There were a bunch of people waiting outside the players’ room for MC Mary Kom to emerge. This group comprised students who had weaved their way through the security cordon, a couple of Pakistan women boxers, a boxing official carrying a message from the Bangladesh sports minister and a student representative who wanted the Olympic bronze medallist to throw her weight behind an election awareness campaign.
Most of them kept switching to camera mode on their mobile phones not wanting to miss an opportunity to click a selfie when Kom emerged.
The security personnel, unaware when she would step out of the room, were on tenterhooks, repeatedly asking those waiting for Mary to clear the passage which led to the main boxing hall. There was an unmistakable buzz when any woman in a light-blue India jersey stepped out but it died as soon as it was clear that the star wasn’t stepping out yet.
This is a sight often seen at dressing rooms and hotel lobbies of Indian cricket teams, but outside the realm of the country’s most popular sport, this kind of adoration is reserved for just a handful of athletes.
Mary Kom, after a cool down session which lasted over an hour, obliged those who were waiting for her. She took selfies with the students, held up a ‘Wake Up and Vote’ campaign poster of the students of IIT, Guwahati. When the melee settled, she was whisked away to meet the Bangladesh sports minister, who had travelled to Shillong to watch her bout.
There were hundreds of others who travelled to the pine-tree lined North East Hill University campus.
But hundreds of others missed out on watching Mary Kom box at home – Kangathei, Mary Kom’s birthplace in Manipur, is an overnight journey from Shillong but the official brand ambassador of the North-East is as popular here as she is in her home state.
It was a pity that the indoor stadium here could seat not more than 500 spectators, apart from the cordoned off VIP areas.
Fans had made their way to the university campus on Saturday, the first day of boxing but they could not watch Mary Kom in action. The flyweight had received a ‘bye’. Sarita Devi, the lightweight from Imphal, who trails only Mary Kom in popularity, had made a blink-and-miss comeback to competitive boxing winning by technical knockout in less than a minute into the first round.
Mary charmed the crowd making briefly stepping into the hall and waving to the stands. The much anticipated Mary Kom entry through the tunnel in boxing gear would take another day.
Bangladesh’s Shamina Akter, Mark Kom’s opponent in the semifinal on Sunday, would have been overawed by the reception the champion received before stepping into the ring.
Akter was just a prop on this evening when the main attraction was Mary Kom. In the second round, the fight was stopped and the Indian was declared winner by a Technical Knockout.
All three Indian women, including Sarita Devi and Pooja Rani, and seven of the men, entered the final as the hosts dominated in the ring. But Mary Kom was the most popular winner.
Mary Kom lingered on after her bout, a few metres away from the ring. She started shadow boxing – throwing punches, bobbing and weaving. This was a bit of showmanship on her part. She also had another motive. In the ring was Anusha Dilrukshi, a former quarterfinalist at the 2010 World Women Boxing Championship, who would eventually set-up a final clash with Mary Kom.
A local newspaper had quoted Dilrukshi as saying: ‘I challenge Mary Kom to beat me.’ Dilrukshi claimed she was misquoted. On Sunday, after her bout the Sri Lankan didn’t bluster but only said that she was ‘looking to win gold’. The Sri Lankan’s ‘misquoted’ comment had reached the ears of the Indian camp.
In the lead-up to the boxing event, Mark Kom took offence when one of the local television channel reporters asked her about ‘the challenge she faced at the South Asian Games’. “Kaisa sawal hai yeh,” she had shot back.
Mary Kom is not ‘100 per cent fit’ but is training to get back to peak form by the time of the qualifiers for the Rio Olympics. She gave birth to a son, her third child, in May and getting back to the ‘boxing routine’ has taken more time than expected.
The path to the Rio Games is yet to be paved, but at the South Asian Games, held at ‘home’, Mary Kom is the undisputed star.