(Photo Credits: Sports Rush)
Every now and then sport throws up icons who transcend boundaries. Their sporting achievements are matched or even surpassed by their popularity. It is during such times bonafide legacies are created which eclipse the sportsperson’s mortality.
India possesses one such star in Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom.
The southpaw from Manipur, a Northeastern State in India, is now the only woman in the world to be crowned World Amateur Boxing Champion a record six times. In fact, the only other boxer to do so is male heavyweight boxer Felix Savon of Cuba.
The fact that Mary Kom has done it with two weight category shifts and two pregnancies over a period of 16 years is the stuff of legend. This highlights her incredible consistency and longevity; important criteria to enter the upper echelons of greatness.
However, the 35-year old is considered as just another sportsperson in the country with many sports buffs still not aware of her success, let alone the magnitude of it.
It is extremely tough to reach the pinnacle of any sport, especially in terms of success. Most of the people know Roger Federer has won the Wimbledon five times in a row. However, not many are privy to the fact that Mary has won the World Championship five times in a row from 2002 to 2010.
Adding gravitas to the commendable feat is that she dealt with the murder of her father-in-law and the birth of her twins in between her quests for glory. On one hand, the relative newness of women’s boxing across the globe and the lack of mainstream coverage are poignant factors. On the other hand, a sports-crazy nation like India is expected to at least recognize the hidden superstar at the minimum.
In fact, Mary Kom has been pivotal to the rise of women’s boxing right from the get-go. While the sport was prevalent in various formats for decades, the first-ever AIBA (International Boxing Association) Women’s World Boxing Championship only took place in 2001. An 18-year old Mary picked up a silver before embarking on that famous run from the following year.
Initially fighting in the pinweight category (46 kg), she moved up to the light flyweight class for the 2010 World Championships as AIBA removed the 46 kg class. Another shift to the flyweight category (51 kg) followed for the 2012 London Olympics. This happened because women’s boxing was introduced in the Olympics only then.
Therefore, only 3 weight categories were allowed with 51-kg weight class being the lowest one.
Thus, at the age of 29, five-time world champion Mary Kom trained to fight in the 51 kg weight class. Her 5’2” frame meant she had to deal with taller opponents whose reach gave them a natural advantage. Nevertheless, an undersized Mary gave it her all to clinch an Olympic bronze for her country.
This was followed by an Asian Games gold in 2014 and the Commonwealth gold in 2018. Fighting in different weight categories at different international events, however, meant that her wait for a record-breaking sixth world title continued.
However, in front of her home crowd this year, Mary Kom finally created history.
Fighting against opponents much younger than her, the 35-year old boxer still showed that she was top of her game. Her counterpunching style continues to be aided by her cat-like movements inside the ring. Surprisingly, her speed refuses to decline with age, a sign of her iron will and dedication to her craft as she targets the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next.
Her commitment and love for boxing is evident from her tough origins. She grew up in one of the most economically-backward Indian states which did not enjoy rapid development like rest of the country. However, she has fought her way through every trial and tribulation to rise to the absolute top of the sport.
In her own words, “When I started, they said boxing is not for girls. After I get married, they say I cannot win after marriage. After I had a baby, they say I cannot win after having the baby.
So, I want to prove, I want to show that I can make history for India.”
If that is not a prime example of how she is the symbol for gender equality and women empowerment at the highest level, then nothing else is.
Mary Kom did receive recognition in the form of Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Padma Bhushan, some of the highest awards in the country, among others. Further, her autobiography, aptly-titled ’Unbreakable’ and co-authored by Dina Serto came out in 2013.
This was followed by a Bollywood adaptation of her life story in 2014, titled ’Mary Kom’.
However, she is still not popular the way someone of her stature should be. After all, her legacy is an inspiration to every women, boxer and sportsperson alike. We find the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer and Usain Bolt remembered in various forms at our homes, play arenas and even personal gadgets.
Mary Kom deserves to be put at the same pedestal as those legends.
Frankly, it is not often a country produces such a sporting icon who conquers it all and inspires beyond the sport itself. ‘Magnificent Mary’, as she is called, is one such rare legend, whose legacy is set to be everlasting. It is high time she is given the love and appreciation she deserves.
“Boxer has to be smart. Boxer has to be strong. But main is will. Main is will.”