Five-time world champion MC Mary Kom, in an exclusive conversation with Harish Kotian, reveals what inspired her to take up boxing, and her plans to produce champions at her academy in Manipur despite not having a sponsor.
If Sachin Tendulkar is the face of cricket in India, then MC Mary Kom is certainly the front of women's boxing. The ace pugilist, who has five consecutive World championship titles to her name, suffered a minor hiccup last month when she was unfairly denied of a gold medal at the Asian Games after some poor refereeing decisions in the semi-finals.
However, Mary Kom is unfazed by reverse and believes it has only made her resolve to win the coveted gold medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games stronger.
The 27-year-old, who hails from Manipur, reveals that watching Mohammad Ali's fights on television triggered an interest in the sport, though it was fellow-Manipuri Dingko Singh's success at the 1998 Asian Games that finally made her take the plunge into boxing despite non-approval from her family.
'Magnificent Mary', as she is popularly known, now has one objective: to get more Indian girls into boxing. Her academy is just the starting point and she believes she can play a role in producing future World and Olympic champions.
You were obviously done in by the poor refereeing at the Asian Games? What lessons have you learnt from that experience?
I learnt a lot of lessons from that experience. I realised that representing your country is such a big thing because, before this, the only big events I competed in were the World Championships. I saw so many athletes from different sports coming together and it was a really huge occasion for me.
Was it also difficult adjusting in your weight category since this was your first tournament in a higher weight? Did you have enough time to make the adjustments?
I didn't find it difficult to change the level, but I think I was denied by some unfair decisions from the referee. He didn't penalise my opponent [Ren Cancan of China] even though she was fouling me so much; even in the last round she got points very easily. So I think it was because of the unfair decisions I lost, else I don't think it was tough to adjust in my weight category.
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh
'I am working on my reflexes and speed'
Despite that unfair ruling you did not create a scene and never showed any anger but shook hands with your opponent and wished her luck. Even after your first round victory at the Asian Games you hugged your opponent. Don't you ever get angry in the ring?
I think we should all play in the right spirit. A sportsperson should show the right attitude and take victory and defeat in the same way.
Yes, I do get angry. I was very angry during the fourth round of that semi-final match at the Asian Games, because I knew the referee was not ruling in my favour. But I could not do anything and I just fought to the best of my abilities.
You were tipped as the hot favourite to win the gold at the Asian Games, but you controversially ended up with a bronze. But, overall, were you satisfied with your showing there?
Yes, I am satisfied to some extent, but not fully. That is obvious; I was expecting to come back with a gold medal.
Maybe an Olympic gold medal will give you that satisfaction now...
Yes, maybe (smiles)
You won the World championship five times in a row. How much effort has gone into it, because women's boxing is not an easy sport to take up, especially in India?
Yes, I admit it is a lot of hard work. Since I took up boxing I have been working hard and it never stops. In the last year or so the training routines have changed and we are now taking part in more international events.
I cannot practice too much because my body does not allow it, but my experience makes up for it. I think working on my strength and power is important for me at the moment. The training system has been the same for the last few years and I am hoping to bring a few changes to make it more effective.
I am also working on my reflexes and speed, so I do a lot of running. But, at the same time, you need to exhaust your body and exert it, which can result in injuries.
I think before the Asian Games we did a lot of work on the fitness, but we didn't give enough attention to basics like sparring and power training.
What is the strategy you follow when taking on opponents, since height is a slight disadvantage for you when facing taller women? Do you work on your fitness and make your opponents run around?
I don't think a taller opponent is a problem. If you look at the Asian Games, not many tall boxers achieved success; majority of the winners were short.
The short boxers use good strategy and force their opponents into mistakes, while the taller boxers will look to attack which doesn't work always.
I am pretty confident when I tackle opponents who are taller. In fact, I can show you in the ring the tactics that I use but I cannot put it down in words.
'I was a big fan of Mohammad Ali'
Following your success, do you think more girls from India are taking up the sport?
Yes, a lot of women boxers have come up, but we need to do well at the international level. In 2006, four women boxers went to the World Championship and since then the numbers have not gone up. I am the only one who is winning gold medals, and I want others also to step forward and start winning golds. I think they need to train harder but at the same time the talent is also important.
Do you think hiring a foreign coach would benefit women's boxing in India, like it has helped the men?
Definitely, a foreign coach would be of great help and improve women's boxing in the country. We can learn so much from a foreign coach, which I think will help to produce better results at international events.
You took up boxing quite late around the age of 17 but you picked up the basics in just under two weeks. Do you think you were born for boxing, like Sachin Tendulkar to play cricket?
Yes, I think so. Maybe I was born to do only boxing, because I learnt boxing only in two weeks and after that I never looked back.
You are also a big fan of the legendary Mohammad Ali and used to see a lot of his fights growing up. Would you say he was one of the main reasons that you took up boxing?
Yes, I was a big fan of Mohammad Ali and saw his fights a lot on television. I used to love the way would punch his opponents; I admire him a lot.
As a small child I used to love watching action movies, kung-fu, and also liked to see gymnastics. Basically, I was interested in all sports but then there was nobody to guide me. Later, I went to Imphal and enrolled in a boxing academy because there was no proper facilities in my village to take up boxing or any other sport for that matter.
I love watching Jackie Chan's movies also, because there are so many action scenes and so many stunts. I really enjoy watching his movies and it gives me so much joy.
Even Dingko Singh's gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games played a role in you taking up boxing. Isn't it?
Dingko was from Manipur too and when he won the gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games I was just taking up the sport. So his success definitely motivated us and we believed that even we could achieve success at the international level.
Mary Kom's academy hopes to produce future champions
Would you say Vijender Singh also played a big role in raising the profile of Indian boxing. He won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics? We have seen that with the rise of the men's boxing team at the international level, even the women boxers are being taken seriously and getting good exposure and facilities.
He definitely played a big role in raising the profile of boxing in the country, because after his success the boxers started getting recognition. Before his success, the performance of the Indian men's team was not that great but after Vijender won that bronze in Beijing, it took the sport to a new level. We saw more good boxers coming up and now they are making waves throughout the world in different weight categories.
Similarly, I think that after my success a lot of women in India were inspired to take up boxing. I am happy to have played the role of starting something that I hope will continue to grow in the years to come.
How much of a role has Suranjoy Singh played in helping you improve as a boxer? You do a lot of sparring with him?
When we started we used to do a lot of sparring. Then I worked with a lot of young boxers who have competed at national events. I think I have done a lot of sparring with male boxers than female.
So would you like to do some sparring with Vijender too?
I think he is too tall for me (smiles) How can I do sparring with him? I think that will be impossible.
Your father was not impressed when you decided to take up the sport. Isn't it?
I didn't tell my parents when I took up boxing. I secretly took up the sport and when I won the best boxer at the National level, my father came to know through the news on newspaper, radio and television. My father shouted at me as to why I took up boxing because they always used to think that I was practicing athletics.
When I became the state champion, I spoke to my father and convinced him to let me take up the sport. After much reluctance, he finally approved of my decision and after that I have kept achieving.
So how proud was he when he accompanied you to Delhi when you were honoured with the Arjuna Award in 2003?
When I started doing well my father was very happy. Also, I was getting incentives from the government which helped me stand on my feet. He finally realised that a sportsperson could also earn money and fame, because before that he thought sports was only a pastime and not a career. He was very happy when he saw the prestigious Arjuna Award.
You have three sisters and one brother. Are they also interested in boxing?
No, they don't do boxing.
So, are the people in your village Churachandpur, where you were born, delighted with your achievements?
Yes, some people; shockingly, some people were jealous that I achieved so much. Even today, some people are not happy with my success. Maybe they think that they were not able to do it, so they are jealous of my success. I don't know why, because I have always been nice to everyone.
The only thing that disappoints me is that despite my success not a single girl from my village has been inspired to take up boxing. I feel if they come forward they will also do well.
You also have an academy in Manipur to train young girls. How did you organise funding for it?
Yes, I have an academy in Manipur since 2007 and I have 27 girls training there. We look after everything including their training, their diet, their coaching, equipment and all other needs.
We get no funding from anyone but we do it from our own pockets. Whatever money I make from boxing, I spend it on my academy because I want more girls to achieve big things in boxing. I want to give them a platform so that they can take up boxing and make their parents and country proud.
Some of the girls have medals at national level and I am hoping they can achieve greater things in future and inspire more girls to take up the sport.
'Olympic Gold Quest has been a blessing in disguise'
Your husband Onler Kom has stood by you through your good and bad times. How much of a support has he bee?
Even before we got married he supported me a lot. After marriage he has been my pillar of strength, because usually in India not many husbands let their wives take up sport; but he has never stopped me from anything. He has told me that till I want he will continue to support me.
Even after I became a mother and had two children, he never forced me to quit. I have twin children, but he helped me in looking after them when I was away for boxing. So his support has been the greatest and without him I would have never achieved all that I have done today. And I want to is thank him for everything he has done.
My children feel very happy when they see me boxing on television, but sometimes they get scared.
How big a role has the Olympic Gold Quest played in providing you with all the facilities to succeed at the highest level?
Olympic Gold Quest has been a blessing in disguise for me, because ever since I joined them in 2009 they have given me everything. I could only dream of getting support like this because getting sponsors for women's boxing is impossible in this country. I will say that Olympic Gold Quest means everything to me because after I joined them I have never faced any problems.
They look after all my needs like training, travelling, coaching abroad, nutrition. Now I only focus on boxing because they take care of everything else.
What message would you want to give out through Rediff.com so that more young girls in India take up this sport?
What message can I say? I think the best example is me. Inspite of so many hardships and difficulties I managed to make a name for myself. So no matter how much problems you face or how difficult the path ahead is, never give up. But you will need to sacrifice a lot if you want to play for the country; at the same time you also need a lot of support from your family.
You need a lot of will power and determination because success does not come easy nor do you have any shortcuts to success. I am sure in the years to come we will see a lot of champion female boxers from India, who will win a lot of medals at international levels and make our country proud.