How did Mary Kom celebrate after becoming the first woman boxer to win six gold medals at the World Championships? Sitting on the ringside steps, huddled with coaches, she cried. And the more the crowd cheered, the more the tears flowed. “We tried telling her, it’s okay. Calm down. Take deep breaths,” says coach Chhote Lal Yadav. “But she couldn’t. She said ‘Mujhse control nahi ho pa raha hai (I am not able to control it).”
Mary (35) registered a 5-0 win in the 48-kg category over Hanna Okhota of Ukraine to tie with Cuban legend Felix Savon’s haul — he won all his six medals in the men’s heavyweight division. But instead of the usual celebration routine, of bowing to the crowd and making her way down to the presentation ceremony, Mary was overwhelmed by the moment. “She told me, ‘this is all for India’,” says Yadav. “The crowd, the atmosphere got to her, but it was more about performing in front of her people.”
When Mary won her last Worlds medal in 2010, she wasn’t the Olympic-medallist and subject-of-a-biopic then. The one in Delhi, 2006, came even earlier, when female amateur boxers were fighting for relevance worldwide. “Wahan toh main aaya tha, cheer karne (I was there, to cheer),” laughs Yadav. “Not many people came to support the boxers in 2006. It was completely different today.”
On Saturday, those present at the KD Jadhav indoor hall at the Indira Gandhi Stadium didn’t disappoint. Seated well before the scheduled 4 pm match began, the crowd cheered loudly. That it was the opening contest didn’t hurt either. As the bout drew closer, the chants grew louder, drowning out the shouting emcee and the shrill ‘U-ka-ri-na’ chant from the Ukrainian contingent. And then Mary took the ring, against a 22-year-old she had defeated two months ago.
Ahead of the final, Okhota dismissed questions on whether she considered Mary her role model. “(Vasyl) Lomachenko,” she responded, naming the compatriot professional star instead. “My dream is to meet him.” On Saturday, she met another elegant, elusive southpaw. What began as a cagey affair soon evolved into a fascinating contest of counter-boxing, with both finalists taking turns feinting and initiating the short exchanges. But Mary took the lead, with a five-punch combination to end the round — a tried-and-tested ploy of finishing with a flurry.
Scoring systems may come and go, but a facet of the game that makes Mary great is her know-how of collecting points and winning rounds. Against a flat-footed opponent, she kept bouncing, and looked the busier boxer. But it was not a one-way match. In what was easily her most competitive bout, Mary was constantly pressured by Okhota. The Ukrainian southpaw worked behind her jab, opening combinations and wrong-footing Mary, who slipped twice. She caught the Indian with clean shots and at the closing bell of the second round, a round she won on two scorecards, Okhota pointed to her head, claiming that a slip was, in fact, a knockdown missed by the referee.
If the Ukrainian was nervous before the contest or disgruntled afterwards, she didn’t show it. She hugged Mary, fist-bumped the Indian corner, gave a thumbs-up to the crowd and danced to the EDM blaring in the hall. The world championship debutante should take heart from the fact that Mary finished runner-up at her first one in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 2001.
Meanwhile, Sonia Chahal’s defeat in the 57-kg final by German Gabrielle Wahner meant that only one Indian finished on top of the podium. Chahal couldn’t manage a win against a seasoned opponent who exposed the Indian’s shortcomings. One gold, a silver and two bronze medals ensured that the hosts finished with a respectable haul, but face the age-old question going forward.
Who after Mary Kom? For now, they can afford to sleep on it. At least, India has Mary Kom.