New Delhi: Boxing is associated with everything that women usually are not, a physical contest often decided by size, strength and the bruises and injuries it results in. For MC Mary Kom, however, it is the unconventional path she chose to achieve her unlikely dreams.
Her rise from the humble fields of Kangathei village in Manipur to become India’s most successful and well-known woman boxer in a largely male-dominated sport is inspiring, but the fact that the five-time undisputed world champion is also a mother-of-two make her accomplishments all the more remarkable.
Indian women rarely have it easy, especially in the field of sports, and Mary’s story is no different, a constant battle to overcome prejudice and challenges outside the ring as much as the opponents in it.
“When I started, I had no encouragement and no support. It was very difficult because I come from a poor family, and I had to struggle a lot for the first 4-5 years,” she recalls. “I never had money to buy a proper kit or good shoes, and I used to travel long distances by bus or train.”
Helping her farming-dependent family sustain a better livelihood was one of the reasons she took up boxing in the first place. The other, was a strong desire “to prove them wrong.”
“There are so many rules in society about what a woman can or cannot do. Boxing is not considered respectable for women and nobody believed I could be a boxing champion, not even my friends. Our neighbours said all kinds of things. I wanted to show that not just men, but even women can do anything they want," she says.
“I cannot stop other people from talking but I will prove them wrong with my success.”
She took her inspiration from Muhammad Ali – “I thought if I could be an international champion like Ali, then I would also become a big star!” – but it was only after Manipur’s Dingko Singh won the gold in the 1998 Asian Games that a young Mary became serious about boxing. What followed was a period of immense hard work and intensive training, but only after she had managed to convince coach Ibomcha Singh to take her on.
Convincing her parents, though, was a much tougher job.
“Initially, I didn’t tell my family, because boxing is a very tough sport. And after my father saw my photo in the paper [after she won the 2000 state championships], he really scolded me," she says. "He didn’t want me to continue, he thought it would be difficult for me to get married.”
“Then I explained to him the difference between amateur and professional boxing. I told him there are rules and regulations in amateur boxing, and if there is an injury, the referee stops play. Somehow I managed to convince him, but since then I have got my family’s full support.”
By then, Mary had achieved substantial success at the national level, and soon enough, international victories followed. After winning the silver medal at the 2001 Women's Amateur Boxing Championships, she has taken the gold in the next five, becoming the first woman boxer to win five consecutive world titles. With more than three Asian titles and eleven National titles under her belt, she has also received the Padma Shri Award (2006), the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2009) and a special award from the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA).
Her greatest achievement though, has been the fact that much of her success has come after the Caesarean birth of her twins.
“It was difficult to come back because I had been out of the ring for two years,” she says. “It was hard to regain my physical fitness. No one expected me to win. Even my parents didn’t think it would be possible. But I couldn’t stay at home! My performances were still good. So I just had to come back.”
“My husband [K. Onler Kom] also didn’t stop me. Most Indian men don’t give permission to their wives to work after marriage or after having kids. But my husband told me I should continue to play for as many years as I wanted.”
One of her little sons was in hospital on the verge of heart surgery when the Arjuna awardee won the gold at the Asian Cup last year, and with the pain evident in her voice, she admits, “It is very, very hard to leave the children behind. They are still very young. But I have the full support of my husband. He takes care of the family, so that I don’t have to worry and can concentrate fully on training.”
The motivation to return also came as woman’s boxing began to get international recognition, after being included in the Asian Games and finally, the London Olympics for the first time.
“That gave me encouragement to come back. I wanted to participate in those events.”
It is also the shy and diminutive 29-year-old’s last chance to get the respect and appreciation her achievements deserve, with the sport now in public eye after India won its first medal in boxing at the Beijing Olympics through Vijender Singh.
“My dream is, and always has been, to win at the Olympics. I’m very excited because this is the first time female boxing has been included. If you win an Olympic medal, you get fame, popularity and, of course, funds and support from the government,” says the 2010 Asian Games bronze medalist.
As a pioneer for women’s boxing in India, Mary is already an inspiration for many others who hope to follow in her footsteps, including the several young girls training at the MC Mary Kom Academy. Meanwhile, despite having had to shift to the 51kg weight category for the Olympics, the expectations are only rising. But ‘Magnificent Mary’, as she is known, is determined to overcome the odds, as always.
“I am very proud because I have done something special for India. And if I can achieve more in the future, that will be great. I am working hard and training with full focus. I hope I can qualify and win a medal.”
“Of course I miss my family and my children. I miss them very much. But this is a sacrifice I have to make for my country, and I will do my level best.”