Boxing Legend Mary Kom’s Fights Outside The Ring

One of the few Indian athletes who made it big, Magnificent Mary, talks of her journey from rural India to the Olympics.

India is a country of 1.2 billion people. In the Rio 2016 Olympics, India claimed 2 medals. Critics in the international media derided India for its performance, and they weren’t alone. Indian author Shobhaa De infamously tweeted: “Goal of Team India at Olympics: Go to Rio. Take selfies. Return empty handed. What a waste of money and opportunity.”

But that’s precisely what Indian athletes don’t have: money or opportunity.

In London 2012, India won an all-time record of 6 medals. One of these was a bronze claimed by boxer MC Mary Kom.

Mary’s story is about her fight to get into the boxing ring as a young girl growing up in poverty in a deeply patriarchal society, to fighting at the Olympic Games, and returning to her hometown to prepare the next generation of her country’s athletes.

She is perhaps one of the few sportspersons — besides male cricketers of course — to have become a household name in India.

As Mary told me in an interview last month, in India, it is not easy to be visible; to break through all barriers starting from the state level, national, and then international. Only a lucky few with outstanding achievements get any support. For a raw and fresh athlete, it is done by you and you alone.

Mary is the daughter of landless agricultural workers. Her father, Tonpa Kom, worked as a farm hand, a woodcutter, a butcher, until he saved enough money to buy a cow and a cart to rent out. Her mother, Akham Kom, whom Mary describes as “a woman of action”, helped supplement their family income by weaving shawls. Mary too worked in the farm growing up.

My childhood wasn’t as fragile as it is to most kids, Mary recalls, It was full of struggle and striving for survival. Nevertheless, I cherished and enjoyed every moment: playing, working, fighting, singing, fishing and whatnot. I cannot specifically recall any happiest memories, all I can remember is the joy of getting new dresses for Christmas, no matter how they looked. All that mattered to us was new clothes, which we were only able to get after months or a year.

Mary developed an early interest in martial arts, so when local boxer Dingko Singh won a gold in the 1998 Asian Games and was received home a hero, she approached the head coach at the Sports Institute of India centre to seek training in boxing.

India is a country of contradictions. There is the India that’s fulfilling the prophecy of becoming one of the world’s next great powers: growing its economy, building new infrastructure, educating more of its people, enabling them to aspire higher and lead better lives. This is the India branching out to a better tomorrow.

Then there is the India that still clings to its roots. India remains a deeply conservative, patriarchal society: the girl child is often prescribed a life wholly different to that of her male counterpart. Her right to education may not be a given, her safety on her country’s streets and in her home compromised, her potential subdued until it is forgotten. This is the India that was named the worst country for women among the G20.

Manipur, the state where Mary has lived all her life, is on the eastern periphery of India. It is also on the periphery of India’s growth effort. New infrastructure, renewal of industry, these are a rare sight. What is common though is the sight of jeeps of the Indian armed forces that have been stationed there for decades to control an insurgency. Curfews are frequent and so are reports of senseless acts of violence committed by the armed forces or insurgent groups.

This is the context in which Mary took up boxing.

For my parents, it wasn’t easy in the beginning but they later accepted, Mary says.

India is no country for sportspersons. Boxing is no sport for women.

Mary (centre) with her parents Tonpa and Akham Kom.

Tonpa learnt about his daughter’s new pursuit in a newspaper clipping of her win in a state level game. After an initial hesitation, he saw Mary’s defiance and determination, a reflection of his own, and vowed to support her no matter what.

Still, Mary says the initial days weren’t easy and I believe it’s the same for other athletes. I come from a poor family background. Every move is a big deal for us as money is a concern all the time. When we first venture into a field or trade, we don’t know what it will be like, but we proceed in good faith anyway.”

“Back in those days, the reaction people would give to women’s boxing was “oops!” There were discouraging comments and suggestions instead of positive ones and they were not wrong because we never knew the future of women’s boxing would turn out this way. There were lots of times that could have suppressed me from achieving but my determination and the inspirations I received from within and outside led me along.

And they led Mary to win five consecutive World Championships in boxing. She remains the only woman to have ever done so.

The footage of these World Championship matches is not easy to find. Boxing is so far removed from the Indian consciousness in sport that these matches aren’t broadcast or streamed, and athletes with even record breaking feats of accomplishment are unrecognised and unknown.

Mary won one world championship after the next in the 2000s, a feat as remarkable as Roger Federer’s five straight wins at Wimbledon. She remained unknown to the public of the country she was representing.

Mary in 2012, in the lead up to the London Olympics.

In grainy footage of a couple of her winning matches, you can see the aggression that experts say is Mary’s trademark. Boxing is a contact sport but with strict rules. Attacks below the waist or on the back are not allowed. Knock-outs are rare, fatalities unheard of, and it seems as much of a psychological game as an aggressive fight.

Mary is 5’2, weighing in at 46kgs. That’s 158cms, 101lbs.

She’s all muscle, a packet of agility and strength. She’s springy, lunging forward for a quick jab and backing out of the way before her opponent can react. She’s significantly shorter than her opponents and has a naturally smaller reach, but she makes up for it. She stalks her opponents around the ring as if they were prey, baiting them, attacking aggressively and with preternatural calm.

It’s exhilarating to watch her in her element.

For a time though, she was a boxer who trained in a facility with no ring. It was on two occasions that Mary considered giving up her career and sport.

The first was when, as a young athlete, she travelled from Manipur to attend a training camp halfway across the country. On the train ride there, all her worldly possessions and life savings were stolen. As a young girl those days, the first thought that came into my mind was to jump off the moving train and finish everything, Mary recalls about the incident, But I gave it a second thought. I said to myself, I am not alone and I don’t live for myself, I have got my family and my people who care about me and love me. Suicide wouldn’t be a solution, it would only add more burdens to them.

In the tough days that followed, Mary met a man whom she would later marry, Onler Kom. Onler really became the guiding light, starting from family matters to my boxing career, Mary says. He became a combination of mentor and manager, and the man behind the woman.

Mary won her first three consecutive world championships thereafter.

Mary with husband, Onler, and twins, Rechungvar and Khupneivar.

The second moment when she considered hanging up her gloves was after these three victories. It was christmastime in 2006 when a group of men called Mary’s father-in-law out of his house in Manipur, took him a short distance away, and shot him in the head at point-blank range. In Manipur, there are near constant threats of violence by insurgent groups, but the lack of a demand for ransom or apparent motive left Onler and Mary wondering if it was a result of envy or distaste for Mary’s highly unusual career.

Mary describes her father-in-law as a jolly man, a man who was always by my side no matter what. He once told me that “my daughter in law will play boxing as long as she wants”. Onler convinced Mary not to give up her boxing career.

Shortly thereafter, Mary found she was pregnant with twins. Fourteen months after giving birth to them, she won her fourth world championship.

Mary is the epitome of characteristics that are often considered mutually exclusive: aggressive and nurturing.

To make a living, she relies on awards from the state of Manipur, a salary from an honorary position in the Manipur police force, and sponsorship deals with brands. After she won her first world championship, she was offered the position of constable in the local police force and declined. A few years and wins later, she accepted the position of sub-inspector and drew 30,000 Rupees or $450 per month. Even after becoming one of India’s most accomplished athletes, she only landed a few moderate sponsorship deals.

This in a country where male cricketers receive multimillion dollar brand sponsorships and bids of upward of a million dollars to participate for 6 weeks in the Indian Premiere League.

Mary recounts the struggles she faced prior to her Olympic win: We have National Training camp periodically. This was the main training facility. Those days were hard and I can’t imagine now how I overcame them all. Transportation in Manipur is very much behind from other parts of the country. We travel by bus for 20 hours to reach Guwahati and then catch a train. Highways are not maintained properly and by the time you reach the competition or camp venue, your whole being is already worn out. We always took this risk as there was no enough money to arrange flight tickets. The same thing is happening to most athletes today.

There was no access to flight tickets. And when insurgents enforced blockades on Manipur’s highways, there was limited access to supplies. Mary gathered wood herself to continue to cook and provide for her family.

Incentives are needed. Even after consecutive world championship wins, they sometimes aren’t enough.

This is why winning at the Olympics can be so life changing for an athlete. It’s a validation of their skill and training, yes, but it also gets them the national publicity and financial backing they deserve.

For sportspersons in countries like USA, UK, China, there is almost limitless access to state-of-the-art facilities and excellent training for athletes. In the UK, it was estimated that the amount that was spent to train each athlete who won a medal in the women’s boxing at London 2012 was £1.9million or $2.5million.

Mary with Coach Charles Atkinson in the weeks prior to the London 2012 Olympics

India spent less than a fraction of that training Mary. It is estimated that prior to the Olympics, Mary received less than $125,000 in 10 years of her boxing career. To prepare for the Olympics, a non-profit organisation that sponsors elite athletes gave her access to a physiotherapist, and for the first time in her career, a personal trainer.

If athletes in foreign nations are given a chance to prove themselves, Indian athletes have to prove themselves first before they’re given a chance.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the unusual rules for women’s boxing at the Olympics. Weight and height are considerable advantages in boxing. For men’s boxing, there are 10 weight categories; a male boxer fights in the category closest to their weight leaving little room for unfair advantages. For women’s boxing, there are only 3 weight categories; women whose weight falls between these categories must either lose weight or gain weight to participate.

Mary, in red, facing off against Britain’s Nicola Adams at the London Olympics.

Mary, at 46kgs (101lbs), had to gain weight to be able to compete in the lowest weight category of 51kgs (112lbs). She describes this as an injustice: Since Olympics is one of the most celebrated game in the world, everyone wishes to play it at least once in their lifetime. Many boxers pull down their weight from 55, 56, 57 kgs to 51 kgs to make sure there is less risk and win, physically they are taller and huge. In my case, I have to strive to gain weight once I start intensive training. My height is not like the others’ and that’s where my disadvantage is because it is always better to have a good reach. In order to cope with this, I usually train with tall partners, mostly boys, from my academy and outside.”

“It is high time for AIBA and IOC to do something on this. Even this time, Rio Olympics, we were expecting that they would increase the weight category for women’s boxing at least to five, but it wasn’t so. I think it is an injustice to have such a huge difference. Let’s hope that the concerned authority will do something by the 2020 Olympics.

Nevertheless, at the London 2012 Olympics, Mary won a bronze medal.

Mary returned to India a hero, finally garnering front page attention in the media, and prize money and land from the state government. There was a biopic made on her life starring Priyanka Chopra. She was even the recipient of some higher profile sponsorships with brands.

For the most part though, Mary leads a quiet life in her home state of Manipur. Her greatest accomplishment post-Olympics is arguably at the sports academy she runs with her husband, the Mary Kom Boxing Foundation. Meant primarily for boys and girls from a poor background in Manipur, it is free, and provides training in boxing and also in life skills.

Mary leading students at her Foundation. Credit: Mary Kom Foundation.

All together, Mary says, I have more than a hundred boxers, but out of this only 60 are regular. I can see many of them are talented enough, but only if they are serious and determined enough will they reach high. Many of them have government jobs and some are doing well in another reputed sports academy. I am hopeful that they will bring glory for our country and the foundation sooner.”

“We don’t only train them in boxing but we give them education as one of the basic requirements and also life skills. It is strange but many of them are sent to boxing because they are beyond control at home or they fight either at home or in the street. But I can notice that some of them have made a lot of positive change and I am proud that they are well-disciplined. This is a big achievement besides boxing.

Mary won an Olympic bronze for India in 2012. Both Olympic medals India won in 2016 were by women too, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. In an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, these women are doing more than just winning medals. They’re redefining what it means to fight like a girl and changing the lives of the next generation of the country’s athletes.

So what does Mary think about the future for female athletes in India? She’s quick to answer: I have been quoting this in my recent speeches in conferences and meetings for the ears of those parents who have a different plan for girls and women than for boys!”

“My beloved Sindhu and Sakshi defended India’s reputation in the last Olympics, if not, I can’t imagine the shame we would have felt as a big nation. I am sure they will be living examples and a strong message to our country and society to support women in sports and other fields as well. We will have the eye on both genders.

As for the magnificent Mary herself, she would like to return to the Olympics to change the colour of her medal. It is her one and only wish and dream.

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