It was a dingy hall with less than adequate exhaust fans. With insufficient lighting, it was dark inside. The ring was rocking like a boat on choppy waters. These images dominate memory so much that the people I met that day remain just a blur. It was sometime in 2001 during the women’s boxing national championships in New Delhi at the Talkatora stadium.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games was not even in its gestation period. The stadiums and infrastructure, a decade before the Games, were unfathomably bad.
Manipur’s S Suresh Singh, who represented India at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, was helping the Manipur team warm up and spar. L Kishan Singh was the manager/coach. Those days, the concept of support staff was unheard of. He pointed towards a diminutive girl who looked frail at first glance and on whom the gloves looked oversized. She was very good, he said, and had won a silver at her first World Championships. MC Mary Kom will win many more, he predicted.
Mary Kom was giggling and practicing. There was hardly any interaction though. Back then she spoke less. She was all of 45/46kg. Close to 18 years now, that she still manages to weigh only two kilograms more on the scales itself is a miracle, even more than beating opponents with ease and alacrity. I must have, like most of my friends, added at least 12-15kg to my weight since then and a few inches to my girth too. Mary Kom is the same—apart from the jawline that has become prominent—even after three children. There are other boxers who had to switch weight categories, but not Mary Kom.
“I don’t gain weight,” she told me when I went to meet her in Imphal in 2012. That’s her secret—finding it difficult to add a kilo.
When in Olympics she had to compete in the 51kg weight category, she had to gain at least 3kg. “That was the most difficult part.”
By the time she won the 2012 Olympic bronze in London, she had already won five World Championship titles. Without social media craze, no one cared as much. Beyond occasional special incentives or prize money from the sports ministry, she got nothing. She had to remind the state government that she was a world champion and that she deserved more than a sub-inspector’s post in Manipur Police.
Mary Kom’s house back then was one of the houses built during the National Games in Imphal way back in 1999. Her neighbours are Dingko Singh, Sarita Devi and a host of other Olympians.
Due to a lack of money back then, her academy was run from her house. One room was full of trophies. There was a bedroom and a big living room. The hostel was a small hut where eight or nine girls stayed. She used to cook food for them in her kitchen and had a gym under a makeshift shanty. This was before the 2012 Olympics. She and her husband Onler, the man who always supported her, spoke about their academy everywhere. But no one came forward to either sponsor the academy or give a couple of acres of land.
What defined her was the spirit and tenacity—of never giving up. Right from her childhood, she never liked giving up. There were incidents she used to narrate where she would be pushed to one corner, but somehow, just like in boxing, she would find a way to wriggle out. Even before she was famous, she always kept up the appearance of a champion. She always walked and lived like a queen. Off the ring she was fashionable, wearing the best she could manage. Even when means were meagre. Onler, her husband, never let her worry about the domestic side of their life. Now they have managers to take care of things—a novelty back then. With fame came a paucity of time as she hopped around the world on some engagement or the other. Yet there is one thing she never fails to do—keep fit both physically and mentally. And no matter what, she’s always ready to fight.