There are fancier ways to explain what makes Mary Kom the boxer she is. The regimented work ethic. The stunning longevity and experience. The nimble footwork and quick hands. The cliff notes version, however, is that the five-time world champion is just really good at not getting punched in the face.
What sets Mary apart from fighters like Simranjit, who enthralled with her swings on Saturday, and fellow Manipuri Sarita Devi, who became the first Indian to crash out of the World Championships, is her tendency to avoid excitable exchanges. That she competes in the 48kg category, the lightest division and closest to her natural weight, also makes it easier to stick and move.
For an opponent, Mary is hardly ever there. With her hands down, she circles a boxer like a schoolyard bully. Attack and get countered, stay back and get picked off. Take your pick. On Sunday, Kazakhstan’s Aigerim Kassenayeva tried to do both, and got outclassed for a unanimous 5-0 decision.
“Aaj ka game tha opponent ko bachche ki tarah khilana,” said coach Chhote Lal Yadav. “Mary toyed with her, putting pressure and countering when she attacked.”
Mary’s superior boxing IQ is down to her experience of nearly two decades. A fairer comparison would be 51kg contender Pinki Jangra, who won her opening bout on Saturday with some difficulty. When caught in a clinch, Jangra often failed to utilise her free hands. When held by Kassenayeva, Mary instead unleashed multiple punches to the body and disengaged.
Though it wasn’t all flawless. Ahead of the tournament, the 35-year-old admitted that “the new boxers are more tough and smart, they are faster”. While the quickness was more or less the same, Mary, who is almost never off-balance, slipped in the second round and was wrong-footed on occasions.
The glitches appeared to be more about pressure than signs of her years. With chants of “Mary Kom” ringing inside the Indira Gandhi stadium, and the poster girl’s face plastered all around it, there were bound to be some nerves, even for a boxer gunning for a record sixth Worlds gold medal. And it was oddly refreshing to hear Mary talk about the burden of expectations after hearing audacious upstarts like Manisha Maun, who continued her carefree, giant-killing run with a win over reigning world champion Dina Zhalaman of Kazakhstan.
“The pressure is there. The pressures have always been there for many years,” said Mary. “Sometimes, winning medals, gold, gold, gold also puts pressure because people expect it from you. We are hosting the world championships. So, there’s a question of what can I do? Can I prove myself or not is always on my mind. All I do is try and be better and better.”
Seeking self-improvement remains the defining trait for Mary, whose Sunday morning began with skipping and sweating away 500g of water weight.
“That loosens her up for the day, otherwise the body will stay a little stiff,” said Yadav. “Of course, you wouldn’t work so hard if you are satisfied. But she is always trying to improve. That’s why she says ‘boxing is my life’.”
Strong debuts for Lovlina, Bhagyabati
With the country’s greatest boxer under the pump, one could sympathise with debutantes Lovlina Borgohain and Bhagyabati Kachari feeling the butterflies. Borgohain (69kg) defeated Atheyna Bylon of Panama 5-0 while Kachari (81kg) fended off German Irini Schonberger with a 4-1 split decision. “I was nervous ahead of my debut,” admitted Lovlina, while Kachari said that “the number of people watching made it a big moment.”
“Hosting the world championships is a double-edged sword,” said coach Raffaele Bergamasco. “You have the advantage because you are competing at home, but there are also pressure and expectations. For the girls making their debut, even entering the stadium will make their stomachs hurt.”
Manisha beats world champion
Not if you are Manisha Maun, who went about her business in, what is quickly becoming her signature, devil-may-care way. The 20-year-old defeated reigning champion Kazakh Dina Zholaman with a unanimous decision to reach the 54 kg quarterfinals and take a 2-1 lead in this exciting rivalry.
Manisha, who beat two-time bronze medallist Christina Cruz and takes on top-seeded Bulgarian Stoyka Petrova (also the silver-medallist of the 2016 edition) next, said: “It doesn’t matter if the opponent is a bronze medallist or world champion. I go in there to box. I had beaten Zholaman in Poland, and the defeat was very close, and it was in her home country.”
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An aggrieved Zholaman had the same justification. While the lankier Manisha controlled the bout from a distance and landed clean shots, she also got tagged several times by a rushing Zholaman.
“How was it be a unanimous decision? I knew something like this might happen,” said the Kazakh, who signed off with an ominous, “we will see how far the Indians go.”
One boxer who had even less of a reason to feel hard done by was India’s Sarita Devi, who lost a split 3-2 decision to Ireland’s Kellie Harrington. After being stretched by 37-year-old Diana Brugger of Switzerland on Friday, Sarita came out attacking against Harrington.
Both boxers dominated in patches, but Harrington seemingly clinched the fight with a clean counter left hook that resulted in a standing eight count for Sarita, who tried to explain saying “My opponent was a southpaw and her legs got entangled in between mine and I slipped and fell.”
The 2006 gold medallist Sarita, who was handed a one-year ban by AIBA for refusing to accept her bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games, said, “I don’t know why these things happen to me only. I am not happy with the decision. I thought I had the upper hand in all the three rounds. But what do I do? I was banned for one year. So, I cannot say anything now.”