Mary Kom at the press conference. “I have lost in big, official competitions, and in small ones, too. Anything can happen in boxing. But I can never be defeated easily. The opponent would always have to work extremely hard to get a win over me.”
For Chahal, there are some parallels, but a lot of lessons to draw from Mary. Lessons on what separates a silver medallist from a gold medallist. And not just a gold medallist, but one who has done it for the sixth time.
“First of all, winning a medal at the world championships is not easy for anybody,” said Mary at the press conference. “Sab koshish kar rahin hain. But I realise that for the home nation to have one gold and three other medals is disappointing. We all have to work harder and bounce back.”
A decidedly unrefined boxer getting silver on Worlds debut makes for a wild, promising breakthrough story. Mary, India’s greatest boxer, believes she too was a work-in-progress when she, at 18, finished runner-up at the first women’s world championships in 2001.
“The first two-three times I became world champion, my game was all about power and energy for me,” Mary said.
Unfortunately, “power and energy” are the two features currently missing from the 21-year-old Chahal’s skill set.
“I went in the ring with full preparation but lost my stamina,” said Chahal, who also said that she lacks strength when compared to other boxers in the 57kg category. Part of it is the technique — it is difficult to impart power to a punch when your rear foot is in the air — and partly the diet. Chahal, a vegetarian who says that she will soon have to start eating meat to gain strength, has trouble making the 57kg and often weighs in under.
Now, being an Olympic category, Chahal’s weight class is more competitive. But Mary, who now plans to ditch her natural weight of 48kg and move back up to 51kg (in which she won the Olympic bronze) essentially faces the same challenge.
“I am ready to take that pressure again. I will have to face stronger, taller, tougher boxers. But I have done that before. The plan is to compete at 51kg in next year’s Olympic qualifiers, and I am going to consult my nutritionists, physios and coaches to properly make that jump,” said Mary.
Following in Mary’s footsteps and adopting the 35-year-old’s blueprint could be the way forward for Chahal, who in many ways has been the find of the tournament. While bronze medallists Lovlina Borgohain and Simranjit Kaur have looked more credible in the ring, Chahal has shown gumption to topple bigger names in her category (a couple of iffy decisions going her way also played a role) and could be an important prospect for Indian boxing.
“All they need right now is experience and exposure,” said Mary. “Mere jaisa to ek aur paida nahin ho sakta hai. So stop thinking of them as the next Mary Kom. They will make their own way if they keep working hard.”