Think of Indian women's boxing and there is only one name that resonates – MC Mary Kom. Her achievements speak for themselves – five-time world champion – and the fact that Mary Kom will be India's sole female boxer at the London Olympics as the sport makes it debut at the quadrennial games is enough to inspire even a non-boxing fan to take notice.
As a pioneer for women's boxing in India, Mary is already an inspiration for many others who hope to follow in her footsteps. Despite having had to shift to the 51kg weight category for the Olympics, the expectations are only rising. The games are the 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.
'Magnificent Mary', as she is known, is determined to overcome the odds, as always.
Mary Kom's 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. 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 she started off, Mary Kom had no encouragement or support. It was tough for her because she came from a poor family, and the first five years were a struggled to make ends meet. She was unable to buy a proper kit or good shoes and had 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.
It was only after Manipur's Dingko Singh won the gold in the 1998 Asian Games that a young Mary Kom 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.
By the time she got her parents' support, Mary Kom 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.
The motivation to return to boxing after giving birth to twins also came as women's boxing began to get international recognition, after being included in the Asian Games and finally, the London Olympics for the first time.
ROAD TO LONDON 2012
The diminutive Manipuri qualified for the Olympics after England's Nicola Adams advanced to the finals of the World Boxing Championships in Qinhuangdao, China. After Mary Kom lost in the quarterfinals to Adams, her Olympic qualification hinged on the latter's progress in the tournament. Adams' victory over Russia's world champion Yelena Savelyeva in the semis ensured Mary Kom's progression to the London games
Mary Kom, who will be appearing at an Olympics for the first time after 51, 60 and 75 kg weight categories were included in the competition, was confident of a good show in London.
"The Olympics will not be that tough only as selected boxers will fight there. In the Worlds, there were close to 55 boxers. The championships were very tough because everyone was there for the qualifiers. Even the Chinese 60 and 75 kg boxer were not able to qualify (for Olympics)."
Having won most of her titles in the 48 kg category, Mary Kom acknowledge how tough it was to change weight categories. "It is a big challenge for me changing weight categories. If I was fighting in the 48 kg I would be the champion. I have already defeated the champion from the Philippines thrice so it is easy," she said.
Now, her sole focus is winning a medal at the Olympics. "I am a five-time world champion but I am not happy with that, nobody knows me yet. If I win a medal at Olympics I will become popular, it is difficult for me to get sponsors," she said.
Mary Kom will have to contend with the top names in the 51-kilogram category in London, including two-time world champion Cancan Ren of China and Britain's Adams. It will be tough, no doubt, but for a boxer who took her inspiration from Muhammad Ali, nothing is impossible. She is one of India's best bets to win a medal in London.