It feels oddly fascinating to hear the word ‘legend’ used so many times, by foreign commentators- those well versed with Boxing- when an Indian steps into the ring.
For many Indian sports fans, especially those who were aware that this was the first time Women’s Boxing was included in the Olympics, this was something new. Sure, most of us have heard of Hmangte Chungneijang Mary Kom (or atleast Mary Kom) over the years, but none of us have been privileged enough to live her glorious career in realtime. She had an added disadvantage of Women’s boxing never formally being recognized by even the Commonwealth Games. Hence, to still be so popular in a country indifferent to any sport that does not require balls (and bats), this is a noteworthy achievement.
A living legend, they called her time and again, the jewel of the Boxing world- when she stepped into the ring to fulfill a long cherished dream at London, to fight the third EVER Olympics women’s match against the much bigger Karolina Michalczuk. That Kom is fighting in a weight category above her usual 46 or 48 kilo category, only in order to be an Olympian, is by now a known fact. That her coach Charles Atkinson was denied accreditation by some managerial British genius, is much known- especially by accusatory Indian news channels that are determined to prove that the judges at the competition are fools. That Kom had to train in his home town of Liverpool until 2 days before her first fight, is now a sidenote. While enlightening the world about her status as a boxer, the British commentators were almost hoping to hear that Indians were well aware of her iconic status. They expected us to be proud of her, just like they are- of their own Heptathlon Champion Jessica Ennis- but so many of us were taken by surprise to hear such lavish praise, in an alien sport.
The truth is, and always will be- until she wears a cape and flies away- that the one World Champion we have apart from Sachin Tendulkar and Vishwanathan Anand, is a woman. And the only woman privileged enough to be relentless exposed and covered by the media is now Saina Nehwal- because she is young, hard working, a world beater and everything that Sania Mirza strived to be. She is young- that is the key word.
And maybe, that is the way this 32 year old ‘living legend’ prefers it. Saina, on her part, must carry the world on her shoulders, just to ensure that Kom remains the woman many should idolize.
MC Mary Kom- a mother of twins- has been boxing for well over a decade now. She was a sprightly teenager living a secret life of an up and coming Boxer, scared that her parents would find out, in the conservative state of Manipur. So many facts are now dawning upon many proud Indians- especially those who claim that they knew all along that she was India’s best medal hope.
The five time World Champion wasn’t in the best of form coming into the Olympics, because she barely qualified after being defeated in the quarters by World No. 2 British Boxer Nicola Adams in this year’s World Championships. It was almost cruel that, in the only year that mattered, Kom failed to win a medal after winning 6 in a row. Unfortunately, for her, she was boxing in a category that had bigger, stronger women with more reach and experience- and she was ranked no. 4 in the this 51 kilo category. She was moments away from having her dreams shattered, until Adams made it to the final, in the process, handing Mary a spot in the Olympics. India’s only women boxer to make it, it had to be her, it had to be Mother Mary.
After defeating the Pole in the first round, whispers of that unthinkable medal possibility began doing the rounds amidst so many success-starved Indian fans. Facing the relatively younger Tunisian Boxer Rahali in the quarters was not easy, given that she was known to dance circles around older opponents all over the world.
That Mary outmaneuvered and outthought the younger boxer is a testament to her skill and approach in the biggest test of her life. She has a medal secured for India, but if anybody has seen her throw punches in that ring, they will know that Mary Kom stands for more than just a Bronze medal.
She stands for much more in a country that is only now waking up to her consistent genius, her domination in a sexist sport that would have remained in the dark if she hadn’t come out of her 2-year retirement after having her twins.
Her parents worked in jhum fields all their lives, and not in their wildest of dreams would they have expected to see the Lady in Blue, their strong daughter- a loving mother, a caring wife, a born athlete- fight for her country in a competition that nullifies everything that she has previously achieved.
And as much as Indians are prone to ignoring the colour of medals in favour for a final tally, and for over-celebrating bronze medals as if they’re golds- this is one medal that vibrated the boxing world to this same state of blissful denial. Does it matter if she goes further?
Her legend is sealed. But risk telling her that, without a guard to protect your face.
And now, as brutally poetic as her career has been, it is only fitting that fate has one last test in store for her.
She now faces World no. 2, a familiar boxer, the much-admired Nicola Adams in the semi-finals.
One can almost hear Mary Kom speak, in a gruffy voice, when told about her gigantic achievement and about how she has done her nation so proud and achieved everything there is to achieve:
‘Not everything. Not yet…’
She has risen. Make no mistake about it.