Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister and George Bush was invading Iraq. Sachin Tendulkar was younger than Virat Kohli is now and had only just broken Don Bradman’s record for the most Test centuries. Ronaldo, in football, still meant the bald Brazilian one while Pete Sampras had just won his last Grand Slam. Petrol prices in India were still under Rs 30 a litre. 2002 sure does seem like it was a long time ago!
There’s one thing people won’t remember from 2002 though—headlines about a 19-year-old Manipuri girl winning a gold at the Women’s World Boxing Championships. For an India that was still clinging on to a cricket World Cup won in 1983 and a bunch of Olympic golds in hockey won decades prior, MC Mary Kom’s achievement should have sparked sweets and fireworks. Here was an Indian athlete who was best in the world at a time no Indian—bar maybe Tendulkar—occupied the top spot in anything. Yet no one cared.
Fast forward 16 years and Mary Kom’s sixth Worlds gold is being toasted by an entire country. The woman who did not merit a mention in the snippets on sports pages in 2002 is now dominating headlines on the front page. Forget her multiple world titles, her Olympic bronze or the fact that she managed to actually get a top Bollywood actress to don ridiculous prosthetics to look like her. Mary Kom’s biggest achievement has to be that, through sheer will and crunching punches, she got a hopelessly apathetic country to care.
Perhaps it is due to those lost years that we don’t talk about Mary in the same tone as we mention a Serena Williams or a Tendulkar. India only met Mary in 2012 when she won the Olympic bronze. Her five World Championship gold medals, which came before, did not matter because women’s boxing was not an event at the Olympics, the Asiad or the Commonwealth Games—the trifecta of events that we ‘cared’ about.
If boxing had been an Olympic sport from 2004, would the world have been talking of Mary as one of the greatest athletes of all time? Chances are, it would.
How many other athletes have been on top of the world on either end of a 16-year interval? Serena immediately comes to mind, as does Roger Federer. Michael Jordan won his last NBA Most Valuable Player award when he was 36. Zinedine Zidane nearly led France to a World Cup title at 35 before losing his cool and headbutting Marco Materazzi. There was Tendulkar, outscoring everyone at 37. Both Muhammad Ali and his one-time rival George Foreman won world titles at 36 and 45, respectively. And at the very top of the freakishness scale, there is Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46.
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And now alongside them, there is Mary Kom. A first World Championship medal at 18, the first gold at 19. That sparked off an incredible run of not losing a World Championships bout for eight straight years—her entire prime. Then came an Olympic medal, a feat even more remarkable due to the fact that she switched weight categories to do it. No woman has more World Championship gold medals than her. In fact, no man has either—she is tied at six with legendary Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon.
Like all of those aforementioned legends, Mary has been able to keep her hunger intact even after fame and fortune brought with it the inevitable distractions. Today, she is a celebrity, someone who has had a biopic about her and a Rajya Sabha MP. Yet the only thing she sees, even at 35, is the one that has eluded her during her medal-laden career—an Olympic gold.
After winning the gold in New Delhi, Mary talked about how she had evolved as a pugilist, from a young fighter who relied on brutish strength to a slower but wiser veteran who out-thought younger competitors. “In 2001 (when she won her first World Championships medal), I was young and inexperienced,” she said. “In fact, I would say I had no skill. I was only relying on strength and stamina to pull through. I was just following my instincts at that time.
“But in 2018, I had the experience to ensure that I didn’t exert myself unnecessarily. I don’t want to get hit anymore, I like to win bouts without getting struck and this is what I largely managed to do this time. No wasting of efforts. I have become calculative.”
Her evolution is a process that happens one tweak at a time, as she explained after her semifinal at the recent World Championships. “Every bout, you learn something,” she said. “Whether we lose or we win, we analyse it. I look at what my weakness was and think about how to improve.”
Her comments on her preparation for the final betrayed just how much of it was going to be fought in her head—she likened herself to a student who had to read up on everything that she had learned, the day before a crucial exam. The transformation from physical to cerebral is one that some of the best in the business have made over the years, none more memorably than another boxer—Muhammad Ali—when he came up with the rope-a-dope strategy against Foreman in their famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ bout. It is a list that is as worthy of Mary Kom as she is of being in it.
Like every great athlete, one of the secrets to Mary’s astounding success is obsession. She doesn’t train to keep fit. She trains because there is nothing else. “I have to train to keep myself calm,” she said in an interview before the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
“It’s a strong urge, it’s a habit and training makes me happy. When I don’t train, I feel sick sometimes.”
Then there is that stubbornness, a dogged determination that often causes her to pull off almost superhuman feats. That trait can be traced back to the very beginning of her story when her first coach Ibomcha Singh refused to take her in because he initially felt she was too small and skinny. She just stood there and cried until he changed his mind.
It is also littered in anecdotes across her career. A memorable one comes from a recent meet in Poland when Mary landed in the country on the day of the weigh-in and found out that she was two kilos over the limit. Her solution? She skipped non-stop for an hour till she had burned whatever needed to be burned.
That’s the kind of story that makes you break out into a dismissive chuckle and say ‘yeah right!’ But then you remember that the heroine in this one is MC Mary Kom and you bite your tongue.
In a 2010 interview with the BBC, Mary spoke of the one thing remaining on her bucket list. “Gold at London 2012, that’s what I want,” she had said back then. “After that, I can retire.”
Eight years on, there is still no tick mark against the sole remaining item in her list. She got within two wins of gold at London but failed to even make it to Rio. Now she’s talking of Tokyo in that same nonchalant tone in which she had talked of London all those years ago. “My preparations (for Tokyo 2020) will begin tomorrow,” she said, minutes after her win in New Delhi. “I will sit with my coaches and support staff and make plans.”
Mary will be 37 by the time the Tokyo Games come along. Only the most optimistic of people would believe that a career-high can be scaled at that age. The pessimist might call it impossible. But by now, Mary has given enough hints that she doesn’t believe in that word. One suspects that she agrees with Ali, the greatest of her ilk, on that subject. “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it,” he had said. “Impossible is nothing.”