USA coach Billy Walsh calls Mary Kom a heartbreaker. Not for surpassing her former ward Katie Taylor’s haul of five World Championship gold medals — “She deserves her sixth title, coming back at 35 and beating all opposition” — but because of how Mary torments her opponents.
“She breaks your heart. She never gives your peace, never lets you rest,” Walsh said on the sidelines of the Women’s World Championships. “Her aggression is the mainstay of her game. And she has a never-say-die attitude a boxer should have. She fights till the last bell, and one can only respect that.”
But Walsh, who has led Ireland’s Taylor and USA’s Clarissa Shields to Olympic glory, believes it is her exploits outside the ring which make Mary a boxer’s boxer.
“She has been legendary. She was there at the beginning of the female boxing movement, flying the flag for the sport,” said Walsh. “Especially in India, where women boxers weren’t accepted maybe at that level.”
With Mary racking world titles (she had four gold and a silver by 2008), amateur boxing’s governing body AIBA dubbed her ‘Magnificent Mary’ and successfully used her as the face of the movement to get female boxing included at the Olympics. But the boxer literally had to punch above her weight, moving up from 46 to 48 to 51kg to win the historic bronze in London.
Back in her natural weight category of 48kg for her latest run, Mary has won a fifth Asian Championships title, her first Commonwealth Games gold and the record sixth Worlds gold on Saturday with a sound technique complemented by the experience of 18 years. Part brute, part ballerina, Mary has been a wholesome entertainer in the ring.
“Mary’s is technical boxing… very beautiful for the eyes,” is Bulgaria’s Stoyka Petrova’s assessment. “I don’t remember at which tournament exactly I first noticed her, but we always looked for the ‘best boxer’ name in the competition, and it would be hers.”
Petrova, who like Mary fell to eventual champion Nicola Adams at the 2012 London Olympics, finished her career with a 54kg worlds silver on Saturday. But with marriage and coaching on the cards, Petrova, 33, doesn’t wish to extend her career like her friend.
“No, no. I am done. It’s been too long,” says Petrova, a “hero” for female boxers in Bulgaria according to understudy Gabriela Dimitrova. “Boxing is life for Mary Kom. This is normal for her.”
“Mary’s run has been very important for women boxing,” says Maarit Teuronen, coach of Olympic bronze-medallist Mira Potkonen. Teuronen — an eight-time national champion and Finland’s sole representative at the inaugural women World Championships in 2001 — began in 1993 and quit before women’s boxing made its Olympic debut.
“It was completely different. The exposure, the system in place for women boxers,” says Teuronen. “But it got momentum after 2012. And luckily we found Mira.”
Potkonen took up boxing at 28 to lose post-pregnancy weight and went on to defeat Ireland’s Taylor at in the Rio Olympics quarterfinals. “She has played a similar role. So you have Mary, who has three kids and we have Mira, who has two,” says Teuronen. “Every sport needs heroes and role models. And Mary and Mira have faced many personal challenges and from society. They show the way for girls that they can also reach the highest level.”
Pressure, what pressure?
But being Mary comes with its own baggage. While the Indian was the biggest draw at the event, Potkonen was given second billing in promotions. So when the 38-year-old — who won a gold at the India Open in New Delhi in February with little fanfare — touched down, she was left staring at her face plastered alongside Mary all over capital’s Indira Gandhi stadium.
“Mira saw her face everywhere and went ‘oh my god’,” grins Teuronen. “Even I felt the butterflies. We had to talk about it with each other and try to ease off the burden of expectations. It can be too much when you are not used to it.”
It can be too much even when you are used to it, as Mary found out. After her first win this week, Mary said, “I have been handling the pressure of expectations for the last 16 years and I have happy to face this pressure. In the initial years, it was a bit tough to handle but now I am used to it.”
But with the crowd growing louder and opponents getting tougher, Mary was slowly unravelling. “She is always smiling but she couldn’t sleep for the last two nights,” said coach Raffaele Bergamasco. “There was a lot of pressure on her.” And when she fended off the tough Ukrainian Hanna Okhota to win it all, she couldn’t pull herself together.
“The pressure was the most difficult thing for me. Expectations, playing at home, trying to win the sixth world title was tough,” said Mary.
“Performances like these is why everyone in boxing treats Mary with massive amount of respect,” says Australian coach Kevin Smith. “It’s hard to perform under the spotlight so well for so long. I suppose, when she goes abroad, it must be a bit of a relief. To walk around without being recognised. Performing in an atmosphere like this takes courage. She has responsibilities in India. She is a public figure. And public figures are always under scrutiny. It’s almost like, she is the female Sachin Tendulkar.”
There are similarities, including the constant twitching, the nod of the head or spasm of the shoulder. And then there’s the demigod status.
“We were in Mongolia and Mary had lost her fight,” coach Chhote Lal Yadav recounts an incident from the comeback tournament last year. “But there were still people coming up to Mary and asking her to bless their children. They respect her that much because of her boxing.”
But unlike many champions, Mary isn’t about reciting well-practised monologues or gimmicky aggression. Interactions with the boxer are always memorable, thanks to her deceptively sharp sense of humour and her self-assurance bordering on arrogance.
On Saturday, when asked to compare her haul to Katie Taylor’s, Mary said, “She won, then took a break, then won. I won them all in a row and skipped the tournament. Agar main sabme jaata, toh pata nahi kitni baar champion ban jaata.” Or when a reporter asked where she would place her sixth gold medal amid all other triumphs, she went: “I have been planning an individual museum for all my medals. I’ll place this one there too.”
There’s often room for misinterpretation, with her halting control over Hindi and English. So when she says ‘mere jaisa koi paida nahi ho sakta’, she explains that she is asking to not look for another Mary Kom in younger boxers and subject them to comparisons.
“All they need right now is experience and exposure. Everyone is working hard and trying to win medals. I have reached this level because of my experience.”
But Bergamasco disagrees. “There are a lot of boxers with experience, but not all reached Mary Kom’s level. She is here because of talent. She’s the Maradona of boxing.”
“Before even coming to India, I knew Mary Kom was a one in a million talent,” Bergamasco later added. “At every competition or training, she was the star. That is why every boxer here from every team wanted to see her compete in front of her crowd.”
Soon after the medal ceremony, boxing’s Maradona was mobbed by selfie-wishers, one of whom was Kim Hyang-Mi, who lost to the Indian in a semifinal contest she thought she had won. Afterwards, the North Korean laughed and explained, “She’s Mary Kom. She’s best in the world.”